Mass communication is the process of communicating with a large audience at the same time. It’s a communications topic that has many, many theories exploring its role in society.
Mass communication is undertaken through agents of communication, which include:
- social media portals
Below is a glossary of the major theories of mass communication.
List of Mass Communication Theories
Related: 8 Top Communication Models
The Agenda-setting theory holds that the mainstream media sets the agenda for social discourse.
Mass media only reports some aspects of reality while filtering out others.
What mass media chooses to show, and what it chooses to ignore, are decided by the agenda of the ruling elite.
The theory was first proposed in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw. The theory holds that agenda-setting by the mainstream media operates at two levels:
- First level agenda setting – At this level, the media tries to influence what the audience should think, by focusing on a certain set of issues while filtering out others. It is also called object salience.
- Second level agenda setting – At this level, the media attempts to influence how to think about certain issues. This is also called attribute salience.
2. Argumentation Theory
Argumentation theory analyzes communication by focusing on 6 components: claim, ground, warrant, backing, rebuttal, and qualifier.
While argumentation theory has a history as old as classical philosophy, dating back to Aristotle, in its modern form it can be traced to the British philosopher Stephen Toulmin. He proposed what is called the Toulmin model of argumentation in his 1958 book The Uses of Argument.
According to this model, all arguments can be analyzed using 6 components:
- Claim – This is the thesis of whose veracity a person tries to convince another in an argument.
- Ground – This is backing evidence a person provides in support of the claim.
- Warrant – This is the statement that enables a the logical continuity of the claim and the ground.
- Backing – A backing is an additional statement that may be needed if the warrant is not credible enough.
- Rebuttal/Reservation – These are statements that can be thought of conditions that may falsify the claim.
- Qualifier – These are words that express the forcefulness of the speaker’s claim (Toulmin, 1958).
The first three are essential parts of an argument, whereas the final three are not.
3. Authoritarian Theory
The authoritarian theory of mass communication states that the media serves its functions best when it is placed under authoritarian control.
This means that the media should be no more than a tool in the hands of the ruling elite. The elite may use mass media to disseminate propaganda favorable to them while censoring out elements critical of their power.
The authoritarian theory is as old as mass media itself, and throughout history monarchs and despots have imposed control on what can be disseminated to the general public and what cannot.
4. Classical Rhetorical Theory
Classical rhetorical theory stares that communication consists of 3 elements: the speaker, the message, and the audience.
Rhetoric can be defined as the “art of persuasion”. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato considered rhetoric an important part of public discourse. Classical rhetorical theory is the study of rhetoric as it developed in the classical Hellenistic period.
Classical thinkers defined effective communication as consisting of 3 key elements:
- The Speaker
- The Message
- The Audience
Classical rhetorical theory attempts to study the change in the audience brought about by the speaker’s message. It aims at perfecting the art of communication so that the speaker could effectively persuade their audience through the message.
5. Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Cognitive dissonance theory states that human beings have a tendency to avoid a conflict between their perceptions and reality.
The word cognition means ‘thought’ or ‘perception’. Dissonance means disharmony or conflict.
So, when faced with a situation when their perception of something is in conflict with reality, they will attempt some kind of rationalization to harmonize the conflicting thoughts in their head.
Usually, this means that people will downplay news that isn’t congruent with their preconceptions and gravitate toward news that agrees with their biases. This is evident in the increasingly partisan media consumption in the era of new media.
Cognitive Dissonance is a concept that was first developed by the American psychologist Leon Festinger ( 1919-1989).
6. Cultivation Theory
The cultivation theory of mass communication states that the more time people spend consuming media, the more strongly their perception of the world around them is going to align with what is portrayed in the media.
As a simple example, people who regularly consume news of crime and violence are likely to believe that incidents of crime are increasing around them, when in fact, it may just be that the media is only selectively focusing on reporting crime.
Cultivation Theory was proposed by the Hungarian-American communication theorist Geroge Gerbner (1919-2005), whose views were informed by growing up in WWII Germany.
7. Direct Effects Theory
The Direct Effects Theory holds that audiences passively consume whatever is portrayed in the media and thus can be easily swayed one way or the other by propaganda presented through media.
The theory arose in the first half of the 20th century, in response to the use of media as a propaganda tool in Europe, the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent in the United States.
However, the theory now stands discredited as it is now widely accepted that audiences interact with information in a much more complex manner.
8. Framing Theory
The framing theory of mass communication builds upon the agenda-setting theory. It draws attention to how information is presented to the audience in ways that seek to influence audience perceptions.
If we recall the agenda-setting theory, it had two levels – a first level in which the audience is told what to think, and a second level in which the audience is subtly instructed in how to think about the information conveyed to them.
Framing theory corresponds closely to second-level agenda setting. It takes its name from the frame analysis theory of the sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) who defined frame as a culturally determined construction of reality through which people make sense of the world around them.
