Blaming the Media II

June 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

If a person thinks that the media are infiltrating his mind and controlling his thoughts and behavior, we consider him a nutjob, and we recommend professional help and serious meds. But if a person thinks that the media are infiltrating other people’s minds and affecting their behavior, we call him or her an astute social observer, one eminently qualified to give speeches or write op-eds.   

The previous post dwelt on economist Isabel Sawhill’s WaPo op-ed channeling Dan Quayle, particularly Quayle’s speech asserting that a TV sitcom was wielding a strong effect on people’s decisions – not just decisions like Pepsi vs. Coke, but decisions like whether to have a baby. 

That was Quayle, this is now.  Still, our current vice-president can sometimes resemble his counterpart of two decades ago.  Just last month, Joe Biden echoed the Quayle idea on the power of sitcoms.  On “Meet the Press,” in response to David Gregory’s question about gay marriage, Biden said that “this is evolving” and added:
And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes.  I think “Will and Grace” probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.
“Will and Grace” ran for eight seasons, 1998 - 2006.  Its strongest years were 2001-2005, when it was the top rated show among the 18-49 crowd. If asked for systematic evidence, Biden could have pointed to GSS data on the gay marriage question.  In 1988, ten years before “Will and Grace,” when the GSS asked about gay marriage, only 12% supported it, 73% opposed it.  In 2004, six years into the W+G era, support had more than doubled, and it continued to rise in subsequent years.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

Because the gay marriage question was asked only in those two years, 1988 and 2004, we don’t know just when in that 16-year period, 1988 - 2004, things “really began to change.”  Fortunately, the GSS more regularly asked the respondent’s view on sexual relations between same-sex partners.  Here too, tolerance grows in the “Will and Grace” period (gray on the graph).

The trouble is that graph is misleading. To see the error, all we need do is extend our sampling back a few years  Here is the same graph starting in 1973.

The GSS shows attitudes about homosexuality starting to change in 1990.  By the time of the first episode of “Will and Grace” in 1998, the proportion seeing nothing wrong with homosexuality had already doubled.  Like Quayle’s “Murphy Brown” effect, the “Will and Grace” effect is hard to see.

The flaw in the Quayle-Biden method is not in mistaking TV for reality.  It’s in assuming that the public’s awareness is simultaneous with their own. 

But why do our vice-presidents (and many other people) give so much credit (or blame) to a popular TV show for a change in public opinion? The error is partly a simplistic post hoc logic.  “Will and Grace” gave us TV’s first gay principal character; homosexuality became more acceptable.  Murphy Brown was TV’s first happily unwed mother, and in the following years, single motherhood increased.  Cause - Effect.  Besides, we know that these shows are watched by millions of people each week. So it must be the show that is causing the change. 

It’s also possible that our vice-presidents (and many other people) may also have been projecting their own experiences onto the general public.  Maybe Murphy Brown was the first or only unwed mother that Dan Quayle really knew – or at least she was the one he knew best. It’s possible that Joe Biden wasn’t familiar with any gay men, not in the way we feel we know TV characters.  A straight guy might have some gay acquaintances or co-workers, but it’s the fictional Will Truman whose private life he could see, if only for a half hour every week.

Does TV matter?  When we think about our own decisions, we are much more likely to focus on our experiences and on the pulls and pushes of family, work, and friends.  We generally don’t attribute much causal weight to the sitcoms we watch.  Why then are we so quick to see these shows as having a profound influence on other people’s behavior, especially behavior we don’t like?  Maybe because it’s such an easy game to play.  Is there more unwed motherhood?  Must be “Murphy Brown.”  Did obesity increase in the 1990s?  “Roseanne.”  Are twentysomethings and older delaying marriage?  “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” And of course “The Simpsons,” at least Bart and Homer, who can be held responsible for a variety of social ills.


Philip N. Cohen said...

I think single motherhood and attitudes towards homosexuality are quite different. One is a lived experience, and the outcome of many processes, while the other is a response to a survey question. I don't know what caused the change in attitudes towards gays and lesbians, but it seems more plausible that sitcoms played an important role in that.

Maybe the GSS shows change before the show because there was an early period in which some leaders became more accepting, and then the show contributed to the spread of that attitude more widely. That is something the survey could tell us if analyzed in more detail I suppose. 

Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

I agree that there’s a difference between questionnaire responses and life choices (though maybe deciding which TV show to watch is a life choice). But it’s pretty clear that by 1998 NBC sensed that attitudes had already changed enough that there would be an audience for the show. I haven’t read Warren Littlefield’s book, but I heard him interviewed, and he made no reference to any research on attitudes. He says only that he had a good script and a good director, so he greenlighted it.

The trouble is that we don’t have any good data (AFAIK) about what affected public attitudes or on the causal power of sitcoms or other fictional shows. (Maybe the change would have started even earlier but for AIDS.) I think there is research showing that people who know gays and interact with them become more pro-gay in their attitudes. But this research probably did not include TV friends.

GP said...

Do you think blame is relevant with mass media compared to the specific tv shows mentioned here?

Have you heard of, or watched, the film Miss Representation? As described on their website, “the film explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.”

Do you think media misrepresentations can be blamed for unequal numbers of women in positions of power?

Are there such instances where the media is rightfully blamed, or credited, with influencing people on social issues?

Jay Livingston said...

My point is that while it’s very easy to think of connections between media images and real life behavior (e.g., blaming “Rosanne” for obesity), establishing one as the cause of the other is very difficult. I have not seen Miss Representation, but from the language in the blurb – “have led to” – I assume that it is making this causal argument. I hope it provides evidence beyond the kind of evidence in the examples I mentioned. Unfortunately, I fear that it uses the same faulty logic.

It may be true that the media misrepresent women, and it may be true that women are less represented than are men in positions of power. But to establish cause or even correlation, we need to be able to compare. We need to look at times or places with less misrepresentation and those with more to see if those differences go hand-in-hand with differences in women’s political power. I’m not sure that’s possible. Are there times or places where the media representation of women is different while most other variables are unchanged?
(We do have anecdotal evidence. For example, California is a media-saturated state, the home of film and much TV. It’s where a lot of that imagery originates. Yet both its US senators and the most powerful Democratic congressperson are women.)

You can take the moral position that both the media images and the number of women in power are bad things and should be changed. But that’s a different question from the empirical one of whether one is causing the other.