Introduction to Mass Media/Theory

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Types of Communication Mediums

3. Theory Categories

4. Eras of Media Theory

5. Evaluating Theory

6. Conclusion

7. Key Terms

8. References


There are several key differences between humans and animals. Unlike animals, humans are open-minded, knowledgeable, mentally active, creative and curious independent thinkers. These characteristic comprise the Critical Thinkers Creed. Humans have the amazing ability to ask who, what, why, where, when and how. Since the dawn of time, humans have theorized just about every imaginable thing under the sun. Political, social, economic and mass communication theories created have organized collective thoughts that were based on observation and research. These theories were appropriate for the time in which they were formed. Mass communication theories build upon each other and are always evolving due to technological advances and improved research techniques. Some of the technologies that have revolutionized the mass communications industry are the printing press, telegraph, penny press, radio, motion pictures, television and the Internet.

Types of Communication Mediums

Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg is credited with the invention of the printing press in 1440. The printing press is a machine that distributes ink onto paper evenly that creates a higher output of books and cuts the costs of production. The creation of 200 Gutenberg Bibles was a result of the printing press. The printing press revolutionized communication worldwide by preserving higher volumes of knowledge, disseminating information quicker and spreading new ideas. This invention started the information revolution.


The telegraph was a machine created years later in the 19th century by Samuel F. Morse and other inventors. This invention allowed people to communicate over short distances by transmitting encoded messages. Telegraph communications would have been impossible without the creation of the Morse code (named after Samuel F. Morse. Morse Code is a system composed of lights, clicks and tones that represent letters of the alphabet that can be understood by professionals that use special equipment that allows them to interpret messages. Each character has a dash or dot that represents it. The creation of the Morse Code allowed the transmission of complex messages via telegraph lines. “Although the telegraph had fallen out of widespread use by the start of the 21st century, replaced by the telephone, fax machine and Internet, it laid the groundwork for the communications revolution that led to those later innovations.”(3) The first successful long-distance wireless telegraph was created by an Italian engineer and inventor by the name of Guglielmo Marconi in 1901.(2) Marconi is also credited for successfully broadcasting the very first transatlantic radio signal. Marconi sold radios that greatly improved sea travel. Ocean vessels no longer had to travel far distances without communicating. This invention not only ended isolation at sea but also saved many lives. The value of communication was evident during the horrific Titanic accident in the early 1900s.(10) The Titanic had the latest wireless communication devices that allowed the ships operators to send out distress calls to ships that were in close proximity. Seven hundred lives were saved as a result of Marconi’s invention.

Penny Press

In 1833 the Penny Press was created by a newspaper printer named Benjamin Day. “A little more than 175 years ago in 1833, New Yorkers woke up with The Sun- a new newspaper peddling a new idea: Common news for common folk, cheap at just a penny.”(5) Penny Press style newspapers were cheap, mass produced, fairly inexpensive newspapers that made news accessible to low and middle class citizens. These newspapers received their funding through advertising as opposed to subscriptions like other newspaper styles. As opposed to other forms of newspapers, the Penny Press paid special attention to lower class citizens and their issues. It took time for the new concept to be successful. At first, people did not see the benefit of buying a newspaper every day. People soon began to see the value in being continuously informed with the most updated information leading to the success of the Penny Press.(6) These newspapers were popular in major East Coast cities such as New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. “His recipe of scoops, human-interest stories, tall tales and grisly crimes helped lure average readers to a medium that was once enjoyed largely by the upper crust.”(5)


The invention of the radio forever revolutionized communications. Many people are owed recognition for the creation of the radio. Credit is given to Henirich Hertz, Nikola Tesla, Ernst Alexanderson, Reginald Fessenden, Edwin Armstrong, Guglielmo Marconi (previously mentioned) and Lee DeForest. Henirech Hertz was a physicist from Germany who successfully proved that electronic waves could be transmitted and received wirelessly. “Today it is recognized as the fundamental building block of radio and every frequency measurement is named after him (the Hertz).”(4)Nikola Tesla was an inventor of Serbian descent who is credited for alternating current machinery. He invented, the Tesla coil used in radios. Canadian Reginald Fessenden made the first long-range transmission of voice from Massachusetts. A Colombia University student and professor, and World War I Army officer by the name of Edwin Armstrong created the FM radio. In addition to creating the FM radio, Armstrong invented a lot of circuits that allowed signals to be received, converted and amplified. Armstrong’s inventions provided the building blocks for today’s cellular devices.(4) Lee DeForest also known as the “father of American radio” was the head scientists at the United States first radio firm called American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T).


