What Does Medium Mean in the Communication Process?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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). Plural: media. 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 television and the Internet.

As discussed below, a medium isn't just a neutral "container" of a message. According to Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism, "the medium is the message . . . because it shapes and controls the scale and form of human associations and action" (quoted by Hans Wiersma in Teaching Civic Engagement, 2016). McLuhan was also the visionary who coined the term "global village" to describe our world connectedness in the 1960s, before the birth of the internet.

Etymology

From the Latin, "middle"

Observations

  • Channels of Communication: Speech and Writing
    "Some variation [in language] depends on the medium, that is, the channel of communication. There is a major distinction between spoken and written language. Conversation, the most common type of speech, involves immediate interchange between the participants, who convey their reactions either in words or through facial expressions and bodily movements. There is more spontaneity in conversation than in writing; self-correction occurs in the flow of conversation, whereas it is eliminated through editing in writing. Writing needs to be more explicit, since obscurities and misunderstandings cannot be removed immediately. People feel more committed to what they write because of the potential permanence of the written communication. The differences in the nature of the media is reflected in the greater concision that is possible in writing and in the greater care that writers take over their choice of words."
    (Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, An Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2002)
     
  • Changes in Media
    - "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."
    (Paula S. Tompkins, Practicing Communication Ethics: Development, Discernment, and Decision-Making. Routledge, 2016)
     
    - "[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."
    (James W. Chesebro and Dale A. Bertelsen, Analyzing Media: Communication Technologies as Symbolic and Cognitive Systems. Guilford Press, 1996)
     
  • The Medium Is the Message
    "[Marshall] McLuhan sought to call attention to the pre-eminent and overlooked role of the medium in communication—the difference between reading news in a newspaper and watching it on TV—with his famous aphorism, 'the medium is the message.' His critics and casual readers mistook that for a claim that the content—what it is we read in newspapers or watch on TV—is totally unimportant."
    (Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan. Routledge, 1999)
     
  • Rhetorical Implications of McLuhan's Theories
    "What are the implications of McLuhan's theories for a contemporary rhetorical theory grounded in meaning? There are, we feel, four responses to this query.
    1. First, although we agree with [Kenneth] Burke's claim that McLuhan went too far in equating the medium with the message, we are indebted to him for alerting us to the great extent in which a medium affects the message and its reception. . . .
    2. A second rhetorical implication stemming from McLuhan's probes is that since the nature of the medium affects the message reception, speakers should either choose that medium most suitable to their natural style or modify the style so as to make it appropriate to the medium. . . .
    3. A third rhetorical implication related to McLuhanism is the resurgence of the oral mode of communication due to the influence of the electronic media. . . .
    4. The fourth and final rhetorical implication . . . 'concerns the structure of public oral discourse,' as [Douglas] Ehninger puts it, 'and the modifications which may have to be made in our conceptions of that structure as we move into the electronic age."
    (J.L. Golden et al., The Rhetoric of Western Thought. Kendall Hunt, 2003)
     
    - "Intimacy between rhetor and audience can still be achieved today, as is evident in the popularity of 'talk radio'—the second most popular format behind country music. 'Callers' and listeners alike become fiercely loyal to their show's host (a real boon for advertisers). Rush Limbaugh listeners, for instance, call themselves 'dittoheads.' . . .

    "Today, radio is blamed for much of the coarseness in our discourse (shock radio) and the vulgarity of our music (the explosion of alternate music stations). Radio also holds the dubious distinction of being the medium most heavily regulated by the federal government."
    (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Susan Schultz Huxman, The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 4th ed. Wadsworth Cengage, 2009)