FOUR ERAS OF MASS COMMUNICATION THEORY

Technophiles have been hailing convergence, the erasure of distinctions among media, ever since the introduction of the personal computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates heralded its full arrival in 2004 at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.

Convergence, he told his listeners, doesn’t happen until you have everything in a digital form that the consumer can easily use on all the different devices. So, if we look at the three types of media of greatest importance—we look at photos, we look at music and we look at video—the move toward giving people digital flexibility on them is pretty incredible on every one of them. It’s been discussed for a long, long time. And now, it’s really happening. (quoted in Cooper, 2004, p. 1)

In fact, it’s happening today in ways that Gates might not have anticipated those many long years ago (in Internet time). We now receive clear, full-motion video on cell phones—that is, when we’re not using them to surf the Web or locate, via global positioning, the nearest pizza shop. The technology allowing people to retransmit the content received on their home televisions to their laptop computer or cell phone no matter where they are is available, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive. As wireless Internet networks (Wi-Fi) have improved and become more widespread, full-motion live video, movies-on-demand, and television-on-demand have joined already-existing anyplace-anytime reception of voice, e-mail, web pages, music downloads, written and data texts, interactive video games, and still photos. So, while you use your cell phone to watch a video download of Superbad, are you on the phone, on the Internet, watching television, or viewing a film? What becomes of the distinction between newspapers, magazines, radio, and television when all can be accessed anywhere, anytime on a single handheld device and when each medium can combine graphics, video, printed text, sound, music, and interactivity to satisfy your entertainment and information needs?

We are in the midst of a revolution in communication technology that many scholars believe is transforming social orders and cultures around the world. Each new technological device expands the possible uses of the existing technologies. New technologies combine to create media systems spanning great distances but also serve a broad range of highly specific purposes. In retrospect, we now regard the first centuries of mass communication as dominated by expensive, clumsy technologies that provided a limited array of services to gigantic audiences. Large corporations located in the largest cities established and controlled highly centralized media systems. People accommodated their needs to what the older media technologies could provide. For many of us, the term mass media still is synonymous with these “big media.” And now, although we are caught up in a communications revolution, much of our attention is still riveted on the media dinosaurs. We may dismissively refer to “older” media as the MSM (mainstream media), but we are only beginning to understand the potential of the “new,” alternative media to serve needs we didn’t know we had. If this were not so, the Internet and World Wide Web would be neither as explosively popular nor as constantly controversial as they are. For many of us, the immediate consequences of this revolution seem quite pleasant and benign. The new media have greatly expanded our options for entertainment and information content. Instead of choosing from a handful of movies at local theaters or on three network television stations, we can select from tens of thousands of titles available on cable channels, satellites, videotapes, DVDs, and Internet downloads. We can exchange CDs in their digital file form on the Internet to create massive home music libraries. At any given moment, we can tune to several different newscasts on television, radio, and the net. Using personal computers, or even our cell phones, we can access remote databases and scan endless reams of information on diverse, specialized topics. Rather than the handful of local radio stations available on our dials, we can hear ten thousand stations on the Web. We can use the Internet’s interactive capabilities to experiment with and create new identities. An array of print media is available—many edited to suit the tastes of relatively small audiences. The old marketplace of ideas has become a gigantic 24/7 supermarket. If you want it, you can get it somewhere. And if you want it but can’t get it, you can create it yourself, as the Internet and digital technologies have turned us all into potential content producers.

In this textbook, we examine how communication scholars have conceptualized the role of media during this and the last two centuries. Our purpose is to provide you with a broad and historically grounded perspective on what media can do for you and to you. As digital media converge, you will have new opportunities to make media serve your purposes, but there may also come powerful new ways for media to invade your privacy and shape your views of the social world. We review some of the best (and worst) thinking concerning the role and potential of media. We ask that you join us in looking back to the origins of media and the early efforts to understand their influence and role. We will trace the challenges posed by ever-changing media technology and the rise of various media industries, focusing on the theories that were developed to make sense of them. Finally, we will conclude with a review of current theory and assist you in developing a personally relevant perspective on media.

Keep in mind, though, that this is not a book about new media technology, although we will often use examples of new technology to illustrate our points and to demonstrate the relevance of various theories. Our purpose is to help you place new communication technology into historical and theoretical perspective. The challenges we face today as a society and as individuals are similar in many ways to those people faced during the previous communication revolutions, such as the era of the penny press or the Golden Age of Radio. We can learn much from examining how researchers have tried to understand media technology and anticipate its consequences for society. We can try to avoid repeating their mistakes and can build on their ideas that have proved useful. The theories of past generations can assist us as we face the challenges of today’s new media.

