Hypodermic Needle Theory

1 January 2017

As the theory suggests direct and immediate effect of mass media to its audience, a social phenomenon called ‘copycat crimes’ is analyzed through its lens. The criticisms and ambiguities of the hypodermic needle theory are used to formulate a new theory believed to be more applicable and accurate to social issues and media awareness at present.

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The theory named Bulletproof Audience Theory suggests that viewers are indirectly affected by mass media since they already have different backgrounds, attitudes and ideas beforehand. The Bulletproof Audience Known as the first and also the foundation of most communication and media theories from decades ago until present, the Hypodermic Needle Theory – also known as Magic Bullet Theory, Transmission-Belt Theory or Hypodermic-Syringe Model always serves as a basic viewpoint in analyzing certain phenomena occurring in our society.

The roots of the hypodermic needle theory can be traced as early as the late 1920s. Harold Lasswell in theorized that new mass media could directly influence and sway public opinion. In the 1930s, researchers examining the World War I propaganda and Hitler’s use of mass media to manipulate the German public behind the Nazis even strengthened the theory more. It was popularized during the 1940s and 1950s since mass media back then was considered as a powerful influence on behavioural change. Basically, the theory suggests that mass media has a direct, immediate and powerful effect on its audience.

The message projected by any mass media influences all people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response, and the audience are only passive receptors. Graphically, the message is a “bullet”, fired through the “media gun” into the “viewer’s head”. However, many ambiguities can be analyzed in the theory. First of all, the audience which is composed of many individuals can never have same reactions to media contents. An individual’s attitudes, intelligence, moods and prejudices greatly influence how one perceives the message each receives.

Aside from that, other psychological and social factors intervene even before a media message reaches its audience. On a more important note, contrary to the theory’s definition of audience as passive receptors, media awareness upholds that audience are active, participative and conscious especially on messages which affect the society. At present, although the hypodermic needle theory is no longer considered valid, it still surfaces as an explanation for some social issues especially when the audience or an individual is in a sensitive state of mind or is highly dependent on media for information.

One particular phenomenon which can be associated with the theory is the ‘copycat crimes’. It is defined as a criminal act that is inspired by a previous crime that has been reported in the media or is described in fiction. It highlights sensational publicity about crimes such as suicide and murder to result in to another crime very similarly imitated. There have already been a number of times when mass media have been greatly pressured to ensure proper reporting and censorship of violence-related content to avoid popularizing such cases.

Just recently, September 2011, there was an occurrence supposed by the police to be a ‘copycat crime’. A reported incident of a wife shooting two people including her husband is believed to have inspired a 13-year old boy to shoot his lover and himself. The two crimes happened just six days apart. More interestingly, both happened inside SM shopping malls though in different branches, North Edsa and Pampanga respectively. And the motive was likewise the same for both – pathological jealousy.

Analyzing the incident cited above in the lens of the hypodermic needle theory, as the first incident was given news airtime and was also broadcasted in print and online media, it triggered the reaction of the 13-year old boy to feel that shooting his lover out of jealousy is indeed a justifiable act. A newly-formulated theory called The Bulletproof Audience Theory can be consulted as framework for such incidents and also other social phenomena. It was devised recognizing the flaws and ambiguities of the hypodermic needle theory, thus making reformations to it.

The theory suggests that mass media send messages to the audience, the audience – with different and personal backgrounds, attitudes and information receives it actively (not passively), but are still affected by it. Graphically, the message is a “bullet”, fired through the “media gun” into the viewer wearing a “bulletproof vest”. Bulletproof vest or ballistic vest is a personal armor that helps absorb the impact from shrapnel explosions and firearms. Although preventing bullet penetration, the wearer still absorbs the bullet’s energy. Even without penetration, modern bullets contain enough energy to cause blunt force trauma to the target.

Likewise, audience are not directly and immediately influenced by the media messages. As individuals, each wears his personal bulletproof vest of opinions, ideas, backgrounds and values which protects them from being penetrated by the bullet sent by mass media. One is affected differently from another since each wears a different vest of his own. For some however, they forget to wear their bulletproof vest while consciously or unconsciously being affected by mass media.

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