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Winter Colloquium Event

Thursday, April 9, 2015
12:00 AM
NQ 5450

Reality Immersion and Media Effects

Reality Immersion and Media Effects

I spent a year in the army being yelled at not to pull the pin out of a hand grenade with my teeth, not to wear my helmet like John Wayne, and not to handle my rifle like Rambo. I trained as an EMT, only to discover that calm professionalism reigned in the ER, not the frantic adrenaline of fictional ERs. I visited the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and saw that real profilers do not have offices like their counterparts in “Criminal Minds” do. I am a firm believer in “reality immersion”.

I am fascinated by what people believe they can learn from fictional stories. This is one of the most amazing media effects, because most people realize that fiction is just that: stories that did not really happen.

Learning effects from fiction are easiest to study when two conditions are met: a) people have no direct experience and b) the fictional representation of a particular process differs from the real world process. Both conditions make researchers extremely vulnerable to the “ivory tower rebuttal”. When communication scholars argue that media exposure distorts people’s view of reality, one of the most common put-downs is that they have no idea what they are talking about. It is a valid point: do you need to have medical knowledge if you study how to communicate about health? Can you empathize enough with crime victims if you have led a sheltered life? On a related matter: can you study media effects on children if you are not a parent?

In this talk I want to explore the advantages of reality immersion. What does knowing “what it is really like” offer to the media effects scholar? On one level, there is the rhetorical advantage of being able to claim that you have “been there”. On a more fundamental level, however, reality immersion offers great opportunities for discovery. It makes us aware of our preconceptions, our stereotypes, and our own beliefs. Even though we are researchers studying what the media do to their audience, we are not immune to media effects ourselves. Just as archeologists now have experimental archeology to try to make sense of a past we can only study indirectly, media scholars should perhaps experiment with the differences between the real world and the mediated one.

About the Speaker

Professor at the School for Mass Communication Research, U of Leuven, Belgium.  Currently visiting professor at the Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue U, Indiana.  MA Communication (1985, Leuven, Belgium), MA Political sc (1989, Hull, England), PhD Social Sc (1996, Leuven, Belgium), DSc Epidemiology (2006, Rotterdam, The Netherlands).  Editor of the International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology (ICA/Wiley)

As a media scholar, I am fascinated by what people think they learn from the entertainment media. The most interesting and extreme examples can be seen when people learn from fiction. In the course of my career, I started to realize that what a media effects scholar does closely resembles what environmental epidemiologists or virologists do: we study the effects of exposure (to viruses, pollutants, radiation, television …).

Even though I have always been fascinated by issues of media violence, I have also studied health effects of media use, as these require much less theorizing and are easier to demonstrate. These past few years I have settled on sleep issues as a particular focus.

Jan Van den Bulck