9. Gatekeeping Theory
A gatekeeper is someone who controls access. They filter out that which does not meet the criteria, and allow in only that which does.
The gatekeeping theory of mass communication holds that communication needs a gatekeeper to filter out irrelevant content, and only pass on that which serves the purpose of communication.
All forms of communication have some kind of gatekeeper. For instance every media portal has an editor who decides what should be published and what not. Similarly social media platforms have content moderation policies in place. In our everyday communication with others, we ourselves act as gatekeepers, withholding certain information while presenting others.
However, today, the theory is most commonly used to show how social media gatekeeping is insufficient, allowing anyone to spread ‘fake news’ to millions on the web.
The concept of imagined communities holds that print capitalism (the printing press) enabled the development of modern nation-state nationalism.
Prior to print capitalism, nations were unable to be united as one cohesive group. But, with the rise of mass media in the form of newspapers, people started consuming the same media every week.
The rise of newspapers therefore gave people a sense that they were all united under the one society and culture.
This is a concept regularly used as part of social constructivist theory, although it was not explicitly developed as a sub-term within the theory. Thus, it is a sociological concept rather than a theory per se.
The concept was developed by Benedict Anderson.
The knowledge gap theory states that while the spread of media and communication technologies has made acquiring knowledge easier, this spread has been unequal.
Those situated within higher socio-economic demographics benefit more from it than those located lower down ( Tichenor, et. al., 1970). As a result, the knowledge gulf between the privileged and the unprivileged only widens further with time.
The theory was proposed by three University of Minnesota social scientists – Philip Tichenor, George Donohue, and Clarice Olien.
12. Libertarian Theory
The libertarian theory of mass communication is the antithesis of the authoritarian theory. It believes in complete freedom of the press and other channels of mass communication.
The theory takes its origins from the libertarian thought that flowered in Europe from the 16th century onwards, championed by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and John Locke.
The libertarian theory holds that much like a laissez-faire economy, the media ecosystem should be allowed to operate with minimal interference by the state.
In such a state of freedom, the theory holds that the consumer of the media will act as rational actors, and be able to sift the truth from falsehoods.
13. Magic Bullet Theory (aka Hypodermic Needle Theory)
The Magic Bullet theory (or the Hypodermic Needle Theory) holds that media communication is a simple, one-way process.
Like a bullet (or an injection injected into a person’s body using a hypodermic needle), the message of the communication is received and accepted directly and uncritically by the consumer of the media.
The theory is a type of Direct Effects theory that was conceived by media theorists after witnessing the effects of WWII propaganda in Europe and the influence of Hollywood on the masses in the US (Lasswell, 1927)
The origin of the theories are attributed to the American theorist Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) who discussed state propaganda in his book Propaganda Techniques in the World War.
Related Linear Models of Communication:
14. Media Dependence Theory
The Media Dependence Theory holds that audiences have a need for, or a dependence on media.
These needs can be classified into 3 types:
- Surveillance – This implies the need to be informed about what is happening in the world around us.
- Social Utility – This implies the need to be able to use news and information for a gainful purpose, such as investing in stocks or other assets.
- Escape – This is the need to simply escape from the dreariness of life, for instance, by delving into news about sports, celebrities, pop culture, etc.
These needs arise because the media is not an external entity that can simply be used as a tool by the state. Instead, it is a part of the larger system of social organization (Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976).
The media dependence theory opposes theories like the magic bullet theory.
It argues that a problem with theories such as the Magic Bullet Theory and other such Direct Effects theories is that they conceive of the relation between the media and its audience as a unidirectional flow.
Which is to say, that they conceive of the media as a tool in the hands of the state or other elites which is used by them to influence the masses who accept it passively.
Media Dependence Theory instead draws attention to the other end of the relation – the audience or the masses.
15. Media Logic Theory
When we say “there is a logic to things”, what we usually mean is that there is a set manner in which things or events unfold, each and every time. According to media logic theory, it’s the same with media.
People who consume enough media notice that there is a specific format in which stories are narrated.
For instance, there is a specific manner in which breaking news is reported on TV, with a certain vocabulary which is used and a set format in which the news item is packaged.
This is so because the sheer volume of news that needs to be transmitted does not allow for the possibility of reconceptualizing the package again and again. The same template is used for most types of news falling within a category.
This is called the logic of media.
The media logic theory, first proposed by David Altheide and Robert Snow in 1979 elaborates on the consequences of such a logic. It puts media logic in a social, economic, and technological context and helps us to understand how the packaging of media into a logic changes its meaning (Atheide & Snow, 1979).
16. Modernization Theory
Modernization theory postulates that the spread of mass media would catalyze the modernization of traditional societies and put them on the path to modernization.
The theory holds that all societies pass through a linear path of progression – from being traditional societies to ending up as developed, industrial societies.
In the field of mass communication, the modernization theory was first applied by Daniel Lerner in a study of media penetration in West Asia and North America.
