11.1 Defining Mass Communication

Littlejohn and Foss define mass communication as “the process whereby media organizations produce and transmit messages to large publics and the process by which those messages are sought, used, understood, and influenced by audience.” McQuail states that mass communication is “only one of the processes of communication operating at the society-wide level, readily identified by its institutional characteristics.” Simply put, mass communication is the public transfer of messages through media or technology-driven channels to a large number of recipients from an entity, usually involving some type of cost or fee (advertising) for the user. “The sender often is a person in some large media organization, the messages are public, and the audience tends to be large and varied.” However, with the advent of outlets like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and text messaging, these definitions do not account for the increased opportunities individuals now have to send messages to large audiences through mediated channels.

Mass Communication - The process whereby media organizations produce and transmit messages to large publics and the process by which those messages are sought, used, understood, and influences by audience.
Image by Spaynton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Nevertheless, most mass communication comes from large organizations that influence culture on a large scale. Schramm refers to this as a “working group organizer.” Today the working groups that control most mass communication are large conglomerates such as Viacom, News Corp, Disney, Comcast, Time Warner, and CBS. In 2012, these conglomerates controlled 90% of American media, and mergers continue to consolidate ownership even more. An example of an attempt at such a takeover of power occurred throughout 2014, with Comcast and Time Warner pursuing a merger for $45 billion. Though it ultimately failed, this would have been one of the biggest mergers in history.

Remember our definition of communication study: “Who says what, through what channels (media) of communication, to whom, [and] what will be the results?” (Smith et al.). When examining mass communication, we are interested in who has control over what content, for what audience, using what medium, and what the results are. Media critic Robert McChesney said we should be worried about the increasingly concentrated control of mass communication that results when just a handful of large organizations control most mass communication: “The implications for political democracy, by any standard, are troubling.” When interviewed, Ben Bagdikian, media critic and former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, cautiously pointed out that over the past two decades, major media outlets went from being owned by 50 corporations to just 5. Both McChesney and Bagdikian warn about the implications of having so few organizations controlling the majority of our information and communication. Perhaps this is the reason new media outlets like Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook have consistently grown in popularity, as they offer alternative voices to the large corporations that control most mass communication.

The Mass Communication table that shows Comcast, New Corporation, Disney, Viacom, Timewarner, and CBS

To understand mass communication, one must first be aware of some of the key factors that distinguish it from other forms of communication. First is the dependence on a media channel to convey a message to a large audience. Second, the audience tends to be distant, diverse, and varies in size depending on the medium and message. Third, mass communication is most often profit driven, and feedback is limited. Fourth, because of the impersonal nature of mass communication, participants are not equally present during the process.

Mass communication continues to become more integrated into our lives at an increasingly rapid pace. This metamorphosis is represented by the convergence occurring (Fidler) between ourselves and technology, where we are not as distanced from mass communication as in the past. Increasingly, we have more opportunities to use mediated communication to fulfill interpersonal and social needs. O’Sullivan refers to this new use of mass communication to foster our personal lives as mass-personal communication. This is where (a) traditional mass communication channels are used for interpersonal communication, (b) traditionally interpersonal communication channels are used for mass communication, and (c) traditional mass communication and traditional interpersonal communication occur simultaneously.

Over time, more and more overlap occurs. “Innovations in communication technologies have begun to make the barriers between mass and interpersonal communication theory more permeable than ever” (O’Sullivan). Sites such as Facebook, X (formally known as Twitter), TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram are great examples of new mass communication platforms we use to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships.

As more mass communication mediums develop, Marshall McLuhan states that we can understand media as either hot or cold depending on the amount of information available to the user as well as the degree of participation. A hot medium “extends one single sense in high definition” (McLuhan). Examples of hot media include photographs or radio because the message is mostly interpreted using one sense and requires little participation by participants. An audience is more passive with hot media because there is less to filter. Television is considered a cold medium because it contains a large amount of multisensory information.

Berg Nellis states, “Virtual reality, the simulation of actual environment complete with tactile sensory input, might be the extreme in cold media…This and other cutting-edge technologies seem to point to increasingly cold media as we move into the digital communication future.” Think about online video games, such as the interactive sci-fi game Fortnite. Games like this can be played in teams, but the players do not necessarily have to be in close proximity. Simply by logging onto the server, gamers can connect, interact, communicate through microphones, and play as a team. These games have become so involved and realistic that they represent cold mediums because of the vast amount of sensory input and participation they require.

