Mass Communication trends, traits and theories by Debanjan Banerjee

Mass Communication trends, traits and theories

by Debanjan Banerjee
June 14, 2007

This is an original Podium article.


The term mass communication is a term used in a variety of ways, which, despite the potential for confusion, are usually clear from the context. These include a) reference to the various activities of the mass media as a group, b) the use of criteria of a concept, massiveness, to differentiate among media and their activities, and c) the construction of questions about communication as applied to the activities of the mass media. Significantly only the third of these uses do not take the actual process of communication for granted.

Mass Communication is often used incorrectly to refer to the distribution of entertainment, arts, information, and messages by television, radio, newspapers, magazines, movies, recorded music, and associated media. This general use of the term is only appropriate as designating the most commonly shared features of such otherwise disparate phenomena as broadcast television, cable, video playback, theater projection, recorded song, radio talk, advertising, the front page, editorial page, sports section, and comics page of the newspaper. In this usage mass communication refers to the activities of the media as a whole and fails to distinguish among specific media, modes of communication, genres of text or artifact, production or reception situations, or any questions of actual communication. The only analytic purpose of the term serves is to distinguish mass communication from interpersonal, small-group, and other face-to-face communication situations. Another use of the term involves the various criteria of massiveness, which can be brought to bear in analyses of media and mass communication situations.

These criteria may include size and differentiation of audience, anonymity, simultaneity, and the nature of influences among audience members and between the audience and the media.

Live television spectators of recent decades may be the epitome of mass communication. These may include such serious events as the funerals of Indias Late Prime Ministers Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., and such entertainment spectaculars as the Olympic Games, World Cup Soccer, and the Academy or Grammy Awards. These transmissions are distributed simultaneously and regardless of individual or group differences to audience members numbering in several tens or even a few hundreds of millions. Outside of their own local groups, these audience members know nothing of each other. They have no real opportunities to influence the television representation of the events or the interpretation of those representations by other audience members.

By contrast the spectator for most cable television channels is much smaller and more differentiated from other audience groups. The target audience for newspapers, magazines, and movies is less simultaneous, again smaller and more differentiated, and there is the potential for a flow of local influences as people talk about articles, features and recommend movies. But compared to a letter, phone call, conversation, group discussions, or public lecture all of these media produce communication immensely more massive on every criterion.

All of the criteria used in defining mass communication are potentially confused when one is engaged in a specific research project or critical examination. The most confounding problem is encountered when determining the level of analysis. Should the concern be with a single communication event or with multiple events but a single communication channel? Should the focus be upon multiple channels but a single medium? Does the central question concern a moment in time or an era, a community, nation, or the world?

Here Radio provides an excellent example of the importance of these choices. Before television, network radio was the epitome of mass communication; it was national, live, available and listened to everywhere especially in a country like ours. Today it is difficult to think of radio this way because the industry no longer works in the same manner. Commercial radio stations depend on local and regional sources of advertising income. Essentially all radio stations are programmed to attract a special segment of a local or a regional audience, and even when programming national entertainment materials such as popular songs, stations emphasize local events, personalities, weather, news, and traffic in their broadcast talk. Radio is an industry characterized by specialized channels each attracting relatively small, relatively differentiated audiences. But the average home in the developed nation like US and its developing counterpart India have at least one and even more than that in compare to television sets. Cumulatively the US and Indian audience for radio is just as big, undifferentiated, and anonymous as that for television. Is radio today, then a purveyor of mass communication? It depends on whether the concern is with the industry as a whole or with the programming and audience of a particular station.

Most uses of the term mass communication fall into one of these first two categories, either to refer to the activities of the mass media as a whole, or to refer to the massiveness of certain kinds of communication. Both uses have in common that they take issues of communication for granted and instead place emphasis on the massiveness of the distribution system and the audience. Attention is given to what are called the mass media because they are the institutional and technological systems capable of producing mass audiences for mass distributed communications. Communication, then, ends up implicitly defined as a kind of object (message, text, and artifact) that is reproduced and transported by these media. For some purposes this may be exactly the right definition. But it diminishes our ability to treat communication as a social accomplishment, as something people do rather than as an object that gets moved from one location to another. If communication is people something do, then it may or may not be successful, may or may not be healthy and happy. If communication means, to share for example rather than to transmit then what, if anything of importance is shared when people watch a television programme.

Scholars of mass communication are often more interested in communication as a social accomplishment than they are in the media as mass distribution systems. This interest is based on an intellectual independence from both existing habits of terminology, and most importantly, from media institutions as they exist.

What is communication theory?

Communication is a tricky concept, and while we may casually use the word with some frequency, it is difficult to arrive at a precise definition that is agreeable to most of those who consider themselves communication scholars. Communication is so immensely rooted in human behaviors and the structures of society that it is difficult to think of social or behavioral events that are absent communication.

We might state that communication consists of transmitting information from one person to another. In fact, many scholars of communication take this as a working definition, and use Lasswells maxim (who says what to whom to what effect) as a means of circumscribing the field of communication. Others suggest that there is a ritual process of communication that cannot be artificially abstracted from a particular historical and social context. As a relatively young field of inquiry, it is probably premature to expect a conceptualization of communication that is shared among all or most of those who work in the area. Furthermore, communication theory itself is, in many ways, an attempt to describe and explain precisely what communication is.

