Hypodermic Syringe Model Essay For Primary

direct influence via mass media

Or: Magic Bullet Theory

(in Dutch also known as: ‘almacht van de media-theorie’, stimulus-response, injectienaald, transportband, lont in het kruidvat theorie).

History and Orientation

The "hypodermic needle theory" implied mass media had a direct, immediate and powerful effect on its audiences. The mass media in the 1940s and 1950s were perceived as a powerful influence on behavior change.

Several factors contributed to this "strong effects" theory of communication, including:

  • the fast rise and popularization of radio and television
  • the emergence of the persuasion industries, such as advertising and propaganda
  • the Payne Fund studies of the 1930s, which focused on the impact of motion pictures on children, and
  • Hitler's monopolization of the mass media during WWII to unify the German public behind the Nazi party

Core Assumptions and Statements

The theory suggests that the mass media could influence a very large group of people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response.

Both images used to express this theory (a bullet and a needle) suggest a powerful and direct flow of information from the sender to the receiver. The bullet theory graphically suggests that the message is a bullet, fired from the "media gun" into the viewer's "head". With similarly emotive imagery the hypodermic needle model suggests that media messages are injected straight into a passive audience which is immediately influenced by the message. They express the view that the media is a dangerous means of communicating an idea because the receiver or audience is powerless to resist the impact of the message. There is no escape from the effect of the message in these models. The population is seen as a sitting duck. People are seen as passive and are seen as having a lot of media material "shot" at them. People end up thinking what they are told because there is no other source of information.

New assessments that the Magic Bullet Theory was not accurate came out of election studies in "The People's Choice," (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, 1944/1968). The project was conducted during the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to determine voting patterns and the relationship between the media and political behavior. The majority of people remained untouched by the propaganda; interpersonal outlets brought more influence than the media. The effects of the campaign were not all-powerful to where they persuaded helpless audiences uniformly and directly, which is the very definition of what the magic bullet theory does. As focus group testing, questionnaires, and other methods of marketing effectiveness testing came into widespread use; and as more interactive forms of media (e.g.: internet, radio call-in shows, etc.) became available, the magic bullet theory was replaced by a variety of other, more instrumental models, like the two step of flow theory and diffusion of innovations theory.

Conceptual Model

Magic bullet theory model
Source: Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955)

Favorite Methods

To be added.

Scope and Application

Mass media.


The classic example of the application of the Magic Bullet Theory was illustrated on October 30, 1938 when Orson Welles and the newly formed Mercury Theater group broadcasted their radio edition of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds." On the eve of Halloween, radio programming was interrupted with a "news bulletin" for the first time. What the audience heard was that Martians had begun an invasion of Earth in a place called Grover's Mill, New Jersey.

It became known as the "Panic Broadcast" and changed broadcast history, social psychology, civil defense and set a standard for provocative entertainment. Approximately 12 million people in the United States heard the broadcast and about one million of those actually believed that a serious alien invasion was underway. A wave of mass hysteria disrupted households, interrupted religious services, caused traffic jams and clogged communication systems. People fled their city homes to seek shelter in more rural areas, raided grocery stores and began to ration food. The nation was in a state of chaos, and this broadcast was the cause of it.

Media theorists have classified the "War of the Worlds" broadcast as the archetypal example of the Magic Bullet Theory. This is exactly how the theory worked, by injecting the message directly into the "bloodstream" of the public, attempting to create a uniform thinking. The effects of the broadcast suggested that the media could manipulate a passive and gullible public, leading theorists to believe this was one of the primary ways media authors shaped audience perception.


Key publications

  • Davis, D.K. & Baron, S.J. (1981). A History of Our Understanding of Mass Communication. In: Davis, D.K. & Baron, S.J. (Eds.). Mass Communication and Everyday Life: A Perspective on Theory and Effects (19-52). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
  • Golden, L.L. & Alpert, M.I. (1987). Comparative Analysis of the Relative Effectiveness of One- and Two-sided Communication for Contrasting Products. Journal of Advertising, 16(1), 18-25.
  • Lazarsfeld, P.F., Berelson, B. & Gaudet, H. (1968). The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Berger, Arthur Asa Essentials of Mass Communication Theory London: SAGE Publications, 1995.
  • Casmir, Fred L. Building Communication Theories New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.
  • Croteau, David and William Hoynes Media/Society -- Industries, Images and Audiences London: Pine Forge Press, 1997.
  • DeFleur, Melvin L. Theories of Mass Communication New York: Longman Inc., 1989
  • Lowery, Shearon and Melvin L. DeFleur Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects New York: Longman Inc., 1983.
  • Severin, Werner J. and James W. Tankard, Jr. Communication Theories -- Origins, Methods and Uses New York: Hastings House, 1979.
  • Watson, James and Anne Hill A Dictionary of Communication and Media Studies New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1997
  • Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. (1955), Personal Influence, New York: The Free Press.