Perhaps we are turning into a global village through our interdependence with mass communication. Suddenly, across the ocean has become around the corner. McLuhan predicted this would happen because of mass communication’s ability to unify people around the globe. Are you a player in what Habermas calls the “public sphere” that mass communication creates by posting information about yourself on public sites? If so, be careful about what you post about yourself or allow others to tag you in, as many employers are Googling potential employees to look into their personal lives before making decisions about hiring them. As we continue our discussion of mass communication, we want to note that mass communication does not include every communication technology. As our definition states, mass communication is communication that potentially reaches large audiences.

Evolution of Mass Communication

Societies have long had a desire to find effective ways to report environmental dangers and opportunities; circulate opinions, facts, and ideas; pass along knowledge, heritage, and lore; communicate expectations to new members; entertain in an expansive manner; and broaden commerce and trade (Schramm). The primary challenge has been to find ways to communicate messages to as many people as possible. Our desire to know prompted innovative ways to get messages to the masses.

Before writing, humans relied on oral traditions to pass on information. “It was only in the 1920s—according to the Oxford English Dictionary—that people began to speak of ‘the media’ and a generation later, in the 1950s, of a ‘communication revolution,’ but a concern with the means of communication is very much older than that” (Briggs and Burke). Oral and written communication played a major role in ancient cultures. These cultures used stories to document the past and impart cultural standards, traditions, and knowledge. With the development of alphabets around the world over 5,000 years ago, written language with ideogrammatic (picture-based) alphabets like hieroglyphics started to change how cultures communicated.

A parchment in a case
A parchment in a case

Still, written communication remained ambiguous and did not reach the masses until the Greeks and Romans resolved this by establishing a syllable alphabet representing sounds. But without something to write on, written language was inefficient. Eventually, paper-making processes were perfected in China, which spread throughout Europe via trade routes (Baran). Mass communication was not quick, but it was far-reaching (Briggs and Burke). This forever altered how cultures saved and transmitted cultural knowledge and values. Any political or social movement throughout the ages can be traced to the development and impact of the printing press and movable metal type (Steinberg). With his technique, Gutenberg could print more than a single page of specific text. By making written communication more available to larger numbers of people, mass printing became responsible for giving voice to the masses and making information available to common folks (McLuhan and Fiore). McLuhan argued that Gutenberg’s evolution of the printing press as a form of mass communication had profound and lasting effects on culture, perhaps the most significant invention in human history.

In 1949, Carl I. Hovland, Arthur A. Lumsdaine, and Fred D. Sheffield wrote the book Experiments on Mass Communication. They looked at two kinds of films the army used to train soldiers. First, they examined orientation and training films such as Why We Fight that were intended to teach facts to the soldiers as well as generate a positive response from them for going to war. The studies determined that significant learning did take place by the soldiers from the films, but primarily with factual items. The army was disappointed with the results that showed that the orientation films did not do an effective job in generating the kind of positive responses they desired from the soldiers. Imagine—people were not excited about going to war.

With the transition to the Industrial Age in the 18th century, large populations headed to urban areas, creating mass audiences of all economic classes seeking information and entertainment. Printing technology was at the heart of modernization, which led to magazines, newspapers, the telegraph, and the telephone. At the turn of the century (1900), pioneers like Thomas Edison, Theodore Puskas, and Nikola Tesla literally electrified the world and mass communication. With the addition of motion pictures and radio in the early 1900s, and television in the ’40s and ’50s, the world increasingly embraced the foundations of today’s mass communication. In the ’70s, cable started challenging over-the-air broadcasting and traditional program distribution, making the United States a wired nation. In 2014, there was an estimated 116.3 million homes in America that owned a TV, according to Nielson, 2014 Advance National TV Household Universe Estimate. While traditionally, these televisions would display only the programs that were chosen to be broadcast by cable providers, more and more households have chosen to become more conscious media consumers and actively choose what they watch through alternative viewing options like streaming video.

Today, smart TVs and streaming devices have taken over the market, and it is estimated that over 80% of households have at least one streaming device. These new forms of broadcasting have created a digital revolution. Thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, we are less frequently subjected to advertisements during our shows. Similarly, streaming services like Hulu provide the most recent episodes as they appear on cable that viewers can watch any time. These services provide instant access to entire seasons of shows (which can result in binge-watching).

