Home Introduction to mass communication THEORIES OF MASS COMMUNICATION CONTENTS


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Theory is a conceptual representation or explanation of phenomenon. They are stories about how and why events occur. Kurt Lewin defines theory as a way of explaining the ordering and occurrence of various events. It can also be defined as a set of systematic generalizations based on scientific observation and leading to further empirical observation. (Severin and Tankard (Jnr.) 1982).


This unit exposes students to various mass communication theories, their origins, methods and uses. Students should be able to identify a theory that goes along with specific research studies in order to develop a theoretical framework for such.


3.1 Understanding Theory

3.1.1 Characteristics of TheoryThese are some of the characteristics of theory and they could also be seen as criteria for a good theory.
A) Scientific Criteria

  1. Intellectual Rigour: – Every theory is a product of careful analysis and giving great attention to details. This process ensures that they are testable, verifiable or systematic. 
  2.  Dynamism: – Theories are subject to change; they are seldom constant because they can be modified or completely repudiated when new facts emerge. 
  3. Predictive power: Theories enable us to make predictions but those predictions are rarely ever realized with exactitude. Theory is step behind reality. 
  4. Economy: A good theory explains many cases with a few statements and with few exceptions, if any. 
  5. Explanatory Power: ability of a theory to be used to explain a puzzling phenomenon 
  6. Internal Consistency: There should be no contradiction in the process. The processes involved should agree with one another. 
  7. Heuristic Potential: Should help to see a new thing or new things; or should be useful for solving problems. 
  8. Practical Utility. Theories have usefulness to reality. They can be used to solve real life problems and issues 

B) Aesthetic/Humanistic Criteria

  1. Fresh (New) understanding of the human condition. 
  2. Societal value- capacity to stimulate or generate change/clarification of values. 
  3. Aesthetic appeal- capacity to capture our interest/imagination or pique our curiosity. 
  4. Community agreement- acceptance and support by a “community” of (like-minded) scholars. 
  5. Capacity for social reforms. Ability to carry out useful reforms and changes in the society. The changes are mostly socio-economic in nature. 

3.1.2 Why Study Theories?

Theories help to manage realities. Kurt Lewin says that theories enable us to put facts in perspective, and to predict what will happen, even before the events we are theorising about get completed. According to Kaplan, a theory enables us to make sense out of a disturbing situation. e.g. Detectives (Police) always formulate a theory to unravel a case, say murder case. We also study theories in order to derive intellectual satisfaction.
3.1.3 How Theories are arrived at; Theories are derived through a process known as scientific method. The process includes:

  1. Conceptualisation: This is the definition of the subject of inquiry. You may call it a topic of research. 
  2. Operationalisation: This involves translation of general concepts into specific variables and specification of the procedure adopted in research. (From problem statement to generalisation)
  3. Observation: This is the careful study (observation) of the specified variables from available data, using any modes of research. 
  4. Analysis: This involves extracting meaning from the facts observed. This must be done objectively. 
  5. Testing: Here, the results of analysis are used to test the hypothesis or research questions raised in a study. 
  6. Generalisation: The findings from the test are used to make some generalisations, regarding the subject of inquiry. 
  7. Theory: Theories are formulated from the generalisation made as a result of our analysis and testing. 
  8. Law: Theory eventually leads to law after it has been repeatedly tested without being disproved or substantially modified. Laws are difficult to come by in social sciences because we study human organisation and behaviour, which are capricious. 

From the foregoing it can be seen that theory and research are closely linked.

3.1.4 Relationship between Theory and Research

It is already seen from the above that theory and research are closely related through the scientific method. Both theory and research may be seen as two sides of the same coin. Any scientific assertion needs to have both logical and empirical support; that is, it must make sense and align with observations in the real world. Theory provides the logical support while research provides the empirical (observation) support.

