Definition of the Lasswell Model of Communication
Definition: The Lasswell Model of Communication is a framework for critiquing and deconstructing the elements involved in mass communication. The model asks 5 questions: Who? Said what? In which channel? To Whom? With what effect? It is best known as the original ‘linear model’ because it conceptualizes learning as moving in only one direction.
The 5 Components of the Lasswell Model of Communication
Here is a quick visual overview of the model:
Here is an explanation of each component:
Component: The sender / communicator
The ‘who’ refers to the person who is sending the message (the ‘sender’ or ‘communicator’).
Example: A sender may be:
- A person who is speaking on the television;
- The journalist writing a newspaper article;
- The blogger writing on her blog;
- A large media corporation;
- A speaker giving a lecture at a university;
- A preacher at a church
How to analyze: Control analysis.
Lasswell argued that if you want to study who has control over a message, you need to look at this first component: the sender. He used the term ‘control analysis’ to propose that by looking at the sender, you can critique how they exercise control or power over the message that is being sent out.
Things you might consider are:
- Is the sender an authority on the topic?
- Do they have a history of honest accurate reporting?
- Do they have a political agenda or bias?
- What are their qualifications?
Impact of new media on communicators / senders: Increased diversity of communicators.
Today, there is a much more diverse range of communicators than in Lasswell’s days. With the internet, anyone can publish and send information online through websites, blogs and social media to large audiences.
This may mean there are many more voices in the media landscape. Whereas once people got their news from only a few sources, now they can get it from different senders online. There will be more minority identities such as women and people of color out their sending messages now, thanks to enhanced freedom to publish online. However, it may also empower people with hateful ideas to share their ideas, too.
ii) Says What?
Component: The Message
Next, Lasswell says that we should analyse what is being said by the sender. This is this message being communicated.
Common messages we receive include:
- A story about politics in the news
- An informative explanation of an idea from our teacher
- A biblical story from a priest or minister
- A fairy-tale with a moral of the story
How to analyze: Content analysis
Lasswell is credited as being one of the founders of content analysis. When we analyze the content of a message, we actually look at what is being said.
To do this, scholars usually get a transcription of a speech and read over the writing. They will highlight important passages, identify themes in the text, and explore how the message has biases or bends the truth.
Some things we might consider when looking at the message are:
- How does the message depict someone as a hero and someone else as a villain?
- What ideas or concepts are being reinforced as ‘truthful’ or ‘ideal’ in this message?
- How are women and minority groups depicted in the message?
Impact of new media on messages: Increased diversity of messages.
Just as there are more senders, so too are there more messages than ever before.
While some might argue that this is a good thing for diversity of views, it also seems to have given rise to fake news as people are more able to pick and choose which messages they read. If we only read messages that reinforce our views, we may become increasingly more and ore biased.
iii) In Which Channel?
Component: The medium
The medium is the means by which the information is transmitted from the sender to the receiver.
Some traditional media examples include:
(Alternatively, see here for digital media examples)
When Lasswell made up his theory this was all we had! But, nowadays there are so many more mediums for communication such as blogs, online videos, cell phones, podcasts, and so on!
How to analyze: Media analysis
Media analysis looks at different types of mediums and tries to find out which is best for sending a message to an audience.
An analyst may examine existing media that promotes a similar message to the one they are presenting and try to find out:
- Which channel seems to work best
- Which messages are working best
- What time of year is best for promoting that message
An example of media analysis might be:
- Examining which medium is best to promote alcohol. The researcher may find out that Instagram is best for this type of promotion.
Impact of new media on media channels: Rise of digitized channels.
The internet has opened up a range of new channels of communications, such as:
- YouTube and home videos
- Websites such as this one!
- Social media such as twitter
However, it has also led to the decline of old media like:
- Cable TV
iv) To whom?
Component: The Audience
When Lasswell developed his model, he was thinking about mass media. Mass media tends to have the following audiences:
- Citizens of a nation
- Readership of a magazine
- Children (during children’s television hours)
- Adults (if promoting an adult product like alcohol)
- Women (if promoting women’s fashion)
How to analyze: Audience analysis
Audience analysis involves looking at the audience to determine which message works best with which types of people.
To do an audience analysis, you need to look at current or potential audiences and try to figure out what they like and what messages would work with them.
You would tend to break down audience preferences by categories like:
- Demography: Demographic details include age, gender, location, income level
- Behaviors: Needs and wants, personalities, values, cultures, hobbies
- Status: professions, job titles, political affiliations
Impact of new media on Audiences: More boutique targeting of audiences
Now that new media are around, messages can be communicated to much more specific sub-sets of audiences. Advertisers also have much better access to analytics so they can target the specific needs of audiences.
Website cookies tell advertisers what your likes and dislikes are, and they place ads on websites, facebook, etc. that are tailored specifically to you!
v) With what effect?
