The fabric of modern society is so intricately woven with the fibers of Mass Communication, it is impossible to comprehend our lives without it. Indeed, Mass Communication so fully saturates our everyday lives, we often forget its presence – and its influence. Moreover, the technologies that make modern Mass Communication possible serve to only reify its omnipresence and power.
The technologies – often referred to by scholars and pundits as the “mass media” – can be described as the vehicles through which communication can reach the masses. In conceptualizing the mass media, many often think of the Internet – and for good reason. Some scholars estimate that upwards of four billion people are regularly connected to the Internet and that Internet traffic will be 95 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2005.
The mass media, however, is more than just the Internet. Indeed, television, radio, and even newspapers and magazines are considered part of the mass media. In this article, the evolution of the mass media – and thus, the evolution of the scholarly study of Mass Communication – is traced, and some key theories and concepts are discussed, in an effort to provide future master’s students with a foundational understanding of this area of communication that permeates almost every industry and aspect of consumer life.
Defining Mass Communication
Before tracing the evolution of mass media and Mass Communication as an academic field, it is important to first define some key terms. By and large, Mass Communication can be defined as the communication conveyed to a large audience via media. Media, in this sense, is the channel that carries this communication to the masses through electronic or printable means. While electronic forms of media – the Internet, television, and radio – certainly altered connotations of “mass” in Mass Communication, its print predecessors – magazines, newspapers, and books – laid the foundation for communication to reach larger numbers of people.
Mass Communication scholars generally employ definitions of communication similar to their colleagues studying other realms of communication. Even with its larger scope and reach, communication in Mass Communication is still thought of as the symbolic process through which meaning and, therefore reality, is constructed, shared, altered, and reified. Perhaps more so than others, Mass Communication scholars highlight the everyday-ness of media and its embedded place in our culture.
Given mass media’s unique position as a conduit, regulator, and even manipulator of communication, many Mass Communication scholars urge students – and, ideally, citizens – to become media literate. Media literacy is the ability to critically evaluate media and its contents by asking questions like: Who benefits from this form of media or type of content? What is the underlying message in this content? How does this particular form of media reinforce existing power structures? Or, conversely, does this media provide a voice to the marginalized and oppressed?
There is a persistent, if not nagging, myth (which contemporary Mass Communication scholars continually seek to dispel) that due to mass media’s omnipresence and capability to manipulate, human beings have been reduced to automatons, essentially drones controlled by corporations or governments. While there is certainly an enduring danger embedded within mass media, scholars continue to highlight that human beings – both individually and collectively – possess incredible critical thinking and reasoning skills, helping to combat this dystopian fear.
Though this myth is certainly grounded in honest fear and anxiety, the confluence of emerging media technology and an increase in education continues to enhance our critical perspective in consuming media. Indeed, each generation seems to further add to the concept of media literacy, providing valuable insight to scholars studying Mass Communication.
The Evolution of Mass Media
Well before the Internet and instant communication, mass media occupied a different realm – that of print and paper. Some scholars trace humanity’s use of written symbols in books back at least 5,000 years, but the modern conception of the book is a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, the first true instance of “mass” communication came in the wake of the printing press.
Contrary to common belief, Johannes Gutenberg did not invent the printing press, nor did he invent the crucial component of the printing press – moveable type. Gutenberg, did, however, create a more efficient, streamlined system of printing that made printing significantly faster, easier, and, more importantly, cheaper. The “Gutenberg Revolution” that followed was consequential to 15th Century Europe in that knowledge was no longer confined to families and small, local communities, books and pamphlets started becoming more common, and the incentive to become literate grew. However, the ramifications of this technology did not stay in Europe. Indeed, ideas and news spread much faster and, in a sense, the world grew smaller.
Several centuries later in Colonial America, mass media further evolved. Revolutionary ideas spread rapidly throughout the colonies – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, for example, sold about 120,000 copies in the first three months after its publication, rivaling the number of copies of the Bible printed at that time throughout the colonies.
In 19th Century America, the rise of the “penny press,” or newspapers that were sold for a penny, coincided with higher literacy rates and a (slight) democratization of American politics. Building upon that and aided by the continual development of a national postal service, magazine circulation rose astronomically and reached larger and larger audiences. Juxtaposed to local newspapers, a magazine’s audience could become national, yet again altering the connotation of “mass” in Mass Communication.
