A chapter from A Companion to Documentary Film History:
The narrative of media’s potential to change the world is an ancient one. This chapter focuses on the audience and the shifting and often contradictory claims made for it, particularly in light of the documentary project. Marketing specialists and academics alike developed media effects theories, each distinguished by varying degrees of media causality and audience agency. The names of scholars such as Lasswell, Lazarsfeld et al., and Klapper have been cemented into the foundations of mass communications as a discipline, and their ideas continue to circulate, even if implicitly, when discussing virtual reality as “empathy machine.” The film medium took form in a world of change. A rapid increase in urban inhabitants helped along by migratory populations; concentrated industrial development and with it unequal distributions of resources; new ideologies and challenges to inherited social norms: all these and more rendered the state and its primary beneficiaries precarious.