Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Informing and persuading conversational partners are still main functions of everyday conversations on mass media; we do rarely criticize mass media references of our conversational partners or introduce alternative media content

The role of mass media in everyday conversations: A comparison of two covert field observations. Nicole Podschuweit, Publizistik, August 2019, Volume 64, Issue 3, pp 303–327. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11616-019-00506-1

This field study offers direct insights into how people deal with mass media content in their everyday communication on a broad empirical basis. It was inspired by a covert field observation Hans Mathias Kepplinger and Verena Martin conducted in the late 1970s. Back then, the authors concluded that interpersonal communication primarily reinforces mass media effects because interlocutors aim at informing and persuading their conversational partners by referring to mass media in most instances. During the last decades, many researchers in the field of media-stimulated interpersonal communication referred to their findings. However, this study is the first successful replication attempt. Furthermore, it represents a theoretical as well as a methodological extension of the pioneering study. The purpose of this elaborate and costly undertaking was to put the authors’ thesis of the mediating role of interpersonal communication to the empirical test.

The theoretical starting point are two basic assumptions: First, how strongly interpersonal communication intervenes in the process of mass media effects depends on how salient mass media content is in people’s everyday conversations. Second, whether interpersonal communication intervenes in the process of mass media effects as a mediator or a moderator depends on the consonance or dissonance of mass media’s presentation and interpersonal perception: If interlocutors pass mass media content on to others, interpersonal communication is supposed to reinforce mass media effects. However, if they strongly modify the mass media content they refer to, interpersonal communication is rather supposed to weaken or hinder mass media effects. Functions of media references for the group are supposed to be an important predictor for the role of interpersonal communication in the process of mass media effects. Reinforcing effects of interpersonal communication are especially likely when the interlocutors use mass media as “opportune witnesses” to inform others on facts or to convince them of a certain opinion. In view of the strong differentiation of today’s media scene, it was assumed that mass media content is now more often the subject of conversation than in the late 1970s; that media-stimulated interpersonal communication is increasingly fulfilling the function of affective processing of mass media content; that other interlocutors are more likely to respond with criticism or references to alternative media content.

To (re)define the role of interpersonal communication in the process of mass media effects, the study by Kepplinger and Martin (1986) was compared to a current covert field observation of everyday conversations. The current field study was conducted in spring 2016 in two medium-sized German cities. In both studies, small groups with two up to five members were observed in four different environments: (1) restaurants; (2) on the street, in public places and public transport; (3) at the university as well as (4) in private homes. Public conversations were captured in real time using a highly standardized coding scheme. Private conversations were first recorded and coded afterwards. In public, the observed interlocutors were debriefed. In the private sphere, interlocutors were additionally asked for their informed consents several days before the observation was conducted. The empirical analyses are based on 180 everyday conversations with 480 participants observed in 1979 as well as 1537 everyday conversations with 3961 participants captured in 2016.

Three key findings of the comparison between the two studies are: First, against the theoretical assumptions, mass media and their content are less salient in current everyday conversations than in times when media use focused on regional newspapers and public service broadcasting in Germany. An obvious explanation is that interpersonal intersection of media repertoires has become smaller in many conversational contexts. According to this study, it is largest in the private sphere, where people use mass media together most frequently and thus also talk about mass media most frequently. In public, the interlocutors usually generate a common meeting ground by focusing on private topics.

Second, television continues to play an important role in media-stimulated conversations. However, content of online mass media is at least as relevant for interpersonal communication today. While conversations on television are driven by a need for affective processing in the first instance, conversations on online mass media content primarily fulfill an informative function. From a methodological point of view, it is important to mention that the exact frequency of television and Internet references cannot by determined on the sole basis of an observational study. This is due to the fact that types of mass media can no longer be clearly differentiated by outside observers in the age of the Internet. Against this background, survey studies are a reasonable supplement.

Third, informing and persuading conversational partners are still main functions of everyday conversations on mass media. Although people can rely on a huge range of information today, they do still rarely criticize mass media references of their conversational partners or introduce alternative media content. Actually, the observed interlocutors mostly agreed with the mass media contents others referred to. The findings therefore suggest that interpersonal communication still mediates and thus strengthens mass media effects in the current mass media scene. With this study it has to be added, however, that mass media are often supposed to fulfill further functions for interpersonal communication, e.g., affective processing of mass media content.

Keywords: Interpersonal communication Mass communication Media-stimulated communication Covert field observation

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