3.2Normative Theory

This is a type of theory that describes an ideal way for media systems to be structured and operated. Normative theories do not describe things as they are nor do they provide scientific explanations; instead, they describe the way things shall be if some ideal values or principles are to be realised. They help to explain the way in which social communication rules impinge on mass media structures, conventions and performance, and highlight the consequences of non-convergence between societal communication principles and mass communication principles. They include:

3.2.1 Authoritarian Media Theory

This is the oldest of the press theories. It is an idea that placed all forms of communication under the control of a governing elite or authorities. Authorities justified their control as a means to protect and preserve a divinely ordained social order. It actually began in 16th century Europe- a period when feudal aristocracies exercised arbitrary power over the lives of most people. It derived from State’s philosophy of absolutism, in which recognition of truth was entrusted to only a small number of ‘sages’ who are able to exercise leadership in a top-down approach.

It advocates the complete domination of media by a government for the purpose of forcing the media to serve the government; and the media were forbidden to criticise the government or it functionaries. The media in an authoritarian system are not allowed to print or broadcast anything which could undermine the established authority, and any offense to the existing political values is avoided. The authoritarian government may go to the extent of punishing anyone who questions the state’s ideology.

The fundamental assumption of the authoritarian system is that the government is infallible. Media professionals are therefore not allowed to have any independence within the media organization. Also foreign media are subordinate to the established authority, in that all imported media products are controlled by the state. Authoritarian media still operate today in countries where the press is largely owned or controlled by government (mostly repressive government). The instruments of authoritarian control include, repressive legislation and decrees, heavy taxation, direct or subtle control of staffing and of essential production inputs like newsprints, prior censorship and suspension of production. The relationship between the state and the media in an authoritarian system can be illustrated as such:

3.2.2 Libertarian Media Theory (Free Press Theory)

Libertarian thought emerged out of the authoritarian theory, when some social movements, including Protestant Reformation, demanded greater freedom for individuals over their own lives and thoughts. It prescribes that an individual should be free to publish what he or she likes and to hold and express opinions freely. It sees the press as a free ‘market place’ of ideas- that all ideas should be put before the public, and the public will choose the best from that ‘market place’ (Milton Self-righting principles).

Libertarian theory does not advocate media immunity to the rule of law but asserts that people should be seen as rational beings able to distinguish between good and bad, truth and falsehood- which renders prior censorship of media unnecessary. As a matter of fact, in the libertarian system, attacks on the government’s policies are fully accepted and even encouraged. Moreover, there should be no restrictions on import or export of media messages across the national frontiers. Moreover, journalists and media professionals ought to have full autonomy within the media organization. It also advocates that the press be seen as partner in progress with the government in the search for truth, rather than a tool in the hands of government. It is hard to find intact examples of libertarian media systems in today’s world. Though the clearest expression of free press theory is found in the First Amendment of the American Constitution which states “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”, but the U S media system has tendencies of authoritarianism as well. The illustration below shows that there is no explicit connection between the government and the media in the libertarian theory:

3.3.3Soviet-Communist Media Theory

From its name, the Soviet theory is closely tied to a specific ideology; the communist. Siebert traces the roots of this theory back to the 1917 Russian Revolution based on the postulates of Marx and Engels. The media organizations in this system were not intended to be privately owned and were to serve the interests of the working class.

It advocates the complete domination of media by a communist government for the purpose of forcing those media to serve the party. The main task of the press is to promote the socialist system and maintain the sovereignty of the proletariat (working class) via communist party. While the soviet-communist theory seeks to use the media to support development and change towards the attainment of the communist stage, the authoritarian seeks to use the media to maintain the status quo. But they are similar in subjecting the media to direct state control. Every issue in Soviet communist must be seen and interpreted in favour of the communist party. The four working principles of soviet press are (1) Truthfulness. (2) Partiality. (3) Commitment to the people. (4) Mass culture.

Libertarian and Social Responsibility theories assign economic function to the press while the Soviet press removes the profit motive since it is an arm of government and financed by government. Libertarian and Social Responsibility theories expect the media to raise social conflict to the level of discussion but Soviet theory forbade organisation of press structure along the lines of political conflicts since social societies aspired to become “classless societies”.