The rapid development of electronic technology in the 20th Century propelled mass media to its current place of import in modernity. Pioneering this path, radio’s role cannot be overstated. Indeed, as the first electronic medium for mass communication, radio reshaped social, economic, political, and cultural structures across the world. In the 1930s, for example, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” helped assuage American anxieties about the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts to the nation became a staple in American life for a time, with many Americans stating that some of their first memories were set around the fireplace listening to the president’s voice.
Furthermore, radio’s quick ascendancy in the United States led to the creation of the first broadcast networks, laying the foundation for future electronic mass mediums and instilling the “trustee principle,” or the need for government regulation of the burgeoning broadcast industry. The establishment of broadcast networks helped aid in television’s swift rise a few decades later in the 1950’s as the infrastructure was, essentially, already in place.
A Brief History of the Study of Mass Communication
Today’s Mass Communication scholars can, to some degree, trace their academic lineage to Walter Lippman and John Dewey, particularly through the famed “Lippman-Dewey” debate(s) of the 1920s and 30s that considered the role of journalism as a form of mass communication and its impact on their preferred version of democracy. At least initially, Lippman favored a journalistic approach that placed intellectual elites as the true – and better equipped – stewards of democracy, so news reporting ought to be written for these intellectuals. While Lippman saw experts as more capable of maintaining the promise of democracy, Dewey, on the other hand, advocated for journalists to write for common, everyday citizens as these citizens are democracy’s foundation.
While Lippman later wrote of the dangers of his approach, Dewey did agree that mass media and culture were becoming too much for the average citizen to comprehend. Instead of looking to experts to sift through the mess of mass culture, Dewey hoped that through communication Americans could band together to form a “Great Community,” an inclusive group comprised of various local and co-publics that were educated and civically engaged.
Almost a century has passed since Lippman and Dewey discussed and debated the nature of democracy and mass media’s impact, and even with the passage of time and the profound advancement in telecommunication technology, the core tenets of their philosophies continue to influence our perspectives on mass media and communication. Indeed, building off Lippman and Dewey, the study of Mass Communication took further shape following the Second World War. Like with the developing study of Persuasion in Communication Studies, Mass Communication researchers began to study propaganda, its effects, and the uses of mass media in spreading and combatting propaganda.
Mass Communication Theories & Concepts
In the study of Mass Communication theories and concepts, it is important to first articulate that there is no singular Mass Communication theory that encapsulates the discipline, or to which every scholar subscribes. Instead, Mass Communication scholars tend to focus on the degree to which media impacts communication, culture, and society. With the introduction of new mediums that changed the way we communicate, the nature of Mass Communication Theory also changed. Indeed, many of the theories listed below reflect the evolution of our understanding of Mass Communication with the introduction of new technology.
Additionally, many of the concepts articulated below have been repurposed in other realms of Communication Studies. For example, agenda-setting, framing, and priming continue to be analyzed by both Mass Communication and Political Communication scholars, while Social Cognitive Theory has been, and continues to be, employed by Health Communication scholars.
Agenda-Setting, Framing, and Priming: Now considered to be fundamental in the study of Mass Communication, the concepts of agenda-setting, framing, and priming all originated in the context of Communication research. Agenda-setting, or the idea that media tells us not what to think, but what to think about, helped scholars begin to articulate mass media’s impact potential and is now invariably discussed in graduate seminars in Mass Communication. Likewise, framing, or the ways in which events, people, and ideas are characterized through media depictions continues to be a tool for scholars in examining a litany of media. Finally, priming is considered to be the effect of agenda-setting and framing, as audiences are cognitively conditioned to adopt attitudes that are set by the media’s agenda and framing of particular issues or objects.
For more information on agenda-setting, framing, and priming, see our article on Political Communication Research.
Mass Society Theory: The aforementioned myth regarding mass media’s overwhelmingly negative impact on society was once a generally accepted scholarly perspective. Mass Society Theory suggests that mass media undermines the social order and human beings are vulnerable, if not entirely defenseless, to its power. Also known as the “magic bullet” theory or the “hypodermic needle” theory, Mass Society Theory is built upon the premise that human beings are simple receivers and mass media just injects ideas into our brains.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, many asked how citizens in democracies like Germany and Italy could suddenly embrace fascism. At the time, Mass Society Theory offered a relatively easy answer – and a sort of scapegoat – to how a people could turn to the horrors of fascist rule and the accompanying atrocities committed in its name. While these two examples extended credibility to the theory, we now know, of course, that mass media was not the singular culprit in the lead up to the Second World War – that a confluence of socio-economic issues helped to rapidly tear at the political seams of these countries through appeals to racism and authoritarianism.