From the very beginning, moviegoers were in awe and captivated by motion pictures. Motion pictures allowed people to escape from the realities and hardships of life. Movies allowed people to vicariously explore places that they would and could never visit. Pioneers of the film industry include Thomas A. Edison, William Dickson, the Lumiere Brothers, Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith.

Thomas Edison is mostly known for the invention of cameras, phonographs, and light bulbs. Edison and his assistant William Dickson are credited for the invention of the motion picture camera and peep-hole viewer. These two inventions allowed people to watch short black and white films. Edison later started the Motion Picture Patents Company. The Motion Picture Patents Company was comprised of nine film studios which ultimately formed a monopoly in America. The Lumiere Brothers took the motion picture technology to the next level. The French brothers invented the cinematograph. The cinematograph was a combination of printer, camera and projector. This invention gained fame for introducing short silent films of simple actions such as watering a lawn and waves crashing against a beach (7). “The cinematograph quickly penetrated the U.S. market, as well as countries around the world. The invention earned an international presence as its silent nature effaced the language barrier.”(8)

An Italian by the name of Edwin S. Porter is known as the “father of the story film.” He also worked for Thomas Edison. He is mostly known for directing the first major American motion picture titled “The Great Train Robbery.” It was later known as the first western film.

D.W. Griffith was given the name “the father of film” and “the teacher of us all.” “D.W. Griffith screened his films for the urban working-class as well as for presidents at the White House. Griffith’s films became part of history in the making-unleashing the power of movies as a catalyst for social change.”(8) D.W. Griffith is known for his 1915 film titled Birth of a Nation that depicted the Civil War by using unseen angles. Birth of a Nation perpetuated the stereotypes of blacks. This film depicted blacks as being savages, mammies, Tom’s, coons, bucks, brutes and Jezebels. Whites portrayed blacks by putting on black face makeup. Epic and Message films would later take cues from Griffith’s style and tactics.


The invention of the television had one of the most significant impacts on society. People were finally able to see what they were once only able to hear. Popular shows of the 1940’s and 1950’s were Howdy Doody,Camel News Caravan, Amos and Andy and The Jack Benny Show. A lot of the aforementioned shows were converted from radio programs to television programs. The presence of televisions in homes grew after World War II ended as a result of soldiers coming home with money they earned while at war. The Golden Age of television was a time in which popular shows such as I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and The Tonight Show first aired. The Golden Age also saw the emergence of quiz shows that gained popularity rather quickly. Television played a profound impact in politics and elections. A prime example of this is the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy was a young president that would use to television to change how politics are conducted, viewed and the effects of it. The world saw the serious effectiveness and impact that television had. The first televised presidential election was between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. “A survey of those who listened to the debate on radio indicated that Nixon had won; however, those who watched on television, and were able to contrast Nixon’s poor posture and poorly shaven face with Kennedy’s poise and grace, were more likely to think Kennedy had won the debate.”(9)JFK’s assassination would also prove just how effective television was and the power it had over radio.


To date, there has yet to be a communication medium that has proven to be more powerful than the Internet. Computers have been around for a long time but they lacked capabilities. They were isolated devices and were only able to process information. They lacked the ability to communicate with each other to share information. The first version of the Internet known as Web 1.0 emerged in the early 1990’s. Web 1.0 was made of Internet sites where people could not interact with the content. Also, the communication was one way. Users of the Internet were not able to post comments in order to voice their opinions or to inform people. It would not be until the invention of Web 2.0 in which sites were interactive and social sites emerged.(10) The creation of broadband Internet increased user accessibility and the quicker transmission of information between people. The communication mediums previously mentioned were essential in redefining the meaning, purpose and power of mass communications at the time in which they were created. With any invention, there are people who question how it works and the effects on society that the invention has. As a result social scientists emerged to form theories of these communication mediums. Theories are general statements that try to make sense of our understandings of how things work and operate in the world.(11) The goal of theory is to create statements that explain. There are four simple goals of mass communication theory. The first goal is to explain the effects of mass communication. The second goal is to explain how people make use of mass communications. To explain learning for the mass media is the third goal. The final goal of mass communications theory is to explain the role that mass mediums have in forming individual’s values and views.(11)

