Sociologists study culture and the media in a variety of ways, asking a variety of questions about the relationship of culture to other social institutions and the role of culture in modern life. One important question for sociologists studying the mass media is whether these images have any effect on those who see them. The reflection hypothesis contends that the mass media reflect the values of the general population.
The media try to appeal to the most broad-based audience, so they aim for the middle ground in depicting images and ideas. Maximizing popular appeal is central to television program development; media organizations spend huge amounts on market research to uncover what people think and believe and what they will like. Characters are then created with whom people will identify. The images in the media with which we identify are distorted versions of reality. Real people seldom live like the characters on television, although part of the appeal of these shows is how they build upon, but then mystify, the actual experiences of people.
The reflection hypothesis assumes that images and values portrayed in the media reflect the values existing in the public, but the reverse can also be trueâ€” that is, the ideals portrayed in the media also influence the values of those who see them. As an example, social scientists have studied the stereotyped images commonly found in children's programming. Among their findings, they have shown that the children who watch the most TV hold the most stereotypic gender attitudes. Although there is not a simple and direct relationship between the content of mass media images and what people think of themselves, clearly these mass-produced images can have a significant impact on who we are and what we think.