Indeed, a theory is some form of explanation of a class of observed phenomena. Karl Popper colorfully described theory as the net, which we throw out in order to catch the world to rationalize, explain, and dominate it. The idea of a theory lies at the heart of any scholarly process, and while those in the social sciences tend to adopt the tests of a good theory from the natural sciences, many who study communication adhere to an idea of theory that is akin to that found in other academic fields. Nonetheless, when evaluating the strength of a theory, the criteria commonly found in the sciences, and derived from the scientific method are often broadly applicable.

Evaluating theory

What makes a theory good? Six criteria might be said to be properties of a scientific and authentic theory. The terminology presented here for the students is drawn from Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication, but a similar set of criteria are widely accepted both within and outside the field of communication.

  1. Theoretical Scope: How general is the theory? That is, how widely applicable is it? In most cases, a theory that may only be applied within a fairly narrow set of circumstances is not considered as useful as a theory that encompasses a very wide range of communicative interactions. The ideal, of course, is a theory that succinctly explains the nature of human communication as a whole.
  2. ppropriateness: Theories are often evaluated based upon how well their epistemological, ontological, and axiological assumptions relate to the issue or question being explained. If a theory recapitulates its assumptions (if it is tautological), it is not an effective theory.
  3. Heuristic Value: Some theories suggest the ways in which further research may be conducted. By presenting an explanatory model, the theory generates questions or hypotheses that can be operational zed relatively easily.
  4. Validity: It may seem obvious that for a theory to be good, it must also be valid. Validity refers to the degree to which the theory accurately represents the true state of the world.
  5. Parsimony: The law of parsimony (Occams razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. Others suggest that good theory exhibits an aesthetic quality, that a good theory is beautiful or natural.
  6. Openness: Theories, perhaps paradoxically, should not exist to the absolute exclusion of other theories. Theory should no be dogma: it should encourage and provide both for skepticism and should to whatever degree possible be compatible with other accepted theory.

Moreover in the context of social sciences, we may find different theories that each explains a phenomenon in useful ways. There is value in being able to use theories as lenses through which one can understand the world together with other scholars. So let us discuss in nutshell the most rational and relevant communication theories in this regard.

1. Agenda Setting Theory

The Agenda-Setting Theory says the media (specially the news media) arent always successful at telling us what to think, but they are quite successful at telling us what to think about.

Theorists: Maxwell McCombs and Donald L. Shaw
Date: 1972/1973

2. Cultivation Theory

Gerbners cultivation theory says that television has become the main source of storytelling in todays society. Those who watch four or more hours a day are labeled heavy television viewers and those who view less than four hours per day, according to Gerbner are light viewers. Heavy viewers are exposed to more violence and therefore are affected by the Mean World Syndrome, an idea that the world is worse than it actually is. According to Gerbner, the overuse of television is creating a homogeneous and fearful populace.

Theorist: George Gerbner
Date: 1976

3. Cultural Imperialism Theory

Cultural Imperialism Theory states that Western nations dominate the media around the world, which in return has a powerful effect on Third World Cultures by imposing them Western views and therefore destroying their native cultures.

Theorist: Herb Schiller
Date: 1973

4. Diffusion of Innovation Theory

In the Diffusion Innovation theory, communicators in society with a message influence/encourage people that have strong opinions through the media to influence the masses.

Theorists: P. Lazarsfeld, B. Berelson, and H. Gaudet
Date: 1944

5. Media Dependency Theory

This theory states that the more dependent an individual is on the media for having his or her needs fulfilled, the more important the media will be to that person.

Theorists: Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur
Date: 1976

6. Media Equation Theory

This theory predicts why people respond unconsciously and automatically to communication media as if it were human.

Theorists: Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass
Date: 1996.

7. Spiral of Silence Theory

The Spiral of Silence Theory explains why people often feel the need to conceal their opinions/preferences/views/etc. when they fall within the minority group.

Theorist: Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann
Date: 1984

8. Technological Determinism Theory

Technological Determinism state that media technology shapes how we as individuals in a society think, feel, act, and how are society operates as we move from one technological age to another (Tribal- Literate- Print- Electronic etc.,)

Theorist: Marshall Mcluhan
Date: 1962

9. Functional Approach To Mass Communication Theory

There are five functional approaches the media serves users: surveillance, correlation, transmission, entertainment, and mobilization.

Theorists: Harold Laswell and Charles Wright
Date: 1948, 1960

10. Human Action Theory

Human behavior can be predicted because people make choices with a purpose about their actions. Behavior is chosen by individuals to reach certain goals.

Theorist: P. Winch
Date: 1958

Apart from these there are many more important theories such as Uses and Gratification Theory, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Communication Accommodation Theory, Expectancy Violation Theory, Face-Negotiation Theory etc, needed to be discussed. Rest assured, I will keep my promise in my next article provided you grab the given one first. Please do not cram better to conceptualize. Happy reading


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Debanjan Banerjee is Senior Lecturer of Media Studies, West Bengal University of Technology, Calcutta, INDIA, and is pursing his PhD. in Mass Communication. He has an extensive experience as a Columnist and a Journalist, and is a regular contributor of features and articles to leading Indian dailies and magazines.