Theories of Mass Communication

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What does communication theory deal with? What are those theories of mass communication which are relating to the concerns of users? Discuss the various hierarchies of media effects.


Mass communication is part skill, part art, and part science. It is a skill in the sense that it involves certain fundamental learnable techniques such as focusing a television camera, operating a tape recorder, and taking notes during an interview. It is an art in the sense that it involves creative challenges such as writing a script for a television documentary, developing a pleasing and eye-catching layout for a magazine advertisement, and coming up with a catchy, hard-hitting lead for a news story. It is a science in the sense that certain verifiable principles involved in making communication work can be used to achieve specific goals more effectively.

Many people want to pigeonhole mass communication as involving one or two of these aspects to the exclusion of the others. This pigeonholing has sometimes reinforced unnecessary divisions in the field and obstructed the sharing of ‘useful information. It is our position that all three aspects are valid and valuable, and that taking one approach does not mean that the others must be excluded. The primary focus of this book is ort the aspects of communication that can be approached scientifically, but we attempt to view them from the perspective of the communication practitioner, whether this person is a newspaper reporter, a television director, an advertising copywriter, or a public relations specialist. Many important questions about mass communication that can’t be dealt with in any other way can be dealt with scientifically.

Since we are taking a scientific approach, when we use the word theory in this book we will be referring to scientific theory. Theory can be thought of as our understanding of the way things work (MacLean, 1972). This allows us to always have some theory about anything we are doing. In the field of mass communication, much of our theory in the past has been implicit. People have relied on folklore, traditional wisdom, and “common sense” to guide much of the practice of mass communication. Sometimes these assumptions are never even stated or written down anywhere. Other times they take the forms of oversimplified aphorisms or maxims. Many of these assumptions would benefit from being tested through research; the result might be that the maxims are confirmed, disconfirmed, or confirmed only partially (within certain limits). In any of these cases, the media practitioner will have a firmer ground for taking action.

The communication scientist argues that since we have some theory operating all the time anyway, why not try to make it the best theory that we can? The scientist believes that the greatest faith should be placed in those statements about the way things work that have been tested and verified and that have some generality and predictive power. These are the kinds of statements that make up scientific theory. And these statements are useful; as social psychologist Kurt Lewin said in an often-quoted remark, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” (1951, p. 169).

Communication theory is aimed at improving our understanding of the process of mass communication. With better understanding, we are in a better position to predict and control the outcomes of mass communication efforts. The act of communication can be observed from a number of points of view, but two of the most important are that of the source (or media practitioner), and that of the receiver (or mass communication audience). We can add to our understanding by viewing mass communication from either point of view. Some areas of mass communication theory are particularly helpful to the practitioner in trying to accomplish specific communication goals. Other areas of communication theory are more helpful in understanding the uses of mass communication by an audience member, or the effects of mass communication on an audience. Let us consider some of the important observations made during the last half of the 20th century on the roles of practitioner and audience.





Concerns of the Media User:

Mass communication can also be viewed from the point of view of the audience, and from this point of view the concerns are somewhat different. The audience member is likely to be more concerned about the uses of mass communication than about its effects. The audience member probably thinks of newspapers, radio, television, magazines, motion picture, and other media as things to be used for specific purposes. These purposes can vary widely, from the light, such as providing leisure, relaxation, and entertainment, to the serious, such as providing warnings of dangers (tornadoes, floods, and terrorist attacks) or providing information to be used in evaluating candidates for the presidency of the United States. In between are a host of other uses, including obtaining information for daily life (weather reports, school lunch menus), shopping information (sales, announcements of new products), or news about community and neighbors.

Mass communication theory can help us understand these various uses the audience makes of the mass media and can perhaps provide valuable information about desired uses that the media are not meeting. The area of mass communication theory called “uses and gratifications” is aimed at providing just that kind of information.

The audience can also become concerned about the effects of mass communication, however, particularly when those effects might be negative or undesirable. Watching television violence might cause audience members to engage in aggressive behavior toward others. Watching pornographic films might cause men to have more callous attitudes toward women. Advertisements for beer, wine, and liquor, whether on television or in print, might lead to increased purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Sexual stereotyping of men and women in advertisements and in television entertainment programs might be teaching that males and females may fulfill only certain roles, hold only certain jobs, and so forth. These are only some of the many possible undesirable effects of mass communication about which people have expressed concern—in some cases, to the point of organizing political groups boycotting certain products.

Criticisms of the mass media for producing undesirable effects have occasionally been extended to an entire medium. Television has been compared to a narcotic drug in Marie

Winn’s The Plug-In Drug (1977) and Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978).

Many undesirable effects are probably not intended by the producers of the messages. Nevertheless, they could be real effects with serious consequences for society. The fact that they are unintended does not mean that they are unimportant. In fact, one scholar has

Suggested that the main task of the social sciences is to explore the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions (Popper, 1963).

What is crucial, however, is that these effects be investigated in the most careful and rigorous way. The answers to the questions of whether these effects exist or not should. ne from science—from communication theorists and researchers—and not just from arguments by people and groups who have become adversaries in a public controversy. Another problem for audience members in the 20th century is, the growing issue of in overload (Miller, 1960; Klapp, 1978). Some writers have gone so far as to say “-ha: the audience for mass communication is no longer a “receiver” but a “victim”. Richard Saul Wurman (1989) writes of the problem of information anxiety, which he says is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we —demand and what we think we should understand. Sociologist Orrin E. Klapp (1978, 1982) has described the increasing gap that is occur-r.: between information and meaning. Information, as he uses it, refers to a reduction of uncertainty that can be measured in bits while meaning refers to the making sense of information, to the finding of a meaningful pattern. Klapp presents the metaphor of a giant funnel with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle dropping out of the hole in the bottom. Klapp says members of the audience for mass communication are like a person sitting under the funnel trying to fit a jigsaw puzzle together. The job is difficult because not only do the pieces come faster than we can process them, but many of them do not even belong to the puzzle we are working on Significant developments, some of them still on the horizon of the media landscape, have been altering the way media are used as well as how they are generated.

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