The Media Effect, by Jim Willis

It doesn’t require much study of the mass media to realize just how complex the subject is, or why it fascinates. The media, collectively speaking, are both literal and figurative prisms. As imperfect lenses through which we perceive nearly all of politics and social life, they are not stable, isolated elements within society; but neither do they stand wholly outside of it. Instead, they are part of a vast and evolving ecosystem of actions and events, tools and techniques, ideas and perceptions. As necessary tools for accessing life on a larger scale than personal experience, they forever straddle the boundary between what we perceive and how we perceive it.

One result of this is a binocular effect, a kind of necessary double-vision, as we seek at once to understand how things really are and, at the same time, how the media’s reproductions – what Jim Willis, following Walter Lippmann, calls the “shadow world” – shape and are shaped by the “outer” world they aim to reproduce. We try to see the world clearly as if from the outside, but we also swim in it; and as Marshall McLuhan said, whoever discovered water, it wasn’t a fish.

This disparity between the mediated and unmediated worlds, noted by Lippmann in Public Opinion (1922), remains problematic on many levels. As Prof. Willis concisely explains in his Preface: “… the pictures we have in our heads about the way our world operates fuel our behavioral reactions which take place not in a world of images (a shadow world) but in the very real world.”

The study of media is a confrontation with this dilemma (or set of dilemmas) at various levels. There are many possible angles of approach, and many subjects of interest or concern: one might consider the functions and effects of particular media, for example, or their comparative or historical use, or their role in shaping particular issues or phenomena. There are advantages to specificity and also to breadth.

In The Media Effect, Willis addresses various aspects of the web of cause-and-effect between the political realm and the media. Among other things, he usefully spotlights the issues of war, the presidency, agenda-setting, ideological skewing and bias, public relations, the news consumer and media literacy, how “the news” is formed, and how journalists and politicians interact.

Willis’s basic premise is foundational to all media studies: that the media have both visible and invisible effects on what they mediate, skewing perceptions and actions. Like much of the best media scholarship, this book is an attempt to render visible the unseen. And in treating a range of important political dimensions, it addresses questions directly pertinent to this series on Democracy and the News.

As both an experienced journalist and an established scholar, Jim Willis is well-positioned for the complex enterprise of rendering the media’s shadows visible. His panoramic approach here reminds us how important clear double-vision is to understanding the media, and how important such understanding is for using the levers of democracy.  

Series Foreword by Jeffrey Scheuer