What Does Medium Mean in the Communication Process?

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), Canadian philosopher of communication theory. Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

In the communication process, a medium is a channel or system of communication—the means by which information (the message) is transmitted between a speaker or writer (the sender) and an audience (the receiver). The plural form is media, and it's also known as a channel.

The medium used to send a message may range from an individual's voice, writing, clothing, and body language to forms of mass communication such as newspapers, television, and the internet.

Communication Media Changes Over Time

Before the printing press, mass communication didn't exist, as books were hand-written and literacy wasn't widespread throughout all social classes. The invention of moveable type was a major communication innovation for the world.

Author Paula S. Tompkins sums up the history of communication and change thusly:

"When a communication medium changes, our practices and experiences of communication also change. The technology of writing liberated human communication from the medium of face-to-face (f2f) interaction. This change affected both the process and experience of communication, as persons no longer needed to be physically present to communicate with one another. The technology of the printing press further promoted the medium of writing by mechanizing the creation and distribution of the written word. This began the new communication form of mass communication in pamphlets, newspapers, and cheap books, in contrast to the medium of handwritten documents and books. Most recently, the medium of digital technology is again changing the process and experience of human communication."
("Practicing Communication Ethics: Development, Discernment, and Decision-Making." Routledge, 2016)

Television mass media used to distill the news into a nightly news hour. With the advent of 24-hour news channels on cable, people could check in hourly or at any point in the hour to find out the latest news. Now, with social media platforms and the ubiquitous smartphones in our pockets, we can check news and happenings—or be alerted of them—constantly throughout the day.

This puts a lot more news up front just because it's the most recent. News outlets and channels looking for people's eyeballs on their content (and advertisers) have a lot of pressure to keep those updates coming to people's feeds. The outrageous, shocking, and easily digestible gets shared more widely than something that's complex and nuanced. Something short gets read more widely than something long.

Authors James W. Chesebro and Dale A. Bertelsen noted how modern messaging seems a lot more like marketing than discourse, and their observation has only been amplified with the advent of social media:

"[A] significant shift in the nature of communication has been reported for several decades. Increasingly, it has been noted that a shift from a content orientation—with its emphasis on the ideational or substantive dimension of discourse—to a concern for form or medium—with an emphasis on image, strategy, and patterns of discourse—has been identified as a central feature of the information age." ("Analyzing Media: Communication Technologies as Symbolic and Cognitive Systems." Guilford Press, 1996)

Is the Medium the Message?

If the medium through which information is delivered via affects what people get out of it, that could have big implications for today.

As people move away from the in-depth coverage of an issue they can receive in print media to getting more information from social media, they consume increasing amounts of their information in soundbites, shared snippets of news that may be slanted (or fake, i.e., completely invented with no basis in fact), or inaccurate. In the modern age of "people will remember it if you repeat it often enough—it doesn't matter if it's true," it takes deeper dives into the information by message receivers to find out the real story and any hidden motives behind the headlines.

If the medium doesn't equate with the message, it's still true that different formats carry different versions of the same story, such as in depth of information or in emphasis.