See also Two-Step Flow Theory
See also Mass Media

There are several different types of media in the UK. A few examples are; TV, newspapers and the internet. In today’s civilization the media is extremely powerful and very leading and possesses the ability to influence people’s opinions on crime or even change their minds about it. The views that the public have about the nature of the social world can be influenced by TV. TV provides the public with realistic reconstructions with shows like Crime watch or they air realistic TV dramas about crime feeding the public more information.

TV also has several news programmes which provide the public with real stories about crime. Newspapers, such as ‘The Sun’ are a vital type of media as they keep the public informed about crime and crime statists’, they keep the public in touch with the area around them and the public can construct meaning from the information they read. Recent Research has shown that newspapers are the public’s primary source of information about crime in the UK. The internet is another way of gaining knowledge about crime in the UK; the internet contains a huge amount of information about crime.

There are always recent crime stories on homepages such as Yahoo and Google, when first logging onto the internet before even going to a website the public can read about a recent crime. The hypodermic Syringe Model is the belief which suggests that the audience watching a media text are passive viewers and are like sponges; absorbing everything the media suggests. Violent images in media texts can influence the behaviour of some vulnerable people in society. For example, showing a reconstruction of a violent murder on Crime watch may result in some audiences becoming violent themselves over what they see.

They may go out and repeat what they saw in the show like a copy cat killing or they may be very violent and angry towards the people that committed the crime and determined to find them. Or it may result in some audiences feeling like after watching the reconstruction they have a strong connection with the victim and their families and they feel as though it is their duty to do something to help. Or the audience may become desensitised to the violence they see, accepting higher levels of violence in society.

When an audience views a TV show like Crime watch, they are stimulated into a response they become passive and are injected with the thoughts, attitudes, opinions and beliefs of the show, meanings of the text are very easy to find and Crime watch will influence the ideas of the audiences over what kind of people commit the crimes and what religion they are, what they look and dress like. Self fulfilling prophecy is much like the labelling theory. People become criminals when members of society label them as so.

People then accept the labels as personal identity. Self fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes it to become true. In relation to Crime watch, they will inject their ideas into the audience’s minds of what kind of people they label as criminals. This may be a certain race or group in society. The audience will have expectations of these kinds of people in life. For example, if Crime watch described a gang of criminals simply as ‘Youths’ the audience views of youths will change to match the identity of the youths in Crime watch.

Youths after watching the show will adjust their behaviour to match what people now think of them, they will become what people think they are. As a result the original expectations of what the audience may have had about youth would come true. This then provides long-term negative effects and hatred for youths. As more and more people start to think of youths as deviants, they react to them like that by continuing to act in the way that society now expects from them. The Neutralization Theory suggests that criminals will justify their behaviour by adjusting the meanings of their behaviour by showing a lack of guilt for their actions.

The theory states that the criminals neutralize the definitions of crime and there are five types of neutralization: Denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, Condemnation of the condemners and appeal to higher loyalties. In relation to Crime watch the likely crime for this theory would be a robbery. The audience are likely to be aware that the criminals in the reconstruction are showing no guilt over what they did and as a result the audience may feel scared that the criminals are going to do it again.

Moral Panic was first developed by Stan Cohen; it is news that is based on inaccurate or amplified ideas that some group’s or person’s behaviour is deviant. Media coverage of social issues that society has is fuelled by the media. Crimewatch is a good example of how the media can generate moral panics. The criminals in Crimewatch are sometimes described as having ‘symbolic shorthand’s’ such as criminals having certain items of clothing’s like hoodies. The coverage of crime in Crimewatch is a combination of amusement and sensationalism.

Crimewatch choose which victims to focus on. Such as old people or young middle class white women or girls this is also known as ‘Missing white woman syndrome’ it describes a form of media hype in which excessive news coverage is dedicated to a specific white girl who has gone missing. Crimewatch always reports on stories like these as it incites moral panic to the audience. The airing of the cute pictures drills the stories into the minds of the audience. The crime is sensationalized.

Crimewatch also tend to label all rapists as evil and psychopaths, although the majority of victims are raped by people they know and trust and sometimes even live with. This gives the wrong idea to the audience. The way that the media report crime tends to lead to an inappropriate response by society and the government because the issue has been hugely misled. It makes the audience afraid to walk out their front door, not that they are safe in their own home either, when the reality is, crime rates are falling. The Deviance Theory explains that deviance is any type of behaviour or action that violates social norms.

