Mass communication theories are outlined into three categories: (1) theories about culture and society, (2) theories of influence and persuasion, and (3) media use theories (Littlejohn and Foss). Understanding a few of the theories on mass communication, let’s look at some skills that will help you become a better and more critical consumer of mass communication.
Studying how we use and consume mass communication allows us to scrutinize the conflicts, contradictions, problems, or even positive outcomes in our use of mass communication. With so much to learn about mass communication, how informed are you? Our consciousness of our media consumption is vital to understanding its effects on us as members of society. Media literacy is our awareness regarding our mediated environment or consumption of mass communication. It is our ability to responsibly comprehend, access, and use mass communication in our personal and professional lives. Potter states that we should maintain cognitive, emotional, aesthetic, and moral awareness as we interact with media. Baran suggests a number of skills we can develop in order to be media literate.
Understand and respect the power of mass communication messages. An important skill for media literacy is to acknowledge just how dominant mass communication is in our lives and around the globe. Through mass communication, media shape, entertain, inform, represent, reflect, create, move, educate, and affect our behaviors, attitudes, values, and habits in direct and indirect ways. Virtually everyone in the world has been touched in some way by mass communication and has made personal and professional decisions largely based on representations of reality portrayed through mass communication. We must understand and respect the power media have in our lives and understand how we make sense of certain meanings.
Understand content by paying attention and filtering out noise. As we learned in Chapter 1, anything that hinders communication is noise. Much of the noise in mass communication originates with our consumption behaviors. How often do you do something other than pay complete attention to the media that you’re accessing? Do you listen to the radio while you drive, watch television while you eat, or text message a friend while you’re in class? When it comes to mass communication, we tend to multitask, an act that acts as noise and impacts the quality of the messages and our understanding of their meanings. We often turn ourselves into passive consumers, not really paying attention to the messages we receive as we perform other tasks while consuming media.
Understand emotional versus reasoned reactions to mass communication content in order to act accordingly. A great deal of mass communication content is intended to touch us on an emotional level. Therefore, it’s important to understand our emotional reactions to mass communication. Advertising often appeals to our emotions in order to sell products (Jhally). “Sex sells” is an old advertising adage but one that highlights how often we make decisions based on emotional reactions versus reasoned actions. Glance through magazines like Maxim or Glamour, and you’ll quickly realize how the emotions associated with sex are used to sell products of all kinds. Reasoned actions require us to think critically about the mass communication we consume before we come to conclusions simply based on our emotional responses.
Develop heightened expectations of mass communication content. Would you consider yourself an informed consumer of mass communication? Do you expect a lot from mass communication? You may like a mystery novel because it’s fun, or a movie might take your mind off of reality for a few hours. However, Baran challenges us to require more from the media we consume. “When we expect little from the content before us, we tend to give meaning-making little effort and attention.” It depends on what you’re willing to accept as quality. Some people may watch fewer and fewer mainstream movies because they think the current movies in theaters are low culture or are aimed at less-educated audiences. They may begin to look for more foreign films, independent films, and documentaries rather than go to see the popular movies released by Hollywood. We’ve even seen a backlash against television programming in general. With the rise of services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, many media consumers have chosen to become what’s known as cord cutters and cancel their cable subscriptions. These new services often offer popular TV shows and even the most current episodes available to watch at your own leisure.
Understand genre conventions and recognize when they are being mixed. All media have their own unique characteristics or “certain distinctive, standardized style elements” that mark them as a category or genre (Baran, 57). We expect certain things from different forms of mass communication. Most of us believe, for example, that we are able to tell the difference between news and entertainment. But are we? Television news shows often re-create parts of a story to fill in missing video of an event. Do you always catch the reenactment disclaimer?
Shows such as The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight effectively blurred the lines between comedy and news, and both became recognized as credible sources for news information. Even ninety years ago, Walter Lippmann recognized that media are so invasive in our lives that we might have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is manipulated by the media. The reality TV genre is now blurring these lines even more. We may be familiar with President Donald Trump’s many appearances on television and subsequent role as the boss on The Apprentice. Even earlier examples include the election of two other actors as governor of California: Arnold Schwarzenegger, referred to as the “governator,” a blurring of his fictional role as the Terminator and his real role as California’s governor; and eventual president Ronald Reagan, sometimes referred to as “Bonzo” in reference to one of his most famous roles in a 1950s film series centered on human friendships with a chimpanzee.
Think critically about mass communication messages, no matter how credible their source. It is essential that we critically consider the source of all mass communication messages. No matter how credible a media source, we can’t always believe everything we see or hear because all mass communication is motivated by political, profit, or personal factors. Publicists, editors, and publishers present the information from their perspective—informed by their experiences and agendas. Even if the motive is pure or the spin is minimal, we tend to selectively interpret meanings based on our own lived experiences. Audiences do not always hold similar perceptions regarding mediated messages.
Understand the internal language of mass communication to understand its effects, no matter how complex. This skill requires us to develop sensitivity to what is going on in the media. This doesn’t just refer to whether you can program a Roku or surf the internet. This means being familiar with the intent or motivation behind the action or message. “Each medium has its own specific internal language. This language is expressed in production values—the choice of lighting, editing, special effects, music, camera angle, location on the page, and size and placement of the headline. To be able to read a media text, you must understand its language” (Baran, 58). What effect do these have on your interpretive or sense-making abilities? Most news coverage of the Iraq War included background symbols of American flags and eagles as well as words like “freedom” and “liberation.” What is the impact of using these symbols in supposedly objective coverage of something like war? Shows like Scandal make editorial choices to glamorize and demoralize politics while making it appear provocatively thrilling. On the surface, we might not realize the amount of effort that goes into dealing with political scandals, but shows like Scandal shed a light on these unspoken issues.
Mass Communication Summary
Societies have always needed effective and efficient means to transmit information. Mass communication is the outgrowth of this need. If you remember our definition of mass communication as the public transfer of messages through media or technology-driven channels to a large number of recipients, you can easily identify the multiple forms of mass communication you rely on in your personal, academic, and professional lives. These encompass print, auditory, visual, interactive media, and social media forms. A relatively recent mass communication phenomenon known as mass personal communication combines mass communication channels with interpersonal communication and relationships, where individuals are now gaining access to technology that allows them to reach large audiences.
While mass communication is vital to the success of social movements and political participation, it has seven basic functions, the first of which is surveillance, or the watchdog role. Correlation occurs when an audience receives facts and usable information from mass media sources. When the most outrageous or fantastic stories are presented, we are witnessing the sensationalization function of media. Needing an escape from routines or stress, we turn to media for its entertainment value. As a cultural institution, mass communication transmits cultural values, norms, and behaviors, mobilizes audiences, and validates dominant cultural values.
As media technology has evolved, so have the scholarly theories for understanding them. The five theories we discussed are different primarily in the degree of passivity versus activity they grant the audience. The magic bullet theory assumes a passive audience, while the two-step-flow and multistep-flow theories suggest that there is a reciprocal relationship between the audience and the message. The theory of uses and gratification suggests that audiences pick and choose media to satisfy their individual needs. Gerbner’s cultivation theory takes a long-term perspective by suggesting that media is one of many cultural institutions responsible for shaping or cultivating attitudes.
Because of mass communication’s unquestionable role in our lives, media literacy skills are vital for any responsible consumer and citizen. Specifically, we can become media literate by understanding and respecting the power of mass communication messages, understanding media content by paying attention, understanding emotional versus reasoned responses to mass communication, developing heightened expectations of mass communication content, understanding genre conventions and recognizing when they’re mixed, understanding the internal language of mass communication, and above all, thinking critically!