An illustration of the Soviet system would appear to be the same as the authoritarian model, in that both theories acknowledge the government as superior to the media institutions. However, there is a major difference between the two theories that needs to be clarified: The mass media in the Soviet model are expected to be self-regulatory with regard to the content of their messages. Also, the Soviet theory differs from the authoritarian theory in that the media organizations have a certain responsibility to meet the wishes of their audience. Still, the underlying standard is to provide a complete and objective view of the world according to Marxist-Leninist principles.

3.2.4.Social Responsibility Media Theory

Social Responsibility Theory emerged as a result of conflict between professionalism and self-regulation of the press and pressure for greater regulation of the media. In response, Henry Luce, CEO of Time Inc. provided funding for an independent commission to make recommendations concerning the role of the press. The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the press was established in 1942 and released its report in 1947.

The Commission members were sharply divided between those who held strongly libertarian views and those who supported some form of press regulation. Press regulation advocates argued that anti-democratic press can easily subvert the “market place of ideas” and use the media to transmit propaganda to fuel hatred for their own advantages. (e.g. Hitler used the media against the Jew). On the other hand, placing the media under a control or regulation will hinder the freedom of the press.

The Commission therefore decided to place their faith in media practitioners and called on them to redoubled their efforts to serve the public and that the media have certain obligations to society. These obligations were expressed in the words “informativeness, truth, accuracy, objectivity, and balance”

This theory states that the media can be used by anyone who has an idea to express but they are forbidden to invade private rights or disrupt social structures. It emphasizes the freedom of the press and places responsibility on the media practitioners to abide by certain social standards. It opposes media regulation but believes that the press is automatically controlled by community opinion, consumer protest and professional ethics.

It calls on the media to be responsible for fostering productive and creative “Great Communities” (Baran and Davis 2003:109), and that media should do this by prioritising cultural pluralism- by becoming the voice of all the people – not just elite groups or groups that had dominated national, regional or local culture in the past. It also points out that the media, in carrying out their obligations, must adhere to the highest ethical standards.

Social Responsibility Theory basic principles, summarised by McQuail (1987), include:

  1. To serve the political system by making information, discussion and consideration of public affairs generally accessible.
  2. To inform the public to enable it to take self determined action. 
  3. To protect the rights of the individual by acting as watchdog over the government. 
  4. To serve the economic system; for instance by bringing together buyers and sellers through the medium of advertising. 
  5. To provide “good” entertainment, whatever “good” may mean in the culture at any point in time. 
  6. To preserve financial autonomy in order not to become dependent on special interests and influences. 

3.2.5 Democratic-Participant Media Theory

This theory advocates media support for cultural pluralism at a grass-roots level. The media are to be used to stimulate and empower pluralistic groups. It calls for development of innovative “small” media that can be directly controlled by group members. In other words, the existing bureaucracy, commercialisation and professional hegemony in media system should be broken down to allow or guarantee easy media access to all potential users and consumers.

The theory reflects disappointment with Libertarian and Social Responsibility theories for failing to deliver social benefits expected of them. It condemns the commercialisation and monopolisation of private owned media and the concentration and bureaucratization of government owned media. It also criticises the public media for being too elitist, too susceptible to the whims and caprices of the government, too rigid and too slavish to professional ideals at the expense of social responsibility
It therefore calls for greater attention of the media to the needs, interests and aspirations of the receiver in a political society. It calls for pluralism in the place of monopolisation, decentralisation and localisation in the place of centralism. Also that media conglomerates be replaced or mixed with small-scale media enterprises. It also calls for “horizontal” in place of top-down communication to ensure feedback and complete communication circuit. However it holds that the mass media have become too socially important to be left in the hands of professionals.

3.2.6 Development Media Theory

Development media theory advocates media support for an existing political regime and its efforts to bring about national economic development. It argues that until a nation is well established and its economic development well underway, media must be supportive rather than critical of government. Journalists must not tear apart government efforts to promote development but, rather, assist government in implementing such policies.