Crimewatch and the media shape the audiences views and opinions on who is considered as deviant. A criminal who did something considered deviant today, may not have been considered deviant 100 years ago.. To some audiences from different cultures what the criminal did may not be considered deviant to them, it may have been normal in their country, but the programme and the media have now changed their thinking. The issues that arise from violence in Crimewatch are not from what is represented but how it is represented.

They have to make a choice in how they are going to represent the crime so it does not have a bad effect on the viewer. Imagined violence is used in Crimewatch because it increases appeal; this is because they know that showing a violent reconstruction of a violent act will get a strong emotional reaction from the audience. There is a lot of different ways in which the violence is represented in Crimewatch. Sound effects are used to enhance the meaning of the scene such as music and loud gunshots and loud shouts and screams. Realism is the main way that Crimewatch represent violence.

They use realism because it creates a sense of reality for the audience, it seems very real with very little editing, the reconstruction happens very fast and realistic, with fast different camera angle throughout the reconstruction. This makes it very believable for the audience and this can have bad effects on viewers. Sometimes realistic violent reconstructions can be influencing to some audiences. Violent acts that Crimewatch show in reconstructions can be represented to some viewers as cool, glamorous and easy to do. Therefore creating copycat behaviour, with young viewers being injected with the violence they see.

As the world has become a more violent place, the reconstructions have to become more violent in order to create a real picture. It’s now at the stage where it takes a lot more violence to shock viewers. Exposure to this violence may make more and more viewers more aggressive. Sometimes the reconstructions can exploit the public’s fears as they have become more and more realistic and disturbing; the way that the violence is portrayed has a huge impact on some audiences. The public fear crimes that have a likelihood of it happening to them, they fear crimes that are out of their control, such as terrorism.

The violence may be perceived as overemphasized. Victims and perpetrators of violence in the reconstruction may be depicted in a manner such as showing the victim as a young beautiful woman, this reinforces victim stereotypes. The idea of a multi-cultural society is represented by Crimewatch as something to be feared. The programme uses race and ethnicity to construct criminality and to represent our multi-cultural society; this is why the majority of the criminals they show in their programme are generally people from different cultures.

This is because the media is biased and will target the minorities. Crimewatch shapes ideas about who they think are ‘deserving’ victims and who they think are ‘undeserving offenders’. Whenever reporting an offender the presenter only mentions an offenders race if they are non-white this is done to generate fear or aggression towards certain cultural groups. Crimewatch over represents crimes involving people from different ethnical backgrounds and they also under represent victims of different ethnical backgrounds.

Crimewatch sometimes struggles with distinguishing different ethnical groups, when describing offenders they use phrases like “Middle Eastern appearance” or “Mediterranean appearance”, one presenter described an offender as “He’s black but doesn’t have a Caribbean or African accent” suggesting she’s surprised. Outsiders are dealt with in Crimewatch as though they are not part of society, they are not ‘us’ and as a result the programme generates fear around certain minority groups such as immigrants, refugees and the homeless.

The media target the minorities so the large majority of crimes are committed by offenders who are considered on the programme as ‘outsiders’. The offenders in the reconstructions are not generally seen at all they are normally represented symbolically. Sometimes the way the offender is represented in the reconstructions may be seen as offensive to some cultures- the way the outsiders are represented by the presenters is normally very negative. Crimewatch encourage attitudes such as repulsion and hatred towards the minority groups while reinforcing stereotypes.

Political influence is the ability to manipulate and change the perceptions of others, and it also is the ability to influence the behaviour of others. Crimes that are committed by corporate organisations and government agencies are never shown on Crimewatch. This is because the government influences and controls who Crimewatch show as offenders. As a result of this Crimewatch only show the crimes that are committed by small groups who are considered minorities, deviants and ‘outsiders’- people that the government believe are a threat to the general population and maybe to the government themselves.

The result of this political influence is the emergence of ideologies around certain races. For example, an Asian may be labelled on the show as an offender, because Asians are a minority, this has created an ideology that all Asians are ‘dangerous’. The programme links stereotypes such as Muslims, the poor, lower classes and immigrants to crime and often links them to specific types of crimes. This is going to result in violence or hatred towards those certain groups. The viewers of the programme, especially if they are people from these groups, they may feel offended and may feel as though they are now at risk and may fear for their safety.

Crimewatch could be said to be cathartic in its nature, especially to women viewers who instead of watching and being nervous over fear of becoming a victim, watching Crimewatch can help them and other venerable people in society deal with their fear of crime. They can deal with their fear through Crimewatch by confronting the horrible crime by watching and witnessing the reconstructions in the comfort of their own home where they feel safe. Crimewatch empowers people so they can address their victimisation; it makes them feel more powerful.








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