In recent decades, the number and variety of mass communication theories have

steadily increased. Media theory has emerged as a more or less independent body

of thought in both the social science and humanistic literatures. This book is intended

as a guide to this diverse and sometimes contradictory thinking. You will

find ideas developed by scholars in every area of the social sciences, from history

and anthropology to sociology and psychology. Ideas have also been drawn from

the humanities, especially from philosophy and literary analysis. The resulting

ferment of ideas is both challenging and heuristic. These theories provide the raw

materials for constructing even more useful and powerful theoretical perspectives.

If you are looking for a concise, definitive definition of theory, you won’t find

it in this book. We have avoided narrow definitions of theory in favor of an inclusive

approach that finds value in most systematic, scholarly efforts to make sense of

media and their role in society. We have included recent theories that some contemporary

researchers consider unscientific. Some of the theories reviewed are

grand; they try to explain entire media systems and their role in society. Others

are very small and provide narrower insight into specific uses or effects of media.

Our selection of theories for inclusion in this book is based partly on their enduring

historical importance and partly on their potential to contribute to future scholarship.

This process is necessarily subjective and is based on our own understanding

of mass communication. Our consideration of contemporary perspectives is focused

on those that illustrate enduring or innovative conceptualizations. But before we

embark on that consideration, we need to offer definitions of some important



When an organization employs a technology as a medium to communicate

with a large audience, mass communication is said to have occurred. The professionals

at the New York Times (an organization) use printing presses and the newspaper

(technology and medium) to reach their readers (a large audience). The

writers, producers, filmmakers, and other professionals at the Cartoon Network

use various audio and video technologies, satellites, cable television, and home receivers

to communicate with their audience. Warner Brothers places ads in magazines

to tell readers what movies it is releasing.

But as you no doubt know—and as you’ll be reminded constantly throughout

this text—the mass communication environment is changing quite radically. When

you receive a piece of direct-mail advertising addressed to you by name, and in

which your name is used throughout, you are an audience of one—not the large

audience envisioned in traditional notions of mass communication. When you sit

at your computer and send an e-mail to twenty thousand people who have signed

on to a Listserv dedicated to a particular subject, you are obviously communicating

with a large audience, but you are not an organization in the sense of a newspaper,

cable television network, or movie studio. The availability of lightweight, portable,

inexpensive video equipment, combined with the development of easy-to-use Internet

video sites like YouTube, makes it possible for an “everyday” person like you

to be a television writer and producer, reaching audiences numbering in the tens of


Although most theories we will study in this text were developed before our

modern communications revolution, they are not useless or outmoded. But we

must remember that much has changed in how people use technologies to communicate.

One useful way to do this is to think of mediated communication as existing

on a continuum that stretches from interpersonal communication at one end to traditional

forms of mass communication at the other. Where different media fall

along this continuum depends on the amount of control and involvement people

have in the communication process. The telephone, for example (the phone as traditionally

understood—not the one you might own that has Internet access, GPS,

and some 500 other “killer apps”), sits at one end. It is obviously a communication

technology, but one that is most typical of interpersonal communication: At most,

a very few people can be involved in communicating at any given time, and they

have a great deal of involvement with and control over that communication. The

conversation is theirs, and they determine its content. A big-budget Hollywood

movie or a network telecast of the Super Bowl sits at the opposite pole. Viewers

have limited control over the communication that occurs. Certainly, people can

apply idiosyncratic interpretations to the content before them, and they can choose

to direct however much attention they wish to the screen. They can choose to

actively seek meaning from media content, or they can choose to passively decode

it. But their control and involvement cannot directly alter the content of the messages

being transmitted. Message content is centrally controlled by media organizations.

As you’ll see when we examine the more contemporary mass communication

theories, new communication technologies are rapidly filling in the middle of the

continuum between the telephone and television. Suddenly, media consumers have

the power to alter message content if they are willing to invest the time and have

the necessary skill and resources. Audiences can be active in ways that are hard to

anticipate, and the consequences of this activity may not be understood for decades

to come. The instant popularity of downloading music from the Internet demonstrates

that a generation of young adults is willing to invest the time, acquire the

skills, and purchase the technology necessary to take greater control over the music

they consume. We have seen this process play out even more recently, and possibly

even more dramatically, with the overnight success of video and social networking

websites like YouTube and Facebook, and we’ll surely see it repeated again and

again as we actively engage the technologies that allow us to create and control media

content that is important to us. As this happens, there will be profound consequences

for our personal lives, the media industries, and the larger social world. As

communication theorists Steven Chaffee and Miriam Metzger explain, “Contemporary

media allow for a greater quantity of information transmission and retrieval,

place more control over both content creation and selection in the hands of their

users, and do so with less cost to the average consumer” (2001, p. 369). Technology

writer Dan Gilmor (2004) explained the situation more succinctly when he wrote

that the world is now populated by “people formerly known as the audience.”

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