Mass Communication Theory and the U.S. Economy

Mass Communication Theory and the U.S. Economy

Despite easing inflation, a strong job market and consumer spending still in positive territory, consumer opinion about the economy is mostly negative. Figuring out why there is a disconnect between the reality of stable growth and perception of an impending collapse can best be explained not by economic concepts but by a little mass communication theory.

While there are a lot of theories and ideas surrounding the impact and effects of mass media and scholars have spent decades offering different interpretations of how and why mass communication shapes individual and societal perspectives, for purposes of economic analysis there are three specific ideas that bear closer examination.

The theories are selective exposure, selective retention and selective perception. They are all related and, in many ways, reinforce each other as a factor in mass communication. But they also have subtle differences that can help explain why feelings about the economy tend to be far more negative than what the evidence shows.

Selective exposure is the easiest to understand. Often referred to as the Echo Chamber effect, the theory holds that people limit their media consumption only to those ideas with which they agree. Any concept that does not conform to their perspective – in this case an imminent recession – is ignored in favor of informational sources that confirm their pre-conceived notions.

Often seen negatively, the idea of selective exposure is actually something we all practice when we decide what music to listen to, what to watch on television or where to get news and information. There is nothing inherently wrong or nefarious with the idea of selective exposure save when it keeps us from getting a more comprehensive view on what is going on around us.

That selective exposure is reinforced by selective retention, an idea that people only remember things they agree with and reject anything that conflicts with those beliefs. For an American public spoon fed the likelihood of an economic downturn by the media for months on end, it is not only difficult to find voices in the wilderness with a more positive view of the economic future, it is nearly impossible for them to break through the wall of recessionary noise that has become a staple of economic and financial reporting.

The final member of the triumvirate, selective perception, holds people interpret messages in a way consistent to what they already believe. Therefore, news about good economic indicators or positive financial results become the calm before the coming storm and are not representative of the true state of things.

We can add a fourth notion to the list of mass communication theories, agenda setting.

This is an idea that mass media platforms do not necessarily tell people what to think, rather, they tell them what to think about. In the case of the state of the economy, that means using suggestive words – impending, imminent, possible, likely, etc. – when describing the possibility of a recession in the near term. By constantly focusing on the possibility of an economic downturn, consumers are conditioned to see the downside to the current period of relative strength and are already mentally preparing themselves for the next crash.

As such, it is easy to see why attitudes about the economy are decidedly negative despite the positive results reported by agencies and economists. And it’s nit likely to get any better anytime soon.