Mass Media and its Effect on Viewer Knowledge

Mass Media and its Effect on Viewer Knowledge

Helen Dao

De Anza Community College


The primary medium of mass communication has changed over the years as technological advancements are being made. Effectively utilizing the medium is of crucial importance to gaining political ground as well as delivering information crucial for the public to make intelligent decisions. However, the apparent ideological biases associated with certain news networks today may impede the viewers’ processing of information and may inhibit them from making intelligent decisions. The key to successful usage of media involves not one or the other, but rather a balance of both aesthetic and substance.

The success of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

            In the 1930s, radio was not yet widely used but was on the rise to popularity and during this time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took advantage of the new medium that would not only help him win the hearts of the American people but also change the course of American history (2005, pp. 89-106). Franklin Delano Roosevelt was widely considered to be the master of radio and during his terms, Roosevelt was able to win all presidential elections without much support from the print media and, on the contrary, won even with the print media publishing campaigns against him (Rodman, 2012). In one instance, in a pamphlet titled Jewish Ancestry of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that was passed around shortly before the 1940 presidential election, Roosevelt was falsely represented to be of Jewish descent alongside anti-semitic commentary in an attempt to damage his public image in light of the coming presidential election. The pamphlet states, “Even a hasty perusal of this factual document convinces one as to President Roosevelt’s Jewish ancestry. From the viewpoint of eugenics, it explains his natural bent toward radicalism. It shows why he has given hundreds of so-called Liberals, Socialists and Communists powerful positions in the national government. It reveals the origin of the sinister spirit which today animates the White House. It proves unmistakably, that the Roosevelt Administration offers a biological as well as a political problem (1998, pp. 327-335).” By his third attempt at running for president, he was already extremely popular and was viewed as being responsible for bringing the country out of the Great Depression while his opponent, Wendell Willkie, was a business leader who had never been elected to public office before, so Roosevelt’s victory was no surprise (Rodman, 2012).

Much of Roosevelt’s success before, during, and after the war was thanks to his masterful use of radio broadcasting. According to the 1940 U.S. census, 82.4 of American households, not counting businesses, owned and used a radio, making it a popular and very widely used medium (2004, pp. 179-195). Radio was able to bring life to Roosevelt’s speeches but the visual aspect was still left to the audience’s imagination; therefore, the audience was able to hear his distinct voice and the tone in which he speaks, but were not able to see his body, disabled by polio, relegated to a wheelchair (2005, pp. 89-106). The methods that Roosevelt employed with his homey fireside chats on the radio where indeed and unsurprisingly propagandistic with the way he addressed his audience as “friends” and the image he’s built of himself as a relatable everyman (Duncombe, 2008, pp. 28-29). The rhetoric used touched his audience and made them feel as though they knew him personally, thus earning him popularity with the people (2005, pp. 89-106). Despite the propagandistic nature of this presentation however, to today’s listener, his speeches to the public are surprisingly informative. In his addresses to the nation, technical details of financial policy, global trade, and other issues at the time were explained without the use of technical jargon in such a way that made it easier for the average American citizen to understand, conforming to his propagandistic style without sacrificing substance (Duncombe, 2008, pp. 28-29). His method of speech delivery and selection of content encouraged discussion rather than mere adulation from his audience. What all the publicity efforts in favor of Roosevelt had shown was, as public relations historian Stuart Ewen argues, “Unspoken, but evident, was a determined and unaccustomed faith in ordinary people’s ability to make sense of things (Duncombe, 2008, pp. 28-29).”

The People’s Choice Study

In 1940, a study called the People’s Choice Study was conducted as an examination of how media affected voter behavior in the presidential election. In the 1940 presidential election, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for office against Republican Wendell Willkie (Rodman, 2012). Roosevelt’s victory over his opponent, Willkie, was no surprise; however, the People’s Choice Study revealed important patterns in the effects of the media on voter behavior. The study found that people often searched for psychological consistency, for their ideas to be in balance and harmony with both the ideas of the people around them and their own self-image. This leads to selective exposure, selective perception, and selective retention, which are defined as, “the process by which people seek out messages that help them feel consistent in their attitudes,” “the process by which people with different attitudes interpret the same messages differently,” and “the process by which people with different views remember the same event differently (Rodman, 2012).”

Media Today

In a study conducted on the ideological biases associated with certain news networks, viewers were shown to make decisions heuristically when given news stories labeled with a news network. For stories labeled with CNN, viewers are more likely to identify it as a story with a liberal bias, and when labeled with FNC (Fox News Channel), viewers were more likely to identify it as a story with conservative bias (Turner, 2007, pp. 441-464). However, in control groups where the stories were not labeled with a specific news network, viewers were able to accurately able to identify stories with liberal, conservative, and neutral bias (Turner, 2007, pp. 441-464). By the process of selective exposure, viewers that are aligned with the conservative ideology may be more likely to seek out programming from FNC and people aligned with a liberal ideology may be more likely to seek out programming from CNN. The implications of this could mean viewers may be quick to categorize information based on the network they were reported by and choose to ignore the ones that they won’t think will be in line with their beliefs, even if the story may be neutrally biased. A more problematic implication is that in a survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMinds, the research found that, “NPR and Sunday Morning political talk shows are the most informative news outlets while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge” and upon surveying the effects of several news networks, the report explains: “The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly – a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all ( Beaujon, 2012).”

The amount of ideological bias and propagandistic style of reporting in today’s media is problematic and inhibits American viewers from processing information and being able to make intelligent decisions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt accomplished great success with his use of mass communication during his terms as president. His addresses made to the American people were no doubt democratically propagandistic but where also informative. What today’s media can learn from the success of Roosevelt’s techniques is that rather than separating form and content, publicity could meld both aesthetic and substance to not only speak to the emotion, but also feed the mind (Duncombe, 2008, pp. 28-29).


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Distributed Before the Presidential Election of 1940.. Western States Jewish History , 30(4), 327-335.

(2004). How America Adopted Radio: Demographic Differences in Set Ownership Reported in

the 1930-1950 U.S. Censuses. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48, 179-195. Retrieved March 3, 2014, from the EBSCOhost database.

Rodman, G. (2012). Mass Media in a Changing World (4th Edition ed.). New York: McGraw-


(2005). The Great Communicator: How FDR’s Radio Speeches Shaped American History.

History Teacher, 39, 89-106.

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of Bias in Television News.. Political Behavior, 29(4), 441-464.


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