The duty of the press practicing this theory is to promote development. It also emphasises grassroots participation. The tenets of this theory are:

  1. Media must accept and carry out positive development tasks in line with nationally established policy. 
  2. Freedom of the media should be open to economic priorities and development needs of the society 
  3. Media should give priority in their content to the national culture and language(s). The media should also give priority of coverage to other development countries. 
  4. Media should give priority in news and information to link with other developing countries that are close geographically, culturally or politically. 
  5. Journalists and other media workers have responsibilities as well as freedoms in their information gathering and dissemination tasks. 
  6. In the interest of development ends the state has a right to intervene in, or restrict, media operation; and devices of censorship, subsidy and direct control can be justified. 


Normative theory seeks to locate media structure and performance within the milieu in which it operates. Explain.

3.2Mass Society Theories (All-Powerful Media Effect)

These are perspectives that stress the influential but often negative role of the media. They believe that the media are corrupting influences that undermine the social order and that average people are defenseless against their influence. These theories emerged in the second half of the 19th Century when mass circulation of newspapers and magazines, movies, talkies, and radio came to prominence. It was a time of urbanization and industrialization spread; which in conjunction with the media altered the society’s patterns of life. The theories are treated below:

3.3.1 Hypodermic Needle/ Magic Bullet Theory

This was a media theory that saw the media as all-powerful and supremely effective; and believed that all human beings responded the same way to the powerful influence from the media. The theory was a propaganda theory, produced by a combination of Behaviourist and Freudian schools of thought. Behaviourism held that human action was as a result of or response to external environmental stimuli. It argued that the so-called consciousness was meant to rationalise behaviours after they were triggered by the external stimuli.

Freudianism saw the self that controls human action as having three parts: Ego- rational mind; Id- pleasure seeking part of the mind and Superego- internalised set of cultural rules. It said the human action was often the product of the darker side of the self -the Id-, which is the pleasure-seeking part of the mind. By appealing to the Id, so that it could overcome the ego, then, propaganda would be effective.

So, the Magic Bullet saw the media as conveying external stimuli that can condition anyone to behave in whatever way a master propagandist wants. People were viewed as powerless to consciously resist manipulation no matter their level of education or social status. The rational mind was viewed as a mere façade, incapable of resisting powerful messages. People had no ability to screen out or criticise these messages. The messages penetrate to their subconscious mind, and transform how they think and feel.

3.3.2 Lasswell’s Propaganda Theory

During the troubled decade of the 1930s, one of the first communication theorists, Harold Lasswell, proposed a theory that attempted to explain disturbing events of the times. Lasswell argued that the worldwide economic depression and political strife had made people particularly vulnerable to propaganda conveyed by the mass media. He posited that the power of propaganda was not so much the result of the substance or appeal of specific messages but, rather, the result of the vulnerable state of mind of average people.

Unlike the Magic Bullet Theory’s prediction of rapid and powerful persuasive effects of the mass media, this Propaganda Theory said that mediated propaganda conditioned the audience slowly over time. Propaganda works through projection of master symbols, emotion-charged images (for example, a national flag). Lasswell’s depiction of the working mechanism of propaganda was especially prescient in Germany. The National Social Party (Nazis) under Adolph Hitler took control of the German government in 1933 and launched a systematic campaign of propaganda to win popular support for its policies. Joseph Goebbels Propaganda Ministry produced propaganda films to promote the party’s militarism and anti-Semitism. A network of carefully-crafted Nazi master symbols included the swastika, the “Zeig-Heil” gesture, German ascendancy from a mythical Aryan race, and a fictitious Jewish conspiracy. Reinforced by terrorist tactics of the secret police, the propaganda helped to firm a Nazi grip on the highly educated German people.

The Propaganda Theory ascribed great persuasive power to a technocratic elite. Influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann, author of the first book on public opinion (1922), thought that propaganda so threatened democracy that the mass media must be censored to protect the public from their powerful influences. Later theorists decided that people are not so gullible and that the 1930s was a unique era.

3.3.3 Lippman’s Theory of Public Opinion Formation

The theory stressed the inability of average people to make sense of their world and make rational decisions about their actions. Eric Alterman quoted and summarized Lippman’s position that average citizen can be compared to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. “He lives in a world he cannot see, does not
understand and is unable to direct.”…No one expects a steel worker to understand physics, so why should he be expected to understand politics?