Theory Categories

Mass communication theories are separated into four main categories. The four categories of theory are postpositivism, hermeneutic, critical and normative. All theories do not share the same attributes. They differ in terms of goals, view of nature of reality, what is knowable, view of how knowledge is created and expanded, and their view of the proper role of values in research and theory building.(12)


Postpositivist theory has roots in positivism. The term positivism was created and coined by Comte.(13) Positivism is the process of obtaining knowledge by scientific research. Research must be observed, measured and use the scientific method to examine it. Social scientists wanted to use the concepts of positivism. As a result, the postpositivist theory was born. Social scientists of postpositivism understood that humans and human behavior are complex and not constant like the phenomena of the physical world.

The postpositivist theory seeks to explain, predict and control. This kind of theory views nature in the sense that the world is different than how we perceive it to be. This type of theory believes that knowledge can only be advanced when systematic scientific method research is used. Lastly, this type of theory makes sure to use the scientific method so values of the social scientist are not included in research.


Hermeneutic theories are more interested in learning how and the reason why people’s actions take place in the world.(14)This theory seeks to understand how people create meaning for symbols. Hermeneutic theories understand that views of the nature of reality differ from person to person based on their social environment. For this theory, knowledge being advanced is dependent on the interaction between the subject and the researcher. Lastly, this type of theory welcomes the values of the researcher that may influence the research.(12)


Critical theories are more concerned with steering away from tradition. They seek to challenge the status quo by changing it. These type of theories are mostly associated with politics. Critical conclude that reality is based on political, economic and social factors. Knowledge can only be created and advanced when the political systems benefits the people of communities.(15)


Normative theories do not seek to explain, predict or control. Nor are they interested in learning how and why people’s actions take place. They are not even concerned with steering away from tradition. These theories seek to explain how a media system should ideally operate and who should operate it. The goal is to operate in a way that certain values can be realized. (16)

Eras of Media Theory

There are four main eras of media theory. The four eras are mass society, scientific perspective, limited effects and cultural criticism. Theories are constructed within media technology eras. These theories came about due to changes in society and politics.(17)

Era of Mass Society

This era of theory started in the latter part of the 19th century. Media was seen as influential but negative. This era is characterized as a time in which people were worried about the power that media had to influence average people. People feared that media would ruin the value of society. Theories that came about during this time are the propaganda theory and magic bullet theory.(17)

Propaganda is a method of communication that aims to influence attitudes and behaviors. Propaganda was used heavily in both World Wars and the Cold War. It has also been historically used in N.Korea and other communist nations. Adolf Hitler’s propaganda had the following characteristics: it avoided abstract ideas, appealed to emotions, repeated simple idea and continued to criticize the opposition force.(19)

There are three types of propaganda. White propaganda is when an organization or government deliberately prevents bad information from being released. This form of propaganda pushes out good information to take the attention off of bad things that are happening. Black propaganda is when false information is purposely put out. Grey propaganda is the dissemination of information that may or may not be false or true. Authors of this type of propaganda do not make attempts to find out if the information is true.

The propaganda theory is an evolving theory. Several social scientist have contributed to this theory at different times. The most notable are Harold Lasswell and Walter Lippman. Lasswell authored many books that focused on war, political and economic propaganda produced by the United States and Germany. Lasswell theorized that propaganda was not effective because the messages transmitted were appealing. The messages were effective because the minds of the people receiving the message were weak and easily influenced.(12) Messages were most effective when there is economic and political turmoil because humans need to be comforted. In short, the current state of the environment makes people succumb to propaganda effort.(19) Lippman was in agreement with the theory posed by Lasswell. Lippman believed that a quasi-governmental bureau should be created and they should evaluate information distributed. They would provide the elites with this information to determine what messages would be disseminated.(12)

The theory of the magic bullet also known as the hypodermic needle theory states that the media has direct effects on audiences that are immediate and effective.(20) The magic bullet theory was popular during the 1940s and 1950s. This was because people listened to the radio and watched television a lot. A prime example of this theory at work was the radio broadcast of H.G Wells “War of the Worlds.” People believed that aliens had landed and were taking over the planet. As a result, people fled their homes and looked for refuge. This example proved that media has the power to manipulate the minds of audiences that are passive and easily influenced.(20)

Era of Scientific Perspective

This era of theory is characterized by Paul Lazarfield escaping Germany to go to the United States during the time of Nazism and Hitler. The era emphasized the use of scientific research and experiments that are carefully conducted in order to prove that media was not as powerful as thought in the previous eras. This era emphasized that people can resist media influence in multiple ways.