Lerner believed that media and communication technology would act as agents of modernization, eventually putting them on the path to being westernized and liberal (Lerner, 1958).
The modernization theory has since been amply critiqued, and it is now understood that all societies do not follow a linear path from being traditional/underdeveloped to being modern/developed.
17. Multi-Step Flow Theory
According to the multi-step flow theory, the media first influences opinion leaders in society, who in turn influence the masses. In other words, communication is not a direct interaction between the masses and the media.
Opinion leaders could be people from different walks of life such as politicians, film stars, writers, etc who have a wide mass appeal.
Multi-step flow theory expands on the models of communication provided by the Direct Effects Theory (Magic Bullet), and the Media Dependence Theory, which can be conceived of as one-step, and two-step flow models respectively.
Related Concept: Hierarchical Diffusion
The muted group theory states that certain marginalized groups in society find it difficult to articulate their voices because the mass communication system overwhelmingly favors the majority.
Proposed in 1975 by the British anthropologists Edwin and Shirley Ardener, the theory describes how dominant groups in a society create the language and vocabulary of mass communication, which the subordinate groups are forced to learn and use if they want to be heard.
For instance, the media industry has traditionally been dominated by men. Historically, news anchors, talk show hosts, TV presenters, etc. would all be men.
Women represented the muted group whose voices were marginalized until they began to acquire greater visibility towards the end of the 20th century.
19. Social Responsibility Theory
The social responsibility theory of mass communication evolved as a middle ground between the diametrically opposed authoritarian and libertarian theories described earlier.
Under this theory, the media is not controlled by the state or by the elites, but it does not enjoy absolute freedom and complete impunity either. The journalist is bound by the norms of social responsibility in their reporting.
This theory is taught to journalists so they can learn their responsibilities in their roles.
20. Soviet Media Theory
The Soviet Media Theory believes the state should control all media and there should be no private ownership of media.
The theory was developed in the Soviet Union in an attempt to apply Leninist and Marxist principles to mass communication.
In this theory, the state uses its control of the media in the service of and for the benefit of the working classes rather than for the personal benefit of the ruling class.
Unlike an authoritarian system, the Soviet Media system is a two-way communication channel in that the people, in theory at least, are free to provide feedback and influence the state-controlled media.
21. Spiral of Silence Theory
The Spiral of Silence theory holds that the fear of being isolated or ostracized for expressing a contrary opinion leads people to remain silent.
In other words, if a person or group of persons believe that the public articulation of their opinion on a particular matter would lead to their being isolated, they are likely to prefer remaining silent.
This then assumes the form of a spiral as only the opinion of the majority group is reinforced by the media, while that of the minority that chooses to remain silent gets completely ignored.
Symbolic interactionism theory of mass communication examines how mass media structures our perception of the world.
The theory holds that the meaning of things, objects, and processes in society is created through a process of interaction between people.
As an example, we all use social networking sites to present an identity of ourselves that may be different from the one we possess in the real world.
Our interactions with other people on social media lead us to develop this identity, just as our interactions with people in the real world help us to develop an identity we present in front of them.
23. Two-Step Flow Theory
The two-step flow theory assumes that mass communication is a two-way process involving the speakers and the masses.
Unlike the hypodermic needle theory, the audience in a two-step flow theory are not passive receptacles of information. They communicate their opinions back to the speakers or opinion leaders who accept it as feedback.
Models of Communication congruent with two-step flow theory include:
24. Uses and Gratification Theory
The Uses and Gratification theory (UGT) seeks to understand how users consume media, rather than trying to investigate the effect of media on users, as most other theories do.
It’s interested in how and why an individual might use media.
UGT might look at how audiences use different kinds of media for different purposes. As a simple example, we use different social media sites for different purposes – twitter for textual content that is often political, Instagram for visual content that is meant to be visually appealing, LinkedIn for professional networking, and so on.
Communication is fundamental to the human experience, and mass communication is an essential need whenever humans come together to form an organized society. Constant changes in the political and technological landscape have changed the nature of mass communication throughout history. As technology and society continue to evolve, so do mass communication theories, and with time, we may need to both modify the existing theories as well as devise new theories to explain the newer forms of mass communication.
Altheide, D. L., & Snow, R.P. (1979). Media logic. SAGE.
Anderson, B. (1989). Imagined Communities. New York: Verso.
Ball-Rokeach, S. J., & DeFleur, M.L. (1976). A dependency model of mass-media effects. Communication Research, 3 (1),3–21. Doi: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/009365027600300101
Lasswell, H. (1927) Propaganda technique in the world war. Los Angeles: Peter Smith.
Lerner, D. (1958). The passing of traditional society: Modernizing the Middle East. Free Press.
Tichenor, P.A.,Donohue, G.A.,Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly. 34 (2), 59–170.
Toulmin, S.E. (1958). The uses of argument Cambridge University Press.