Lippman did not believe in the Libertarian assumptions of the rational audience; he thus advocated the placement of control of information gathering and distribution in the hands of a benevolent technocracy- a scientist elite- that could be trusted to use scientific methods to sort fact from fiction and make good decisions about who should receive various messages.


How powerful is the bullet theory? Why is it referred to as all powerful?3.4 Social-Scientific Theories (Limited Effects Theories)

Social scientific theories are generalisations derived from systematic observation and objective analysis of mass media variables, by employing methods associated with empirical research in the social sciences. Methods such as experimentation, field surveys, content analysis, focus group etc are used. The social scientific approach to investigating the effects of the media led to the emergence of limited effects theories. The theories include the following:

3.4.1 The Post Stimuli-Response theory

  1. The Individual Differences Perspective:It argues that because people vary greatly in their psychological compositions and because they have different perceptions of things, media influence differs from person to person. In other words, people learn attitude, values and beliefs in the context of experience and this result in differences in the way they understand and perceive media messages.
  2. The Social Category Perspective:It assumes that members of a given social category will respond to media stimuli in more or less uniform ways. In other words, people with similar backgrounds {e.g. age, gender, and income level, religious affiliations} will have similar reactions to that exposure.

3.4.2 The Two-Step Flow Theory

It states that media messages pass through opinion leaders to opinion followers. It was discovered during election campaign that many people had little exposure to the mass media, such people obtained their information second hand from people {opinion leaders} who got it from the media and also shaped it as they passed it down. The people’s voting decision was based on their second hand information which has been modified by the opinion leaders.The Two-Step flow was later modified to Multi-Step or N-Step flow theory, since opinion leaders also have opinion leaders and so on continuously.

3.4.3 Dissonance Theory (Selective Processes)

Dissonance theory further corroborates the fact that the media are not all-powerful as the belief was in the mass society era. The idea in dissonance theory is that any information that is not consistent with a person’s already-held values and beliefs will create a psychological discomfort (dissonance) that must be relieved; this is because people generally work to keep their knowledge of themselves and the world consistent with their preexisting beliefs. What may happen at times is for a person to try as much as possible to make some things that are not psychologically nor consistently aligned (consistent) to his values and beliefs through a variety of ways. The ‘ways’ of doing this have become known as the selective processes.

Some psychologists see selective process as defence mechanism used to protect ourselves {and our ego} from information that would threaten us, while others consider it as a normal means for coping with the large quantity of sensory information that constantly bombard us. Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that it functions as complex and highly sophisticated filtering mechanism that screen out useless sensory data while it identifies and highlights those that are useful in the data.

Klapper (1960) explains that selective process helps media content consumers to cope with media’s impact. Generally, people tend to expose themselves to those mass communications that are in accord with their existing attitudes and interests; while they consciously and unconsciously avoid communications of opposite hue. However, when exposed to such communications, they often seem not to perceive it, or recast and interpret it to fit their existing views.

Selective Exposure

This is people’s tendency to seek out information that supports their interest, confirms their beliefs and boosts their ego while avoiding those that are contrary to their predispositions. In other words, receivers choose exposure to ideas that reinforce and confirm already held beliefs and attitudes e.g. As a christian, you may have the tendency to read books or watch films that support your religion while you avoid another religion’s materials, say Islamic religion.

Selective Attention

As a result of too much barrage of information that bombard us, we tend to attend to media messages that we feel are in accord with our already held attitudes and interests, while we filter those ones that do not cater for us.

Selective Perception

This is the mental recasting of a message so that its meaning is in line with a person’s beliefs and attitudes. It is a psychological process, which involves decoding of communication messages and ensuring that they align with your previous experiences and current dispositions – needs, moods and memories.

Selective Pretention

This is the process by which people tend to remember best and longest information that is consistent with their pre-existing attitudes or interests.