The Information Age eventually began to replace the ideals of the Industrial Age. In 1983, Time Magazine named the PC the first “Machine of the Year.” Just over a decade later, PCs outsold televisions. Then, in 2006, Time Magazine named “you” as the person of the year to remind their audience of their use of technology to broaden communication. Chances are that you, your friends, and your family spend hours engaged in data-mediated communication such as emailing, texting, or participating in various forms of social media. Romero points out that “the net has transformed the way we work, the way we get in contact with others, our access to information, our levels of privacy and indeed notions as basic and deeply rooted in our culture as those of time and space.” Social media has also had a large impact on social movements across the globe in recent years by providing the average person with the tools to reach wide audiences around the world for the first time in history.

If you’re reading this for a college class, you may belong to the Millennial or Gen Z age groups. Free Wi-Fi, apps, alternative news sources, Instagram, TikTok, and Clubhouse have become a way of life. Can you imagine a world without communication technology? How would you find out the name of that song stuck in your head? If you wanted to spontaneously meet up with a friend for lunch, how would you let them know? Mass communication has become such an integral part of our daily lives, most people probably could not function through the day without it.

What started as email quickly progressed to chat rooms and basic blogs, such as LiveJournal. From there, we saw the rise and fall of the first widely used social media platform, Myspace. Though now just a shadow of the social media powerhouse it once was, Myspace paved the way for social media to enter the mainstream in forms of websites such as Facebook, X (formally known as Twitter), Tumblr, Snapchat, and Instagram. Facebook has evolved into a global social media site. It’s available in 37 languages and has over 500 million users. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in 2005 while studying at Harvard University, and it has universally changed the way we communicate, interact, and share our lives with friends, family, and acquaintances. Many people argue about the good and bad qualities of having a Facebook profile; it can be looked at as your digital footprint in social media. Profiles log status updates, timeline photos and videos, and archive messages between members.

Another example of mainstream social media is X, commonly referred to by its former name Twitter. X used to allow for quick, 140-character-or-less status updates for registered users. Now the original, strict 140-character limit has been gradually relaxed. In 2016, 140-character-limitation changed to 280. In 2023, it was announced that paid users of the platform could create posts with up to 4,000 characters in length. Posts (formally known as Tweets) can be sent from any device with access to the internet in a fast, simple way and connect with a number of people, whether they be family, friends, or followers. X’s mostly microblogging format allowed people to share their daily thoughts and experiences on a broad and sometimes public stage. This simplicity allows it to be used as a tool for entertainment and blogging but also as a way of organizing social movements and sharing breaking news.

Snapchat allows the user to send a photo (with the option of text) that expires after a few seconds. It can be looked at like a digital self-destructing note. Contrary to Facebook, there is no pressure to pose or display your life. Rather, it is more spontaneous.

Clubhouse is one of the most recent additions to the social media sphere. This app allows users to join specialized rooms that are audio-only. Clubhouse is like a live podcast with audience participation. The new service debuted during the Covid-19 pandemic, as many of the earliest members, vocal artists and comedians, sought a place to create live content and gain fans.

With new forms of communication emerging rapidly, it is important to note the corresponding changes to formal language and slang terms. UrbanDictionary.com is a famous site that can introduce any newbie to the slang world by presenting them various definitions for a term they don’t recognize, describe its background, and provide examples of how it’s used in context. For example, one of the most popular definitions claims that the word hella is said to originate from the streets of San Francisco in the Hunters Point neighborhood. “It is commonly used in place of ‘really’ or ‘very’ when describing something.”

In this age of information overload, multiple news sources, high-speed connections, and social networking, life seems unimaginable without mass communication. Can you relate to your parents’ stories about writing letters to friends, family, or their significant others? Today, when trying to connect with someone, we have a variety of ways of contacting them; we can call, text, email, Facebook message, tweet, or SMS. The options are almost endless and ever changing.

Society today is in the midst of a technological revolution. Only a few years ago, families were arguing over landline internet cable use and the constant disruptions from incoming phone calls. Now, we have the ability to browse the web anytime on smartphones. Since the printing press, mass communication has literally changed the ways we think and interact as humans.

We take so much for granted as “new technologies are assimilated so rapidly in U.S. culture that historic perspectives are often lost in the process” (Fidler). With all of this talk and research about mass communication, what functions does it serve for us?

