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Theories of Mass Media and Its Social Impacts Essay

Since the invention of technologies such as the telegraph, radio and eventually television, which enabled communications “produced at a single source [to be] transmitted to an infinitely large audience” (Fearing, F. 1954), the social impacts of communications via mass media have been a subject of intense research by political and social scientists. This literature review intends to examine the major theories and perspectives on mass media with regard to its impact on society, which existed throughout the 1950’s and 70’s. Special attention will be given to the subjects of human social development, distribution of power, and human knowledge.

Human social development has, without doubt, transformed since the introduction of mass media technologies. Before mass transmission capabilities were available, humans were very rarely exposed to anything other than the culture of their immediate surroundings. A widely supported view held, as to how communities learn a culture, is through a process of symbolic interaction (Blumer, H. 1969) where humans learn via the sharing of symbols. Fearing (1954) refers to this process as the sharing of “daydreams”, which are the literary or dramatic manifestations of a community’s symbols and culture. Every ‘daydream’ contains the symbols of the culture that produced it, whether it be a play or story. By passing on and sharing these ‘daydreams’, a community are able to share in the same culture, as they create familiar frameworks with which to reference their social lives. As Gerbner (1967) points out, before mass media, human interaction was almost entirely interpersonal, in relative isolation, meaning human experience and knowledge was limited to their immediate community environment, with information being passed down from person to person.

The influence of the mass media begins to become apparent as Fearing (1952) points out the fact that humans, thanks to mass media, were for the first time able to broaden their sources of symbolic interaction, learning the values and symbols of a culture outside of their own localised sphere of experience. Gerbner later echoed this sentiment when stating that since the industrial revolution, an “almost simultaneous introduction of information, ideas, images and products” on a global level has taken place. He goes on to claim that this point signalled the turning point with regard to how people became “humanised”. No longer was acculturation limited geographically. Quite quickly, due to the wide transmission of symbols, beliefs and attitudes, it became possible for regional and even national populations to share the same mental frameworks for perceiving the world around them. A feat that would have been impossible without the means of mass, simultaneous communication, made feasible by the mass media.

Another contested subject with regards to the potential power of mass media was that that its capabilities place “a powerful instrument in the hands of a small number of persons” (Fearing, 1954). The ability now existed for a small influential group to communicate their message to a vast number of receivers. With this came the ability to set public agenda, influence social policy and affect the thoughts and behaviours of receivers (Gerbner 1967). There are many incidences for example where radio broadcasts have had a huge influence on the behaviour of its listeners, as documented extensively by Fearing (1954), who incidentally goes on to play down these successes as isolated events in which many variables came together with unintentional effectiveness. Unsurprisingly, governments developed great interest in the potential of the mass media and political scientists were responsible for many advances in the field.

The propaganda campaigns propagated during the First, and especially Second World War, are undeniable examples of mass media’s potential for control over a population. However, the idea that media had a one way ‘hypodermic needle’ effect on receivers was beginning to fall from popular view, with a two way communication process being adopted instead. This two way process took into account that an audience doesn’t necessarily simply absorb the information around them, but perceive and interpret it, ultimately selecting whether it’s information they want to absorb. In contrast to the increased power of government, insights provided by Gerbner (1967) document the increased power of ordinary citizens to effectively take part in democracy, by offering and promoting alternatives to policies.

The ability to publish and distribute private knowledge he says transforms the private perspectives of few into broad public perspectives – thus creating a public, which in itself is a form of potential power if communication is maintained. We can conclude from this that mass media has enabled those who would not normally be able to do so, to voice their opinions and perspectives with a broader audience. Those who wield these mass communication capabilities certainly have far more potential power than before.

With increased broadcasting of information, the manner and rate at which humans learn has also been irreversibly influenced. The relatively vast amounts of knowledge available via print and broadcast media during this time meant people were exposed to a greater amount of information. People were no longer restricted to the information and experiences of their own communities, but had access to foreign experiences and knowledge on a national and international level. In a general sense this has arguably meant that people, as a result, have become relatively more intelligent. As with most opportunities however, some people are able to take more advantage of them than others, whether it be because they are better equipped or more motivated to do so. P. J. Tichenor, G.A. Donohue and C.N. Olien’s (1970) research documented what they referred to as a “widening knowledge gap”, especially with regards to more “general appeal” knowledge areas such as public affairs and science.

Those of a higher socioeconomic status acquire information faster than lower class segments, leading to ever increasing gaps between progressive and “stagnant” groups (Tichenor, P.J, et al. 1970). Robinson (as cited in Tichenor, P.J. et al 1970) contends that those less informed will “remain so unless acted upon by an outside force, while those already informed stay in motion”. This leads to the conclusion that while the proliferation of information increases, the knowledge gap can and will only increase, unless measures are taken to effectively inform those of lower socioeconomic classes.

A solution to this knowledge gap is offered by Tichenor et al. (1970) when they profess that a “knowledge gap implies a communication gap.” With the introduction of more easily accessible outlets of information this knowledge gap could potentially be decreased, despite the ever-increasing amounts of information available. Their article ends on an optimistic note as to the role television could play in the future, a medium much easily accessible to lower socioeconomic classes.

Reference List

Blumer, Herbert (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fearing F. (1954). Social impact of the mass media of communications, in, N.B. Henry (Ed.) Mass media and education: The fifty-third yearbook of the national society for the study of education part II, Chicago, University of Chicago.

Gerbner, G. (1967). Mass media and human communication theory, in, F.E. X. Dance (Ed.) Human communication theory: Original essays, (pp.40-60.) New York, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A. & Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge, Public Opinion Quarterly, 34, 159-170.

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