  1. Why are the Social-Scientific Theories referred to as the Limited Effects Theories?

3.5 Theories of Media, Culture and Society

The theories under consideration here offer cogent and insightful analyses of the role of the media in both culture and society. These theories argue that the structure and content of our media system both reflect and create our overall social structure and our culture. They include the following:

3.5.1 Agenda Setting Theory

This posits that the mass media determines the issues that are regarded as important at a given time in a given society. That means that the press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion; and though it may not be able to tell its readers what it thinks, it does successfully tell them what to think about. In other words, our perception of the world is dependent not only on our personal interests, but also on the map that is drawn for us by the media. Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) corroborate the agenda setting theory by their research. They posit that:

In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position …The mass media may well determine the important issues- that is, the media set the ‘agenda’ of
the campaign. (p.176)

The elements involved in agenda setting include:

  1. The quality or frequency of reporting
  2. Prominence given to the reports – headlines display, layout, timing on radio and TV set
  3. The degree of conflict generated in the reports 
  4. Cumulative media-specific effects over time

3.5.2 Main Streaming/Synchronisation Theory

This theory explains the process, especially for heavier viewers, by which television’s symbols monopolise and dominate other sources of information and ideas about the world.

There are two aspects to mainstreaming:Message Analysis: involves detailed content analysis of selected media content {especially television programming} to assess recurring and consistent presentation of images, themes, value, and portrayals.
Cultivation Analysis: observation of the effects of the messages.

The assumption here is that television creates a worldview that, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the reality because people believe it is to be so. In other words, the more time people spend watching television, the more their world views will be like those spread by television.

You may like to examine the presentation of violence on television; is there as much violence in reality as the presentation is on television? What of the roles assigned to sex {gender} on television: are men presented as dynamic and aggressive while women are portrayed as passive and domestic? What of strike actions in Nigeria, how has the media presented it? Who is the winner or loser between government and labour? On the international scene, Africa is presented as a region of war, chaos, famine and HIV- is it actually true?

3.5.3 The Knowledge Gap Theory

This theory establishes that the media systematically inform some segments of the population; especially those in higher socio-economic groups, better than they inform others. Therefore, the differences between the better informed and the less informed groups tend to grow and become bigger and bigger.

In other words, as the media output increases, rather than balancing the differences between the information rich and the information poor, it enlarges the differences, because those at the higher socio-economic levels acquire information much faster and much more easily than those at the lower levels.

However, the theory also states the possibility of the gap being narrowed. This may happen if the information rich become ‘sated’, that is they have got enough and do not seek for or need more, while the information poor continue to search till they catch up with the information rich.

3.5.4 Spiral of Silence Theory

It describes the tendency for people holding views contrary to those dominant in the media to keep them to themselves for fear of rejection.An opinion spreads from media to people and people are encouraged either to proclaim their views or to swallow them and keep quiet until, in spiraling process, the one view dominates the public scene and the other disappears from public awareness as its adherents became mute. In other words, because of people’s fear of isolation or separation from those around them, they tend to keep their attitudes to themselves when they think they are in the minority.

The point in the theory is that ideas, occurrences and persons exist in public awareness practically only if they are given sufficient publicity by the mass media, and only in the shapes that the media ascribe to them. So, people perceive issues as the media perceive them. And since society rewards conformity and punishes deviance, the fear of isolation constrains people to conform to shared judgment as guarded or judged by the mass media.

Certain terms that have emerged in the process of exposition and discussion of this theory include:

  1. Double Opinion Climate- the media opinion is different from public opinion 
  2. Silent Majority- Domination of minority opinion over majority 
  3. Pluralistic Ignorance – Feeling of belonging to minority whereas opposite is the case 
  4. Bandwagon- Tendency to belong because majority belong 
  5. Snob- effect- Decrease in popularity of opinion because it is believed to be cheap. 

3.5.5 Media Systems Dependence Theory

This theory assumes that the more an individual depends on having his/her needs gratified by media use, the more important will be the role that media play in the person’s life; and therefore the more influence those media will have on that person.

The basis of media influence lies in the relationship between the larger social system, the media’s role and audience relationships in that system, and audience relationship to the media. Effects occur, not because all-powerful media or omnipotent source wills that occurrence, but because the media operate in a given way in a given social system to meet a given audience wants and needs.