Functions of Mass Communication

Mass communication doesn’t exist for a single purpose. With its evolution, more and more uses have developed, and the role it plays in our lives has increased greatly. Wright characterizes seven functions of mass communication that offer insight into its role in our lives.


The first function of mass communication is to serve as the eyes and ears for those seeking information about the world. The internet, television, and newspapers are the main sources for finding out what’s going on around you. Society relies on mass communication for news and information about our daily lives; it reports the weather, current issues, and the latest celebrity gossip and even start times for games. Do you remember the Boston Marathon bombing that happened in 2013? How did you hear about it? Thanks to the internet and smartphones, instant access to information is at the user’s fingertips. News apps have made mass communication surveillance instantly accessible by sending notifications to smartphones with the latest news.


Correlation addresses how the media presents facts that we use to move through the world. The information received through mass communication is not objective and without bias. People ironically state, “It must be true if it’s on the internet.” However, we don’t think that in generations past, people must have without a doubt stated, “It has to be true because it was on the radio.” This statement begs the question, How credible are the media? Can we consume media without questioning motive and agenda? Someone selects, arranges, interprets, edits, and critiques the information used in the media. If you ask anyone who works for a major reality TV show if what we see is a fair representation of what really happens, the person would probably tell you no.


There is an old saying in the news industry, “If it bleeds, it leads,” which highlights the idea of sensationalization, which is when the media puts forward the most sensational messages to titillate consumers. Elliot observes, “Media managers think in terms of consumers rather than citizens. Good journalism sells, but unfortunately, bad journalism sells as well. And, bad journalism—stories that simply repeat government claims or that reinforce what the public wants to hear instead of offering independent reporting—is cheaper and easier to produce.”


Media outlets such as People magazine, TMZ, and entertainment blogs such as Perez Hilton keep us up to date on the daily comings and goings of our favorite celebrities. We use technology to watch sports, go to the movies, play video games, watch YouTube videos, and stream music on a daily basis. Most mass communication simultaneously entertains and informs. We often turn to media during our leisure time to provide an escape from boredom and relief from the predictability of our everyday lives. We rely on media to take us places we could not afford to go or imagine, acquaint us with bits of culture, and make us laugh, think, or cry. Entertainment can have the secondary effect of providing companionship and/or catharsis through the media we consume.


Mass media is a vehicle to transmit cultural norms, values, rules, and habits. Consider how you learned about what’s fashionable in clothes or music. Mass media plays a significant role in the socialization process. We look for role models to display appropriate cultural norms, but all too often, we do not recognize their inappropriate or stereotypical behavior. Mainstream society starts shopping, dressing, smelling, walking, and talking like the person in the music video, commercial, or movies. Why would soft drink companies pay Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift millions of dollars to sell their products? Have you ever bought a pair of shoes or changed your hairstyle because of something you encountered in the media? Obviously, culture, age, type of media, and other cultural variables factor into how mass communication influences how we learn and perceive our culture.


Mass communication functions to mobilize people during times of crisis (McQuail). Think back to the Boston Marathon bombing. Regardless of your association to the incident, Americans felt the attack as a nation, and people followed the news until they found the perpetrators. With instant access to media and information, we can collectively witness the same events taking place in real time somewhere else, thus mobilizing a large population of people around a particular event. The online community Reddit.com is a key example of the internet’s proactivity. While the FBI was investigating the bombing, the Reddit community was posting witness photos and trying to help identify the culprits. People felt they were making a difference.


Mass communication functions to validate the status and norms of particular individuals, movements, organizations, or products. The validation of particular people or groups serves to enforce social norms (Lazarsfeld and Merton). If you think about most television dramas and sitcoms, who are the primary characters? What gender and ethnicity are the majority of the stars? What gender and ethnicity are those that play criminals or those considered abnormal? The media validates particular cultural norms while diminishing differences and variations from those norms. A great deal of criticism focuses on how certain groups are promoted and others marginalized by how they are portrayed in mass media.

Functions of media that include surveillance, correlation, sensationalization, entertainment, transmission, mobilization, and validation.
Functions of media Image Spaynton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Given the power of the various functions of mass communication, we need to be reflective about its presence in our lives (McLuhan and Fiore). We will now turn our attention to the study of mass communication by looking at what mass communication scholars study and how they study it.



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Fundamentals of Communication Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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