The first half of the twentieth century played a vital role in the state of the present media. The century commenced with the influx of new forms of media as modernization uncontrollably invaded all social forms. The dominant medium of the nineteenth century, the newspaper, sustained its power at the beginning of the century. Moving pictures, or film, was born and started to form its own cult of followers. The entrance of radio and television also received a warm welcome from the masses in the succeeding decades. These innovations in media technology received harsh criticisms from different sources (Baran & Davis, 1995).
The impact of the new media technology in the recent course of history was evident. Thus, it incited chaos among the social elites that started relentless criticism of the power of media and the formulation of what is now known as the mass society theory. Leaders of established social and political institutions feared the kind of society that would grow out of this aspect of modernization.
Long-term effects of the ‘uncontrolled’ use of media were the focus of the mass society theory. Mass society theorists highly regarded the power of media, especially the new, more technologically-advanced ones, and how it could influence the average people in the society, which are potentially more powerful than the social elites. They also feared that the power of media could be a tool for the rise of a totalitarian social order in America, as what some parts of Europe had experienced (Baran & Davis, 1995).
The reputation of the media also led the theorists to push their assumptions forward. The powerful people manipulated what was supposedly a ‘free’ media. Yellow journalism was rampant to protect their reputation. Sensationalized and over-dramatized news stories were as widespread to attract audiences for profit. The elites also started to question the quality of culture the media projected. It was accused of being cheap and tasteless, and that the media practitioners were not qualified to formulate that type of entertainment which instantly became popular to the masses.
With all these issues raised against the dominant and emerging forms of
media, scholars and some media practitioners volunteered and attempted to lead media reform and ‘prescribe’ how media system should function, giving birth to the normative theories. Earlier thoughts of authoritarianism and libertarianism were strongly criticized. Many were not convinced what authoritarianism proposed – to subject the media to governing authorities that would control these media and sustain social order (Baran & Davis, 1995). Libertarian thought, on the other hand, seeks total freedom of the media from control.
After the World War II, the Hutchins’ Commission formulated the social responsibility theory that compromised the authoritarian and libertarian thoughts. The principles of the social responsibility theory could be considered innovative as it was able to make the two opposing thoughts meet at a certain point. It, somehow, answered the key points of mass society theory, but not totally scrapping them as these assumptions can still be observed today.
Social responsibility theory regarded the media the same as the mass society in terms of media’s power. The theory considered how much these media could influence the society, and that the media has the power to corrupt people’s minds. Social responsibility theory advised that media should consider their obligations to the society through professional ethics and by promoting what was lacking or needed in the society. At that point, most media companies had accepted this thought and strived to achieve its ideals.
The social responsibility theory encouraged media owners to recognize their role to the society and that they were an effective catalyst to social change, or to a ‘Great Community’, as the Chicago School envisioned. In that way, the fear of a totalitarian social order was reduced since social responsibility theory appealed for idealism of individual media practitioners through being able to identify their active role in preserving democracy (Baran & Davis, 1995).
As the twentieth century moved towards its second half, media systems had exerted efforts to absorb the ideals of the social responsibility theory. It
diluted the bad image of media that the mass society theorists projected while the social responsibility theory aimed for informativeness, truth, accuracy, objectivity, and balance (Baran & Davis, 1995). Up until now when traditional media boundaries are slowly melting caused by the rapid innovations in technology, the threats posed by the mass society theory are still present and the social responsibility theory’s ideals are still being tried and tested.
Baran, Stanley J., & Davis, Dennis K. (1995). Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.