Understanding Mass Media and Mass Communication

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Mass media refers to the technologies used as channels for a small group of people to communicate with a larger number of people. The concept was first addressed during the Progressive Era of the 1920s, as a response to new opportunities for elites to reach large audiences via the mass media of the time: newspapers, radio, and film. Indeed, the three forms of traditional mass media today are still the same: print (newspapers, books, magazines), broadcast (television, radio), and cinema (movies and documentaries).  

But in the 1920s, mass media referred not just to the number of people such communication reached, but rather to the uniform consumption and anonymity of the audiences. Uniformity and anonymity are characteristics which no longer fit the way people seek out, consume, and manipulate information into their daily lives. Those new media are called "alternative media" or "mass self-communication."

Key Takeaways: Mass Media

  • Mass media as an idea was created in the 1920s.
  • There are three major forms of traditional mass media: print, broadcast, and cinema. New forms are being created constantly.
  • The internet has changed the nature of mass media by creating consumers who control and even create media of their own, and producers who can more easily track consumer responses.
  • Being a smart consumer of media means exposing yourself to a variety of points of view, so that you can become more adept at recognizing subtle and not subtle forms of propaganda and bias.

Mass Communication 

Mass media are the transport forms of mass communication, which can be defined as the dissemination of messages widely, rapidly, and continuously to large and diverse audiences in an attempt to influence them in some way. 

Five distinct stages of mass communication exist, according to American communication scholars Melvin DeFleur and Everette Dennis: 

  1. Professional communicators create various types of "messages" for presentation to individuals.
  2. The messages are disseminated in a "quick and continuous" manner through some form of mechanical media.
  3. The messages are received by the vast and diverse audience.
  4. The audience interprets these messages and gives them a meaning.
  5. The audience is influenced or changed in some manner. 

There are six widely acknowledged intended effects for mass media. The two best known are commercial advertising and political campaigns. Public service announcements have been developed to influence people on health issues such as smoking cessation or HIV testing. Mass media has been used (by the Nazi party in Germany in the 1920s, for example) to indoctrinate people in terms of government ideology. And mass media use sporting events such as the World Series, the World Cup Soccer, Wimbledon, and the Super Bowl, to act as a ritual event that users participate in.

Measuring the Effects of Mass Media 

Mass Media in 1900 New York
A variety of the many kinds of magazines read in New York in the year 1900.  Getty Images / Bettmann

Research on the impacts of mass media began in the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of muckraking journalism—elites became concerned about the effects of investigative reporting in magazines such as McClure's on political decision-making. Mass media became a prominent focus of study in the 1950s after television became widely available, and academic departments dedicated to communication studies were created. These early studies investigated the cognitive, emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral effects of media on both children and adults; in the 1990s, researchers began to use those earlier studies to draw up theories concerning the use of media today.

In the 1970s theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Irving J. Rein warned that media critics needed to watch how media affects people. Today, this remains a key concern; much attention has been paid, for example, to the impact on the 2016 election of false messaging distributed on social media. But the myriad forms of mass communication available today have also encouraged some researchers to begin to investigate "what people do with media."

The Move to Mass Self-Communication

Traditional mass media are "push technologies:" that is to say, producers create the objects and distribute it (push it) to consumers who are largely anonymous to the producer. The only input consumers have in traditional mass media is to decide whether to consume it—if they should buy the book or go to the movie: undoubtedly those decisions have always been significant to what got published or aired. 

However, in the 1980s, consumers began to transition to "pull technology:" while the content may still be created by (elite) producers, users are now free to select what they wish to consume. Further, users can now repackage and create new content (such as mashups on YouTube or reviews on personal blog sites). The users are often explicitly identified in the process, and their choices may have immediate, if not necessarily conscious, impact on what information and advertising they are presented with going forward. 

With the widespread availability of the internet and the development of social media, communication consumption has a decidedly personal character, which the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls mass self-communication. Mass self-communication means that the content is still created by the producers, and the distribution is made available to a large number of people, those who choose to read or consume the information. Today, users pick and choose media content to suit their needs, whether those needs were the intent of the producers or not. 

Computer-Mediated Communication

The study of mass media is a fast-moving target. People have studied computer-mediated communication since the technology first became available in the 1970s. Early studies focused on teleconferencing, and how interactions between large groups of strangers differ from interactions with known partners. Other studies were concerned with whether communication methods lacking nonverbal cues could influence the meaning and quality of social interactions. Today, people have access to both text-based and visual information, so those studies are no longer useful. 

The immense growth in social applications since the start of Web 2.0 (also known as Participatory or Social Web) has made huge changes. Information is now distributed in many directions and methods, and audiences can vary from one person to many thousands. In addition, everyone with an internet connection can be a content creator and media source. 

Blurring the Lines Between Producers and Consumers

Mass self-communication can potentially reach a global audience, but it is self-generated in content, self-directed in its mission, and typically focuses on self-related information. Sociologist Alvin Toffler created the now-obsolete term of "prosumers" to describe users who are almost simultaneously consumers and producers—for example, reading and commenting on online content, or reading and replying to Twitter posts. The increases in the number of transactions that now occur between consumer and producer create what some have called an "expression effect."

Interactions also now cross media streams, such as "Social TV," where people use hashtags while watching a sports game or a television program in order to simultaneously read and converse with hundreds of other viewers on social media.

Politics and the Media 

One focus of mass communication research has been on the role that media plays in the democratic process. On the one hand, media provides a way for predominantly rational voters to obtain information about their political choices. That likely introduces some systematic biases, in that not every voter is interested in social media, and politicians may choose to work on the wrong issues and perhaps pander to an active set of users who may not be in their constituencies. But by and large, the fact that voters can learn about candidates independently is predominantly positive. 

On the other hand, media can be leveraged for propaganda, which exploits cognitive errors that people are prone to make. By using the techniques of agenda setting, priming, and framing, the producers of media can manipulate voters to act against their own best interests.

Propaganda Techniques in Mass Media 

Some types of propaganda that have been recognized in mass media include:

  • Agenda setting: Aggressive media coverage of an issue can make people believe an insignificant issue is important. Similarly, media coverage may underplay an important issue.
  • Priming: People evaluate politicians based on the issues covered in the press.
  • Framing: How an issue is characterized in news reports can influence how it is understood by the receivers; involves the selective inclusion or omission of facts ("bias").

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