The limited-effects theory was born in the era of scientific perspective. Lazarfield fled Germany because of the Nazi takeover and came to the United States. He was a leader in the field of mass communications. He challenged the conclusions of Lasswell and Lippman. He made the conclusion that the media is not strong enough to completely change people’s attitudes and opinions. The limited effects theory states that media only reinforces trends seen in the media and that the influence of the media is dependent on individual differences.(21)

Lazarfield conducted a study during the presidential campaign of 1940. This battle was between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. He conducted an experiment in a small Ohio town to see what influenced people to vote the way they do. Lazarfield created four groups of voters. The early deciders were people who never changed their candidate decision, converts were people that initially chose a candidate but later voted for the other, waverers were people who decided on one candidate, switched to another candidate but in the end voted for the first choice. Crystallizers were people who did not make a decision until election time. He used detailed questionnaires and surveys during his experiment which was a first. He concluded that the media played a small role in convincing people to vote a certain way. People were mostly influenced by the thoughts of those around them. People that interpreted the messages from the media and passed their thoughts on to others were gatekeepers. Gatekeepers were also opinion leaders because they passed information on to those that followed them. Opinion followers were those that got their information from the opinion leaders. The relationship made up part of the two-step flow theory. The two-step flow theory states that opinion leaders interpret messages from the media based on their values and pass it on to opinion followers.(21)

Era of Limited Effects Theory

The limited effects era came about in the 1960s. Limited effects theory was widely supported over mass society theory. At this point, researchers thought there was nothing more to research. Some considered the mass communications field to be dead. However, the communications discipline grew because students started attending journalism schools in numbers never seen before.(17)

Elite pluralism and social cognitive theory are notable theories from this era. The theory of elite pluralism states there is not a dominant class that makes all the rules but rather different interest groups hold power at different times to influence laws.(22) The social scientists C. Wright Mills is best known for his work on this theory (23).These groups include unions, civil rights groups, activists and professional associations. These lower level interest groups compete amongst each other for policy control. Interest groups have specific area in which they dominate and area they struggle to be influential in(24). The theory of elite pluralism came about when Lazarfield wanted to look further into his research about what makes people vote the way they do. He wanted to find out if there was really a democratic government in the United States or if the highly praised political system was a cover up for a class of citizens that make all the rules.

The social cognitive theory was created by Albert Bandura.(25)This theory stresses that learning is achieved through observation. The foundation of this theory was understanding, predicting and changing attitudes and behavior.(27) This theory focused most of its attention on children and how they learn effectively. For years, people had claimed that violence on television was responsible for the actions of children. Bandura wanted to test this to see just how true that belief was. Several perspectives were created as a result from this study. It also focused on how people view themselves, others, social groups and institutions such as religious institutions.(26)

Era of Cultural Criticism

The era of cultural criticism is characterized by the creation of cultural studies in Britain. British cultural studies focused on how mass media promote hegemonic cultures. Hegemonic cultures are cultures that are forced from the outside onto people and it only serves people in elite positions. It looked at how powerful elites retain power. Culture is the behavior that members of a group learn. Social scientists became increasingly interested in culture theories during the 1950s and 1960s. Theories of culture intended to provide explanation on how the media changes culture and the consequences that result. An example of a cultural theory is the political economy theory. The political economy theory is a macroscopic theory of culture because it is concerned about society as a whole and not just individuals. Microscopic theories focus their attention on individuals and not society. The political economy theory studies the powers that power elites have over the institutions that run countries. A bank is an example of such institutionExercises

Media theories have a variety of uses and applications. Research one of the following topics and its effect on culture. Examine the topic using at least two of the approaches discussed in this section. Then, write a one-page essay about the topic you’ve selected.