Limited Effects Theory: Generally speaking, research on the Limited Effects of media produced several important concepts that are widely accepted today, namely that human beings are not passive consumers of media and that we actively use media for a variety of purposes and goals. Additionally, Limited Effects research helped articulate concepts like agenda-setting, framing, and priming.
Many consider Limited Effects Theory to be the natural and direct successor to Mass Society Theory. Realistically, however, Limited Effects Theory came to be simultaneously through the testing of Mass Society Theory. In examining Mass Society Theory, researchers determined that media influence can and usually is limited by individual differences, social categories, personal relationships, and level of education, thus constructing Limited Effects Theory.
More specifically, there are several other theories that help comprise Limited Effects Theory and add to its explanatory powers. Social Cognitive Theory, for example, suggests that media impacts people in a variety of ways and that people employ a learning process in consuming media. As highlighted in our Health Communication article, we may imitate what we see and hear in media, or if we do not exactly replicate what we consume, we may identify with something produced and engage in behavior that is sympathetic to its spirit. In other words, we learn from others – and media aids in this process.
Cultural Theory: Cultural Theory employs a critical, macro-level approach in examining media and its impact on society. In short, this theory argues that the meaning conveyed and debated between media and various audiences as they interact can have larger cultural impacts.
Because of its focus, Cultural Theory is inherently political, is concerned with big picture/largescale media effects, examines power and how the media is used to help those in power stay in power and oppress the marginalized, and operates to reveal the capitalistic forces at work within media. Cultural Theory, for example, has been used to some degree in studying media conglomerations here in the United States. In wielding this theory, scholars are able to highlight Disney (and other’s) cultural impact and power.
Meaning-Making Theory: This perspective suggests that as media consumers, we use media to create meaning and label experiences for ourselves. In other words, we use media as a catalyst in shaping meaning for our lives.
An enduring concept that comes from Meaning-Making Theory is cultivation analysis, or the idea that media cultivates a belief that the world they create/portray is real. This is not to say that we think the events of Game of Thrones are necessarily real, but that its portrayal of human interaction is close to reality. In other words, Meaning-Making Theory argues that the media’s depiction of human behavior, human relationships, social hierarchies, and worldviews is relatively close to reality.
As a force for good, for example, this can be used over time to alter attitudes regarding same-sex relationships, or the larger LGBTQIA Community. Indeed, shows like Modern Family, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Grace & Frankie portray same-sex relationships or members of the LBGTQIA Community positively, and over time and repetition, this cultivates a positive association.
Studying Mass Communication Today
Today, Mass Communication continues to grow. As evidenced by the number of Mass Communication programs offered by universities across the country and around the world, as well as the increasing number of employers needing skilled professionals in this realm of research and practice, Mass Communication is as every bit part of our society as the technologies that make it possible. The field of Mass Communication, it seems, is synonymous with progress and modernity.
Within Communication Studies, Mass Communication is perhaps more important than ever. An example of its import is in the study of “fake news.” The recent onslaught of fake news and its socio-political consequences here in America and around the world is a communicative phenomenon ripe for Mass Communication scholars to examine. Indeed, studying fake news is not only relevant as it is occurring at this moment in time, it is crucial, as some scholars contend, to the survival of Western liberal democracy. Here, the echoes of Dewey and Lippman reverberate.
As new mass media technologies continue to develop, so too will our conceptions of Mass Communication. If the 21st Century has taught us anything thus far, it is that Mass Communication is indeed woven into the fabric of modern society, its presence, for better or for worse, integral to our survival and well-being.
Sources and Additional Resources
To learn more about the study of Mass Communication, its theoretical foundations, and societal applications, check out the following publications:
- Baran, S. J. (2018). Introduction to Mass Communication (10th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
- Baran, S. J., & Davis, D. K. (2020). Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Oxford University Press.
- Bryant, J., Thompson, S., & Finklea, B. W. (2012). Fundamentals of Media Effects: Second Edition. Waveland Press.
- Jeffres, L. W. (2015). Mass Communication Theories in a Time of Changing Technologies. Mass Communication & Society, 18(5), 523–530. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15205436.2015.1065652
- UC Santa Barbara. (n.d.). A Citizen’s Guide to Fake News | Center for Information Technology and Society. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from https://www.cits.ucsb.edu/fake-news
*Note: Christopher Wernecke teaches an undergraduate course on Media, Culture, and Society at Georgia State University. The content in this article was drawn from the research he conducted for his course curriculum.