George Gerbner and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann devised paradigmatic theories explaining the media’s ability to set the boundaries for conventional and mainstream thinking in society.  Yet each arrived at their explanations from very different ideological vantage points, world views shaped in part by their coming of age as young adults during War World II and then later as researchers during the 1960s as they sought to explain societal trends in the Age of Television.

In my Doctoral seminar this semester on Advanced Media Theory, graduate students were asked to compare the two major media theories explaining how social consensus is created and maintained in modern society. Among several strong responses was the following short essay by Jonathan Kittle, an MA student in the School of International Service who is applying for doctoral programs this Fall. To inform his answer, Kittle relies in part on a chapter by James Shanahan and Dietram Scheufele in an important new edited volume co-edited by Shanahan on television and its societal effects.

Cultivation and the Spiral of Silence: Media Theories Explaining the Mainstreaming of Societal Viewpoints

by Jonathan Kittle

In the early 1970s, theories of cultivation and spiral of silence, introduced by George Gerbner and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, respectively, outlined a view of social-level media effects that were more ‘powerful’ than what had been advocated by many theorists following Lazarsfeld et al.’s widely accepted limited effects model (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955; Klapper, 1960; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948).  Until the introduction of these theories, the dominant view of scholars was one of minimized media power and powerful media views largely characterized as unscientific (e.g. Klapper, 1960) (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013).

Since their introduction, both theories have been frequently cited and experience continued relevance in their focus on media from a macro-social perspective.  Until very recently these theories have not been considered in relation to one another, even though they share important similarities.  Both cultivation and spiral of silence are considered to be (a) theories about media’s influence on perceptions of reality; (b) theories about social control; (c) theories of powerful media effects, and (d) macro-social theories (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013).

The purpose of this analysis will be to discuss, in detail, these considerations, paying particular attention to similarities and differences, as well as personal background and outlook of George Gerbner and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann.  In addition, this analysis will suggest that these theories, and perhaps combined variable studies, may be useful for understanding the relationship between public opinion and media effects, as well as the influence on governments and elites, related to controversial and complex issues such as climate change.

Perceptions of Reality, Social Control, and Powerful Media Effects

For both scholars these theories represented more than “sterile social science” or “theoretical summaries”  (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 349).  Instead it can be argued that their respective personal background and outlooks influenced both Gerbner and Noelle-Neumann’s tendency towards macro-level understandings of mass media.  Gerbner’s work was influenced by his interest in “culture” (i.e. folklore and poetry), and his main focus centered on collective and mass storytelling and its reception, with television being our dominant storyteller (p. 349).  Noelle-Neumann’s experience in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s may have influenced her focus on macro-level understanding of mass media as a monolithic institution of state power.  Her work draws upon the major thinkers of the European Enlightenment (i.e. Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes) as providing insights into public opinion influenced by Locke’s fearful individual, Rousseau’s extroverted man, and Mead’s symbolic interaction and reinforcing effects on social cohesion.

Both cultivation and spiral of silence are considered to be theories of social control, as they examine media influence on public perceptions of social reality through powerful media effects. Cultivation analysis explores the independent contribution of television viewing to audiences’ conceptions of social reality.  Based on message system analyses, cultivation researchers develop hypotheses about what people would think about various aspects of ‘reality’; if everything they knew about some issue or phenomenon were derived from television’s dominant portrayals.  Survey methods are used to assess the difference (if any) that amount of television viewing makes with respect to a broad variety of opinions, images and attitudes, across a variety of samples, types of measures, topical areas, and mediating variables.  The goal is to ascertain if those who spend more time watching television, other things constant, are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect those particular messages and lessons (Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 339).

One of the most widely known examples of cultivation analysis, “Mean World Syndrome,” examines the relationship between heavy television viewing and an exaggerated perception of victimization, mistrust, and danger, along with inaccurate beliefs about crime and law enforcement (Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox, & Signorielli, 1978).  In this way, “institutional processes of the mass-production of messages short-circuit other networks of social communication and superimpose their own forms of collective consciousness—their own publics—upon other social relationships”  (Gerbner, 1970, p. 60, as cited in Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 338).

Both Gerbner and Noelle-Neumann’s theories saw social control operating above and apart from actors involved, as a system in which no single actor can control outcomes, whereby social control is served by the mass media and other large-scale actors (Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 355).  Shanahan and Jones (1999) suggest that the cultivation argument was that mass-production messages served the needs of institutions wanting to preserve perceptions of the need for authority and power (Shanahan & Jones, 1999, p. 44, as cited in Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 355).  Noelle-Neumann, in contrast, argues that the concept of ‘public opinion as social control’ affects all members of society.

Since participation in the process that threatens isolation and prompts fears of isolation is not voluntary, social control exerts pressure both on the individual, who fears isolation, and on the government—it too will be isolated and eventually toppled without the support of public opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1993, p. 228, as cited in Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 355).

