Mass communication is a field of study that analyzes large-scale exchanges of information. Many different theories of mass communication focus on the speaker, media outlets, the audience and other relevant factors. If you’re interested in communication, you may benefit from learning about mass communication theories. In this article, we explain why these theories matter and provide a list of eight mass communication theories for you to learn about.
Why do mass communication theories matter?
Mass communication theories matter because they provide insight into how people consume, engage with and distribute media. The messages contained in media may have an impact on the audience, and these theories provide a framework for understanding that impact. Mass communication theories may apply to professionals in industries like marketing, broadcasting, journalism or related fields.
8 mass communication theories
There are many important communication theories, but the ones that focus primarily on mass communication may benefit you professionally. Here’s a list of eight mass communication theories you might apply:
1. Agenda-setting theory
Agenda-setting theory argues that the media, such as news outlets, work to create an agenda of news stories for the public. In the creation and distribution of these agendas, these news outlets can influence how much the public cares about a particular event, issue or story. Agenda-setting theory acknowledges that news outlets impact the way that the public perceives the news, which stories an audience prioritizes and how they respond to the media.
For example, imagine that a large-scale political event takes place. When the media reports on this event, they might present the event with a particular perspective. Additionally, editors may decide to place the story on the front page, which may lead the audience to feel that the story is of high importance. These various choices reflect the media’s ability to set the agenda of the news.
2. Aristotle’s communication model
Aristotle founded an early model of mass communication in 300 B.C., related specifically to public speaking and the role the audience plays in these situations. This theory has influenced a large amount of other communication theories over time. The model focuses on the following five main elements:
Speaker: This element analyzes who the speaker is, what their goals are and how that may influence the audience’s perception of the speech.
Speech: This element analyzes the content of the speech itself, regarding the topic, methods of persuasion and other rhetorical elements.
Occasion: This element analyzes the context of the speech, such as the location of the event or the main reason the speaker chose to speak.
Audience: This element analyzes the audience, like the number of people listening, their personal views or beliefs and how they perceive the speaker.
Effect: This element analyzes the effect that the speech may have on the audience or the social situation.
3. Entertainment Education
Entertainment education is a mass communication strategy that’s linked to the planning and creation of certain media. It relates specifically to programs created with the intent of both entertaining and educating the audience. This strategy asserts that the entertaining aspects of media can interest the audience enough to introduce educational concepts as well. This strategy has been used widely to create educational messaging engagingly. The theory claims that entertainment education can motivate change, alter social structures and impact social functions. It does this through changing the audiences’ attitudes and eventually, their behaviors.
For example, if a group wants to raise awareness about a social issue, they may create an entertainment education program for television. When the audience views this program, they may feel entertained by the content while also learning about the issue. This can help the original group make progress in their plight to raise awareness.
4. Gatekeeping theory
Gatekeeping theory is a facet of agenda-setting theory. It asserts that one person, the gatekeeper, is responsible for deciding which information or messages can pass through the metaphorical “gate.” Essentially, the gatekeeper acts as the decision-maker for which messages to communicate to the audience.
For example, in news media, when an editor compiles the front page for the next day’s paper, they may act as the gatekeeper. The editor is responsible for choosing which stories to allow onto the front page, and which to withhold. This demonstrates how gatekeeping links to agenda setting since one person or group can have an influence on which messages the audience receives.
5. Limited effects theory
The limited effects theory asserts that any type of effect that media has on individuals is limited. Essentially, the theory argues that even though a person may feel influenced by the news or other media outlets, the influence is probably very minimal. Limited effects theory instead places responsibility on the audience, claiming that each individual has the choice to control which media sources they consume and which they don’t.
This theory also claims that media can act as a source of reinforcement for an individual. This means that a person is likely to choose media sources that confirm what they already think and believe. Limited effects theory determines that these choices reflect how media itself has less of an effect than the individual’s choices.
6. Media dependency theory
The media dependency theory asserts that there’s a link between media, the audience and broader social systems. It claims that all three of these participants rely on each other for information and to achieve their goals. Media dependency theory claims that dependence is as a result of factors like the audiences’ need for understanding, information or entertainment. Other factors that may influence dependence include:
The individual’s role: If an individual feels satisfied by the media they consume, they likely become more dependent on those media sources for information and entertainment. If they don’t feel satisfied, the individual becomes less dependent.
The stability of society: If a large social change, like an election, occurs, the audience may become more dependent on the media, based on the increased need to gain new information. However, in moments of social stability, the audience may become less dependent on the media.
The involvement of the audience: If an audience feels less impact from surrounding factors, they may choose their level of dependence on the media. However, if they find something else to entertain them, their dependence can lessen.
7. Media richness theory
The media richness theory claims that necessary information is available through various media sources, at different levels of richness. The theory argues that certainty and equivocality are two markers of how rich the media needs to be in response. For example, if there are several questions about the nature of an event, the media needs to be rich in knowledge, details or statistics to reduce uncertainty. Additionally, if an event has multiple interpretations, the media needs to be rich in questions, to best determine the truth of the situation.
Researchers may classify certain media as richer than others, based on the following criteria:
Personal focus: When media includes a personal focus, such as an individual interview or communicating face-to-face, the individuals may communicate their messages more clearly.
Feedback: This criterion measures how quickly users can respond to the communication they receive.
Types of cues: The various cues that a media source uses can influence its richness, such as visual or auditory choices that cue the audience to think of something specific.
Language usage: This relates to how the media conveys meaning through language, whether by symbols, numbers or text.
8. Mood management theory
The mood management theory in mass communication asserts that the mood of an individual relates to the messages and information they consume. It claims that an individual may engage with a certain type of media to optimize their mood. For example, if an individual has a challenging day, they may choose to watch a comedy movie to change their overall attitude or mood.
I hope you find this article helpful.