magic bullet theory" -- sometimes called the hypodermic needle theory -- holds that when recipients of broadcasted information are separated from one another they are extremely susceptible to the messages that they are receiving; theses messages can drastically influence their opinions as well as their perceptions of reality. "Agenda setting scholars corroborate the fact that our dependence on the media for news and information has shaped and reinforced our perceptions of the world around us. The mass media continue to set the news agenda for dominant events, issues and policies that subsequently become popular in our social discourse."
It is a theory regarding the nature by which information influences its receivers and is generally only accurate under a specific set of circumstances. Overall, the magic bullet theory cannot be utilized as a comprehensive model for the mass media because it ignores a number of characteristics inherent to human nature. The term itself actually originates from the middle of the nineteenth century, and generally refers to medical treatments:
"Historically, and particularly in the 19th Century, a medical cure in the form of a pill or injection has been referred to as a 'Magic Bullet.' This usage derives from an imperfect knowledge of the actual mechanism by which the curative worked; in fact, often an incomplete knowledge of the nature of the illness, itself. Thus, the Magic Bullet was somehow imbued with an intelligence that allowed it to travel the courseways of the body and, on arriving at the locus of injury, there to deliver its lethal charge against the unseen, and even, unexpected, contagion."
Essentially, the idea is that a single bit of medicine -- or virtually any product -- can possess the capability to independently solve multiple problems without, necessarily, requiring the full understanding of those involved.
Accordingly, the effect of the medicine can be overwhelmingly potent if utilized in a proper manner. This belief bestowed medial practitioners with substantial authority; after all, they possessed the power to create and administer these magic bullet cures as they saw fit.
This concept is almost directly analogous to the manner in which the term is used when referring to communications. Just like medicine the magic bullet theory of communications demands that information be spread in a one-way direction. This information is released over a broad range of individuals, travels independently through some form of medium, and ultimately finds its place in the ears and mind of an individual appropriately placed to have the information affect him or her in the desired manner. Such a flow of information automatically bestows the broadcasters of this information with considerable power and influence. The idea of the magic bullet was first applied to media during the middle of the twentieth century and "implied [that] 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."
Consequently, the media was perceived as an entity that could shoot or inject people with the appropriate information and trigger a formulated response. By the nature of the media, the recipient of information was necessarily passive and isolated, thus, the radio and television were perceived as the ideal means by which to distribute information by virtue of their unparalleled capacity to create public opinion. Therefore, these forms of media have been presumed to be not only powerful, but dangerous and in need of controls.
Perhaps the most noteworthy example of the accuracy of this model occurred when The War of the Worlds was broadcast for the first time over the radio:
"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."
Although the affect upon the audience was completely unintended, it served to illustrate the substantial power of the media to convince the public of the most outrageous claims. "The vast majority of the listeners knew it was theater, but even so, according to a study of the response, the broadcast frightened roughly a million people -- the panic indirectly testifying to the increased importance of broadcast news and the edginess so many felt in the midst of international crisis."
Such a response demands some rational from of explanation; prior to its occurrence it would have been difficult to believe that such an enormous number of individuals could be induced to believe the unbelievable simply because it was presented to them over a trusted medium. So in retrospect, it seemed appropriate to attribute this "panic broadcast" to the magic bullet theory.
However, Welles' broadcast is known as the classic example of the magic bullet theory because it is the best known instance in which listener behavior most closely mirrored what the theory itself would have predicted. Still, other possible explanations for the mass panic that set in can be put forward. First, the time and setting were ideally suited to a broadcast that purported catastrophe; the world was on the brink of another war and tensions were high. Second, and perhaps most significantly, radio broadcasters were quickly becoming more important and relied upon more readily by the public to help them make sense of unfolding events in Europe. Therefore, it was relatively common for the radio listener to be unexpectedly bombarded with information that was at once regarded as unbelievable and terrifying. In short, the novelty of widespread radio had not completely worn off to the extent where viewers were capable of legitimately questioning the sources of broadcast information. The radio had become a trusted form of information, but many who received its broadcasts regarded it to be the truth rather than an interpretation of that truth.
This establishes a prerequisite for the appropriate functioning of the magic bullet theory in the real world: the source of the information must be unequivocally trusted. The fact that broadcasts on a grand scale were first truly available during the 1930's and 1940's is undeniably associated with the unique effect of the panic broadcast. Obviously, had an individual relayed their story of a Martian invasion to their friends and family they would most likely be laughed at or disregarded; but the fact that the listeners of the broadcast were aware of the scale upon which the information was being received indelibly linked a level of authority to the knowledge being transferred. Since information could for the first time be spread to millions of ears instantaneously, it should not be altogether surprising that it was afforded a level of credence that previous media could never have attained.
"Broadcast news became more important partly because radio itself was becoming pervasive. The proportion of households with radios rose from 65% in 1934 to 81% in 1940, and a rising percentage of new cars had radios."
This, in part, can help to explain the notion of the magic bullet theory; the novelty of broadcast is linked to authority. Therefore, it should be expected that information traveling through a new media should also be greeted with a similar level of unquestioned trust. This concept is rather counterintuitive since it is commonly believed that trust is necessarily something achieved with the passage of time. Yet, when it comes to broadcasted information, the form of the technology involved routinely veils the human element behind the message. This technology, however, must be coupled with the number of individuals who are able to receive the same information. So, the perceived size of a broadcast audience instills in each individual recipient an awareness of the importance of the information being transferred, and thus, some level of judgment is put aside for this authority.
Of course, "It is not always easy to determine when we have surrendered our judgment to someone else. The better or more sophisticated the manipulation, the less aware of it we are."
This frame of mind is somewhat analogous to what has often been termed the "mob mentality." "For example, have you ever attended a sporting event, rock concert, or political convention in one frame of mind, but found yourself inexplicably swept away by the emotion of the crowd."
This phenomenon relies upon the power of mass opinion and its persuasive properties. When caught up in a crowd, the individual is unavoidably persuaded by the force of so many people together who possess the same emotion or opinion. Therefore, when information is distributed on a large scale the number of people receiving this information grants it this same sort of power.
The difference between this example and the requirements for the magic bullet theory is both the physical distance between the recipients of information and the differing pre-existing opinions and ideals of the recipients. Still,…