This difference may stem from Gerbner and Noelle-Neumann’s work background and underlying incentives for exploring media effect.  Gerbner, more activist, can be seen in a adversarial role against television networks and this may relate to his proposition that media are controlled by elites (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 352).  Noelle-Neumann, in contrast, working on behalf of the Christian Democrat Union (the main conservative party in Germany) focused her test of media effect by comparing opinion trends to content data over time.  In this way both saw systematic ideological biases in the media system from diametrically opposite directions (Scheufele & Moy, 2000).  Noelle-Neumann argued that biases could be attributed in media coverage to the political leanings of journalists, and that as a profession, journalism was more left leaning (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 352).

Gerbner, in contrast, suggested that media content bears the imprint of organizations and not the individuals that produce it (p. 352).  This can be demonstrated through his “Mean World Syndrome” example.  In direct contrast to Noelle-Neumann’s assertion that media effects were biased toward leftward leaning journalists, Gerbner argued that television was ‘blurring, blending, and bending’ the views of viewers toward a more conservative mainstream (see Gerbner et al., 1982, as cited in Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 352).  According to Shanahan and Scheufele (2013) these differences, perhaps stemming from each scholars own personal background and outlook, help explain why Noelle-Neumann argued that media played a vital role in establishing a ‘climate of opinion’ while Gerbner argued that television was a key aspect of ‘culture.’

While there are key differences between their theories, both cultivation and spiral of silence examine how media influences how people are (or should be) thinking about issues (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013); Noelle-Neumann, through media “tenor” as an explicitly positive or negatively valenced concept that tells us how people are (or should be) thinking about issues while Gerbner’s work examines public opinion as a cumulative outcome of a stream of messages that are telling us what is “good” and “bad” in the world (p. 363).

Both theories continue to offer important insights regarding current topics.  In many ways, Gerbner’s argument, as Shanahan and Jones (1999) suggest, that mass communication institutions are controlled by social, cultural and primarily economic elites and that these elites codify messages in media to serve their aims, can be observed as audience members internalize messaging from media outlets and form belief structures desired by social elites (p. 351).  Equally important is Noelle-Neumann’s argument that public opinion as social control ensures social cohesion, and is effective due to the social nature of man (Noelle-Neumann & Peterson, 2004).

The anonymous, intangible court of public opinion, however, functions quite differently [than direct interaction of primary groups], passing quick judgment and hearing no arguments.  People must work hard to hold their ground in the constantly changing atmosphere created by the climate of opinion, threats to their reputation, the danger of unsuspectingly breaking the rules, value change, and ‘in’ and ‘out’ reactions (Noelle-Neumann & Peterson, 2004, p. 345).

Relevance and Conclusion

One of the major strengths of Gerbner and Noelle-Neumann’s work is that they were willing to subject their theories to tests using data and typically employed by “positivists” and “empiricists” (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013, p. 349).  Both scholars understood that a combination of content analysis and survey data was needed to come to a more comprehensive understanding of media effects (p. 349).  In current research, investigations into the cultivation of environmental apathy, Good (2007, 2009) found “the (negative) relationship between television viewing and environmental concern is explained by television’s cultivation of materialism and distorted perceptions of affluence, rather than solely by the invisibility of the environment as an issue” (as cited in Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 347).

According to Bohn and Short (2009), television continues to “dominate the flow of words and information that pass by our eyes and ears each day” (as cited in Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 350).  “New technologies…websites such as Hulu make it more convenient for us to watch what we want, when we want (and increasingly, where we want)—but they also mean we spend more time watching” (Bohn and Short, 2009; cited in Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 350).  For issues such as climate change, both theories of cultivation and spiral of silence could help scholars and policy-makers understand the dynamics of public opinion and media effects, which has profound influence on policy solutions.

Social scientists continually investigate public opinion because of the “overwhelming power it wields over both government and individual members of society” (Noelle-Neumann & Peterson, 2004, p. 341).  Since antiquity, public opinion has been employed in the sense of social control, a broad social consensus to which both government and individuals must obey (p. 340).  Aristotle once declared, “He who loses support of the people is king no longer (as cited, p. 339).  Shanahan and Scheufele (2013) argue that conceptually cultivation and spiral of silence share many similarities.  Both theories were concerned with the “normative” perspective on public opinion, as both strands of research look at the media as institutions that make judgments about things in the world (p. 363).  Understanding public opinion and powerful media effects related to critical and complex issues such as climate change will benefit from employing methodology used by both George Gerbner and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, and integrating cultivation and spiral of silence into this understanding.

Shanahan and Scheufele (2013) argue that cultivation variables and spiral of silence variables can make sense when used together and postulate whether cultivation can be seen as a “critical” extension of spiral of silence.  Conversely, Shanahan and Scheufele (2013) suggest that the spiral of silence may provide a social psychological account of how cultivation works (p. 363).  Through this examination it has become clear that both theories share important similarities, and that both scholars have contributed, and continue to contribute to our understanding of the interaction between public opinion and media effects.  Further research needs to be done, employing both theories, and perhaps even a combination of variables, into the relationship between new media and climate change opinion, as well as influence on governments and political elites.


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