Media bias Internet habits Television’s effect on attention span Advertising and self-image Racial stereotyping in film Many of the theories discussed in this section were developed decades ago. Identify how each of these theories can be used today? Do you think these theories are still relevant for modern mass media? Why? References

David Altheide and Robert Snow, Media Worlds in the Postjournalism Era (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), 9–11.

Dearing, James and Everett Rogers, Agenda-Setting (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 4.

Hanson, Ralph. Mass Communication: Living in a Media World (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 80–81.

Hanson, Ralph. Mass Communication, 92.

Jansson-Boyd, Catherine. Consumer Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 59–62.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Uses and Gratifications,” 153–154.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Uses and Gratifications,” in An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, ed. Don Stacks and Michael Salwen (New York: Routledge, 2009), 137.

Stille, Alexander. “Marshall McLuhan Is Back From the Dustbin of History; With the Internet, His Ideas Again Seem Ahead of Their Time,” New York Times, October 14, 2000,

This is a derivative of UNDERSTANDING MEDIA AND CULTURE: AN INTRODUCTION TO MASS COMMUNICATION by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Evaluating Theory[edit | edit source]

No two theory categories are evaluated in the same way. This is because category theories goals and values vary. Postpositivist theories evaluate theory by looking at how well the event, behavior and relationship at hand are explained. It also looks at if the theory did a good job at predicting events to come. Postpositivist theories also ask questions to determine if the theory is practical and can actually be used.(12) Hermeneutic theories evaluate by seeing what new ideas and insights are brought to the table. It also looks at how well it clearly states its values. Additionally, it wants to know what type of support it receives from the community of scholars.(12) Critical theories ask the same questions as hermeneutic theories but it also wants to know how exactly the status quo was challenged and critiqued.(12) Lastly, the normative theory wants to know how much support it receives from the community of scholars, how powerful institutional forces are that will affect it and how concrete the standards on which it is founded are.(12)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, theories are never permanently set in stone. Theories will continue to evolve as a result of increased knowledge and technological advancements. Mass media theories will continue to be formed as people become more reliant on the Internet and its capabilities. Some communication scholars believe that the emergence of new media is bringing an end to mass communication and its theories. Sounds like something that has been said before. Time will only tell what is to come.

Key Terms[edit | edit source]

Propaganda - the dissemination of information that may or may not be false or true

White Propaganda - when an organization or government deliberately prevents bad information from being released. This form of propaganda pushes out good information to take the attention off of bad things that are happening

Black Propaganda - when false information is purposely put out

Gray Propaganda - the dissemination of information that may or may not be false or true. Authors of this type of propaganda do not make attempts to find out if the information is true.

Limited Effects Theory - states that media only reinforces trends seen in the media and that the influence of the media is dependent on individual differences

Two-Step Flow - states that opinion leaders interpret messages from the media based on their values and pass it on to opinion followers Opinion Leader - People that interpreted the messages from the media and passed their thoughts on to others Opinion Followers - those that got their information from the opinion leaders Elite Pluralism Theory -states there is not a dominant class that makes all the rules but rather different interest groups hold power at different times to influence laws

Social Cognitive Theory - theory based on learning through interaction with the environment

Albert Bandura - creator of the social cognitive theory

Culture - is the behavior that members of a group learn Hegemonic Culture - cultures that are forced from the outside onto people and it only serves people in elite positions Macroscopic Theory - concerned about society as a whole and not just individuals

Microscopic Theory - focus their attention on individuals and not society

Political Economy Theory - concludes that power elites have complete domination over the institutions that run countries

Printing Press - a machine that distributes ink onto paper evenly that creates a higher output of books and cuts the costs of production

Telegraph - allowed people to communicate over short distances by transmitting encoded messages

Morse Code – a system composed of lights, licks and tones that represent letters of the alphabet that can be understood by professionals that used special equipment that allowed them to interpret messages

Penny Press Newspapers - cheap mass produced fairly inexpensive newspapers that made news accessible to low and middle class citizens

Thomas Edison - known for the invention of cameras, phonographs, and the light bulb

D.W. Griffith - known as the “father of film”. Directed the film Birth of A Nation

Theories - general statements that summarize our understandings of the way the world works

References[edit | edit source]

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