This Article is structured more or less chronologically. This organizational scheme represents, in part, our support of Everett Rogers, James Dearing, and Donne Bergman’s belief that

the most common means of investigating intellectual histories is the historical method, which seeks to understand paradigmatic change by identifying key instances of personal and impersonal influence, which are then interpreted as determining the parameters and directions of a particular field of study. A social scientific understanding of such histories, while acknowledging the importance of key instances of intellectual influence, must seek to identify patterns that represent influence over time. (1993, p. 69)

Our chronological structuring also reflects our view that most social theories, including media theory, are never completely innovative and are always the products of the particular era in which they are constructed. As geologist and zoologist Stephen Jay Gould writes of science in general, those who deal with theories “can work only within their social and psychological contexts. Such an assertion does not debase the institution of science, but rather enriches our view of the greatest dialectic in human history: the transformation of society by scientific progress, which can only arise within a matrix set, constrained, and facilitated by society” (Gould, 2000, p. 31). Communication scholar Gary Gumpert makes the same argument, specifically for his “splendid, splintered discipline.” It is important, he wrote, “to know that we are not alone, but connected to what was before, what may be, and what is next to come” (2007, p. 170). In other words, as historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg explained to those who traffic in social theory, “Science in and of itself has some culture embedded in it. How could it be otherwise?” (quoted in Belkin, 2000, p. 43).

Present-day theories are mostly updated versions of old ideas, even when they provide seemingly radical revisions or sophisticated syntheses of earlier notions. To understand contemporary theories, it’s important to understand the theories on which they are based. This does not mean, however, that mass communication theory developed or unfolded in an orderly, chronologically stable way, with new, improved ideas supplanting older, disproved notions. Theories about media and violence, for example, have been around as long as there have been media (Ball- Rokeach, 2001; Wartella and Reeves, 1985). Concerns about harmful media effects were voiced in this country as early as 1900 and were strongly articulated in the 1930s and again in the 1950s. The 1960s were the heyday of mass communication scholars’ theoretical attention to the problem of media and subsequent viewer, listener, or reader aggression. They were also the heyday of the argument that media aren’t the problem, poor parenting is. A seemingly definitive government-funded series of studies, the Surgeon General’s Report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, published in 1972, did little to settle scholarly and public debate. So the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required that manufacturers of television sets install an electronic violence-screening device, the V-chip (which very few parents use); Congress has held hearings on the effects, if any, of media violence every year since; and in 2009 the FCC began consideration of rules requiring a single, standardized ratings system to “warn parents of programming on television, video games, and wireless telephones that could be inappropriate for children” (Shields, 2009).

This book is also based on the assumption that all social theory is a human construction—an active effort by communities of scholars to make sense of their social world. Scholarly communities differ in what they want to accomplish with the theories they create, as we saw in Chapter 1. From one decade to the next, there are important qualitative shifts in theory construction as new groups of scholars emerge with new objectives and new ways of organizing older ideas. For example, during times of social turmoil or external threat, scholarly communities often become allied with powerful elites and work to preserve the status quo. At other times, scholarly communities critical of the existing social order spring up and work to reform or transform it. Still other communities have long-term humanistic goals that include liberal education and cultural enlightenment.

Not only are there many mass communication theories constructed for many different ends, but they, like the world they attempt to explain, understand, or change, are ever evolving. So, not only are these theories human constructions; they are dynamic. Mass communication scholars Jennings Bryant and Donna Miron dramatically explained:

Like volatile stormy weather, at some level changes in mass communication theory and research occur almost too rapidly and unpredictably for even the best-intentioned reporters to chronicle and explain accurately…. For example, (a) all of the media of mass communication are undergoing dramatic changes in form, content, and substance … which are explained only partially by the notion of convergence; (b) newer forms of interactive media, such as the Internet, are altering the traditional mass communication model from that of communication of one-to-many to communication of many-to-many …; (c) media ownership patterns are shifting dramatically and sometimes ruthlessly in ways that tend to disregard the entertainment, informational, educational, political, and social needs of consumers and that potentially cause major problems for their host societies …; (d) the viewing patterns and habits of audiences worldwide are changing so rapidly as to be almost mercurial (e.g., consider the transition from children’s bedrooms to children’s media rooms) …; (e) the very nature of the primary unit in which most media consumption takes place—the family—is undergoing remarkable changes in its own right that markedly affect our uses of media and their impacts on our psychological and cultural well-being…. Moreover, (f) even in stable, more traditional home environments, with most of today’s youth “Growing up Wired,” … interactive media are “Redefining Life at Home.” (2004, pp. 662–663)

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