Dr Sharon Coen recently invited the MSc Media Psychology students to form a movie club to stimulate discussions about media psychology. In the first session we watched the 1976 film ‘Network’ (written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet) which centres of the lives of those who work in the media industry, specifically television. Aside from being voted one of the 100 greatest American films (chosen by the AFI), this film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
During the media psychology film club, this film sparked a lively debate as several key themes are covered. For example, the character of Howard Beale, an ageing TV presenter, introduces the themes of empowerment and self-efficacy. He urges his audience to shout out “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” and stresses the role of the individual as having the power to make a change. This monologue also sees him inciting his viewers to act, telling them to “get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”. Many home viewers do as they are told. This highlights both the positive and negative implications of celebrity influence.
However, as the film suggests, it’s not just the celebrity figureheads that could be influencing the viewers, it could be the medium of television itself. The idea of medium theory (McLuhan, 1962) is alluded to when Howard Beale exclaims “less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube.” He is highlighting the idea (all the more poignant since the proliferation of the internet as a news medium) that many people rely on alternative mediums to newspapers, such as the television. Their different qualities (e.g. audio/visual) may have differential effects on how we experience the same information.
When Howard states that “This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers…This tube is the most awesome God-damned force in the whole godless world”, he refers to the idea of media framing (Entman, 1993): the power of the media and the way it reports the news can affect the way we interpret the content. For example, it has been suggested that the way a news article is written can affect our judgement of guilt of the accused. The idea of media agenda setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), or “who decides what is important and constitutes News” is also inferred when Howard wonders what will happen when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network”. This is especially relevant today, in the aftermath of the Leveson enquiry (2011).
The theory of media effects is also explored, with one producer saying about another, “I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings. She’s television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny.” This is an extension of Bandura’s Social Learning theory (1977), where it is suggested that both positive and negative behaviours can be unconsciously learnt from exposure to media (e.g. TV and video games). There is evidence of such effects, for example on aggression and also body image in the literature (see Villani, 2001, for a review). When Howard states that “we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be” he alludes to a particular media effect: mean world syndrome (Gerbner & Gross, 1986). This is the idea that people base their opinions of the world on what they have seen of TV, and if they only see negative news and violent fictional programmes, they assume “that the tube is reality” and that the world is a violent place.
Another interesting theme suggested by the movie is decision making and what influences it. If the character of Arthur Jensen, CEO of the TV corporation in the movie is to be believed, “We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business….It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet.” However, as psychologists we know that the cognitive processes of human decision making are a little bit more complex that!
Of course, these are just some of the themes visible in the movie ‘Network’, and this blog post is only a taster of what we discussed… you’ll have to watch the film for yourself…..or attend the next movie club!!