The two-step flow of communication hypothesis was first introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice, a 1944 study focused on the process of decision-making during a Presidential election campaign. These researchers expected to find empirical support for the direct influence of media messages on voting intentions. They were surprised to discover, however, that informal, personal contacts were mentioned far more frequently than exposure to radio or newspaper as sources of influence on voting behavior.
Armed with this data, Katz and Lazarsfeld developed the two-step flow theory of mass communication. This theory asserts that information from the media moves in two distinct stages. First, the opinion leaders, who pay close attention to the mass media and its messages, receive the information. Opinion leaders pass on their own interpretations in addition to the actual media content. The term ‘personal influence’ was coined to refer to the process intervening between the media’s direct message and the audience’s ultimate reaction to that message.
Opinion leaders are quite influential in getting people to change their attitudes and behaviors and are quite similar to those they influence. The two-step flow theory has improved our understanding of how the mass media influence decision making. The theory refined the ability to predict the influence of media messages on audience behavior, and it helped explain why certain media campaigns may have failed to alter audience attitudes or behavior. The two-step flow theory gave way to the multi-step flow theory of mass communication or diffusion of innovation theory.
Limited Effects theory suggested that communication from the mass media did not directly influence its audience, but first reached “opinion leaders”, who filtered the information they gathered to their associates, with whom they are influential. Thus, it assumes that media rarely have any direct influence upon individuals. Most people are sheltered from direct manipulation, and that they do not believed in everything they read, hear, or watch. This assumption negates, if not totally contradicts the assumption of mass society theory that people are isolated and vulnerable from direction manipulation.
There is a two-step flow of media influence. Media could not influence people if the opinion leaders who guide them are not influenced by its messages. By the time most people become adults, they have developed strong group commitments like political party or religious affiliations that media messages are almost powerless to overcome. These commitments make people to reject media messages although other group members are not present to help them when media effects occur, they are modest and isolated. Limitations of Media Effects theory are:
They suggested that media rarely effects the audiences, believing that media is powerless. The media is underestimated in this theory. It gave the idea of two-step flow of communication but there may be several and multiple steps in the communication process. Gratification theory approves that users selectively attend to specific messages from specific media. Surveys cannot measure how people actually use media on a day-to-day basis because they can only record how people report their media experience.
Surveys are very expensive and cumbersome way to study people’s use of specific media content such as their reading of certain new stories of their viewing of specific television programs. The research design and data analysis procedures are inherently conservative in assessing the power of media. Surveys omit many potentially important variables by focusing only on what can be easily or reliably measured using existing techniques. In fact, media were thought to be relatively powerless in shaping public opinion, which is not completely true.
Although the empirical methods behind the two-step flow of communication were not perfect, the theory did provide a very believable explanation for information flow. The opinion leaders do not replace media, but rather guide discussions of media. Brosius explains the benefits of the opinion leader theory well in his 1996 study of agenda setting, “The opinion leaders should not be regarded as replacing the role of interpersonal networks but, in fact, as reemphasizing the role of the group and interpersonal contacts. Lazarsfeld and his associates detailed five characteristics of personal contact that give their theory more validity: Non-purposiveness/casualness One must have a reason for tuning into a political speech on television, but political conversations can just “pop-up”. In this situation, the people are less likely to have their defenses up in preparation, they are more likely open to the conversation. Flexibility to counter resistance: In a conversation, there is always opportunity to counter any resistance.
This is not so in media, a one sided form of communication. Trust: Personal contact carries more trust than media. As people interact, they are better able through observation of body language and vocal cues to judge the honesty of the person in the discussion. Newspaper and radio do not offer these cues. Persuasion without conviction: The formal media is forced to persuade or change opinions. In personal communication, sometimes friendly insistence can cause action without affecting any comprehension of the issues.