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Watching the Holocaust on TV. The Recipients’ Perspective on the Effects of Television on Mental and Collective Representations

Watching the Holocaust on TV. The Recipients’ Perspective on the Effects of Television on Mental and Collective Representations

People do not tend to watch only one movie on TV or read only one newspaper article, they come back to significant topics or events again and again. Thus, it is important to look at long-term effects of using media in daily life. However, there are hardly any approaches of media impact studies on this topic so far. In her dissertation, Juliane Finger developed an approach for examining long-term media effects, in which media effects are reconstructed from today’s subjective perspective of the media user.  The approach was applied to the example of long-term meaning television has for mental representations (knowledge, episodic memories, emotions) of the Holocaust. Long-term in this case relates to cumulated experiences in the course of life. The findings reveal that television is an important influencing factor within the context of further central influences, such as family, school or the visit of a memorial site. Users extend their knowledge by watching documentaries on TV, for example, or there are crucial experiences that are connected to the Holocaust. However, television becomes less important for younger generations. Hence, there are different implications for communicating the Holocaust via television to younger generations.

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Project Description

The PhD-project has developed an approach to conceive long-term media effects, which puts the emphasis on the subjective perspective of recipients. The focus lies on the reception of media effects to one’s own person. Long-term in this case relates to cumulated experiences in the course of life. The exposure to media in the past along with its consequences (= media effects) will be reconstructed from the individual memory by using a retrospective approach for the methodological part regarding these long-term effects. The individual memory is constructive: Memories can be forgotten or they can be changed due to different impacts (z. B. Schacter, 1999). However, previous research has shown that central and individual significant memories of media exposure can be recalled years later (z. B. Dhoest, 2007; Potts et al., 2008).

The selected example is the representation of the Holocaust in German television. The leading question for the research was which effect representations of the Holocaust on television have on the individual mental and on the collective representations of the recipient. The example of the Holocaust is of particular relevance regarding the continual memory of the Holocaust. Television is already one of the most used sources of information on National Socialism and the Holocaust. In the future, after the disappearance of the last contemporary witnesses, the medial knowledge transfer on this topic will gain relevance. The collective representations will be accessed through individual memories that are socio-culturally shaped, so-called collected memories (Olick, 1999). Two qualitative methods were used for the empirical study: 15 media-biographic interviews and group discussions with people from different generations and education levels were conducted. Thereby, people with two different educational backgrounds were included. An evaluation concept was designed based on the qualitative content analysis (Gläser & Laudel, 2010; Mayring, 2008).

The findings emphasis that television is one factor for the representation of the Holocaust, which has an effect on the mental representations in the individual course of life and when debating the topic of the Holocaust. However, mental representations also influence the debates on the Holocaust, i.e. when watching or avoiding representations of the Holocaust on TV. Further influencing factors are the family, the phase of life, the individual interest in topics as well as the educational background at the group level. An age difference can also be seen on a supra-individual level, which can be interpreted as a media socialisation specific for a generation. A striking difference between generations nowadays is that the significance of television becomes less important for young adults (born 1985-1992) than for retired people (born 1941-1951). As a result, there are several implications for addressing the topic ‘Holocaust’ on television, such as the question how younger generations can stimulated/inspired to think about this topic by representation of the Holocaust on TV.  

Regarding the developed approach of long-term research on media effects, the findings show how this approach adds to existing accesses to media effects: firstly, you can analyse aspects with the subjective perspective that cannot be addressed with standardised methods. Secondly, you can access the past with a retrospective method. Thirdly, you can understand/analyse the biographic or group-specific context by using a qualitative method. Thus, it is possible to look at the phenomenon of effects that went unnoticed due to the focus of causal logic of media effects (cf. Perry, 1996).

Project Information


Duration: 2010-2016

Research programme:
RP3 - Knowledge for the Media Society

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