For most communicators in modern capitalist societies, the intended effect is for you to spend your money! But, there are others:
- Changed voting intentions
- Increased brand awareness
- Public awareness of a health issue
- Purchase a product
- Propaganda – believe something that’s untrue or biased
How to analyze: Effects analysis
An effects analysis takes place after the sender has communicated their message. They might commission a researcher to go into the field and find out how well-known the brand has become, or whether the message has impacted public opinion.
‘Effects’ of new media: Political polarization
With new media, communicators can find out the effects of their messages instantly. A website owner will know how long you sent on the site and whether you bought something from them. A facebook campaign will be able to see how many people saw their ad and how many people liked or commented on it.
A broader social effect of new media is that it is causing us to live in our own little bubbles. We only engage with media we want to engage with. We choose who to read online and who to believe. This may be causing society to become more divided.
Related Models of Communication:
Examples of Lasswell’s Model of Communication
- A nightly news broadcast in the United States:
- Who: The Fox news anchor
- Said what: Criticized a democratic position on healthcare
- In which channel: On television
- To whom: The entire nation of viewers
- With what effect: Propagation of a conservative political viewpoint
- An Instagram campaign:
- Who: A vodka company
- Said what: Showed that vodka can help you have fun and meet good looking women
- In which channel: On Instagram
- To whom: A targeted group of men aged 21 – 30
- With what effect: Increased month-on-month sales
Who was Harold Lasswell?
- Born in 1902
- Died in 1978
- Political Scientist & Communications Theorist
- Gained his PhD from the University of Chicago
- Was a professor at Yale University
Lasswell is one of those Renaissance Men of academia who was influential in tons of different fields, including politics, communication and media studies, law, economics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.
But, his greatest influences on the world were:
- He founded the scholarly field of political psychology;
- He was one of the first legitimate scholars in the study of mass communications
(want to use that fact in an essay? Cite Post (2001) or Eadie (2011). Full citations for these two sources are provided at the bottom of this page).
Advantages and Disadvantages of the Lasswell Model of Communication
Here are the key pros of Lasswell’s model:
- Very Easy to Use: The model provides a blueprint for breaking down and analyzing any communication in five steps.
- Designed for Mass Communication: The model has a specific usefulness for mass communication and propaganda analysis. Its lack of concern for feedback is a pro here: it wants to look at one-way communication methods used by powerful governments and corporations.
Here are they key cons of Lasswell’s model:
- Linear not Cyclical: It is a linear model, meaning that he does not see communication as taking place in a cyclical or two-way fashion. Other models like the Osgood-Schramm or Helical Model do a better job at this.
- Does not account for feedback: Because it is a linear model, this model doesn’t look at how people receiving messages can also be senders of messages that go back to the sender. (However, Sapienza et. al. (2015, p. 606) disagree – they think Lasswell did pay attention to two-way communication. See p. 606 of this article)
- Doesn’t account for ‘noise’: Noise occurs when a message is not received properly by an audience. Think of it like listening to a radio that is fuzzy. Maybe you hear half of the message only, or misinterpret it. Unfortunately, Lasswell’s model doesn’t talk about noise.
Quotes for your Essay
- “To remain a relevant and useful concept, [Lasswell’s model] must be able to accommodate technological change or risk fading into obscurity” (Sapienza, Iyer & Veenstra, 2015, p. 601)
- The Lasswell model “represents a simplistic broadcast conception of communication with one sender, one message, and one or more receivers, but no interaction.” (Wilson, 2001, p. 76)
- “No matter how long the study of mass communication experiences, and how rapidly the science and technology develops, these five parts are still the fundamental elements in the field of mass communication research.” (Wenxiu, 2015, p. 249)
Scholarly Sources for your Essay
Wait! Don’t cite my website (seriously, don’t!) You’ll probably get marked down in your essay if you do that! Your professor wants to see you citing scholarly sources.
So, now that you understand the topic, go ahead and cite the scholarly sources listed below. I’ve listed them in APA format here. If you need to use a different format, read how to cite the different referencing styles in my article: how to reference in an essay.
Here are the sources you should cite in your essay:
Lasswell, H. D. (1948). The Structure and Function of Communication in Society. In: Bryson, L. (ed.). The Communication of Ideas. (p. 117.) New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies.
Wenxiu, P. (2015). Analysis of New Media Communication Based on Lasswell’s “5W” Model. Journal of Educational and Social Research, 5(3): 245 – 250.
Sapienza, Z., Iyer, N., & Veenstra, A. (2015). Reading Lasswell’s Model of Communication Backward: Three Scholarly Misconceptions. Mass Communication and Society, 18(1): 599–622.
Post, J. (2001). Harold D. Lasswell: An appreciation. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 64(1): 197–201.
Eadie, W. F. (2011). Stories we tell: Fragmentation and convergence in communication disciplinary history. The Review of Communication, 11(1): 161–176.