Audience members determine the occurrence and shape of media effect and it is related to how the audience uses the media. Since we make use of the media to make sense of our world, we permit the media to shape our expectation. Thus, the greater the need and consequently the stronger the dependency, the greater the likelihood that the media and their messages will have an effect. Media will equally influence not everyone. Those who have greater needs and thus greater dependency on media will be influenced.


How can the agenda setting theory be applied during political electioneering campaign?

3.6 Active Audience Theories

The preceding theories focused on the effects of the media on the audience. As new perspectives emerged, not only was the media regarded as having limited effect, attention was being drawn to what people do with media. Active audience or audience-centred theories explain or focus on what people do with the media as opposed to source–dominated theories which focus on the effects of the media on people.

3.6.1 Uses and Gratification Theory

The Uses and Gratification theory sees the audience as influencing the effect process because they selectively choose, attend to, perceive and retain the media messages. It focuses on the uses to which people put media and the gratifications they seek from that use. In Herta Herzog’s study of the use of radio soap opera, three (3) major types of gratification were identified:

  1. A means of emotional release 
  2. Opportunities for wishful thinking – commonly recognised form of enjoyment 
  3. Advice obtained from listening to daytime serials – commonly unsuspected. 

Wilbur Schramn provided a concept to answer the question “what determines which offerings of mass communication that will be selected by a given individual? or what determines the media content that an individual pays attention to?” The answer offered is called the fraction of selection:

Expectation of Reward Effort RequiredHis point was that people weigh the level of reward (gratification) they expect from a given medium or message against how much effort they must make to secure that reward. We all make decisions about which content we choose based on our expectations of having some needs meet; but the efforts required in meeting the needs will eventually influence the decision we make. So, individuals select the media that will likely satisfy their needs, they selectively consume the content of those media and there may or may not be any effect.

3.6.2 Reception Studies-Decoding and Sense Making

It focuses on how various types of audience members make sense of specific forms of content. Halls (1980a) argued that media content can be regarded as a text that is made up of signs. These signs are related to one another in specific ways. To make sense of a text –to read a text – you have to be able to interpret the signs and their structure. For example, when you read a sentence you must not only decode the individual words but you also need to interpret the overall structure of the sentence to make sense of the sentence as a whole.

He therefore identified 3 variables:

  1. The first is Preferred or Dominant reading – that is the meaning intended by the producer of a media message, which is meant to have a desired effect 
  2. The second is Negotiated or Alternative meaning- that is the audience interpretation of the message that is misinterpreted or that differs from the preferred meaning 
  3. The third is the Oppositional decoding- that is the audience interpretation that is in direct opposition to the dominant or preferred reading. 

Therefore, though people are susceptible to domination by communication technologies, they are able to exploit contradictions that enable them to resist, recycle and redesign those technologies and people are capable of decoding and appropriating received messages and are not necessarily duped by them.

In other words, though people are exposed to the powerful/pervasive media messages, the individual ways of decoding such messages do not always allow them to be influenced.


According to Toeing Herta Herzog’s line of arguments, what determines the offerings of mass communication that you normally select? Or what determines the media content that you pay attention to.

3.7 Media Violence: Children and Effects

We examine here some theories that summarised and offered useful insight into the media’s violence effects.

3.7.1 Catharsis Theory (Sublimation Theory)

Catharsis theory states that viewing violence is sufficient to purge or at least satisfy a person’s aggressive drive and, therefore, reduce the likelihood of aggressive behaviour.
In other words, viewing mediated aggression reduces people’s natural aggressive drives.

Some attentions have been drawn to the weakness of this theory. When you watch couples engage in physical affection on the screen, does it reduce your sexual drive? Do media presentation of families devouring Indomie noodles purge you of your hunger drive? If viewing mediated sexual behaviour does not reduce the sex drive and viewing media presentation of people dining does not reduce our hunger, why should we assume that seeing mediated violence can satisfy an aggressive drive?
Thus, accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behaviour- that is, heavy viewers behave more aggressively that light viewers.

3.7.2 Aggressive Cues Theory

It believes that people who see mediated violence show higher levels of subsequent aggression. In other words, exposure to mass-mediated aggression increases people’s level of emotional and psychological stimulation which can in turn lead to aggressive behaviour.
It is also assumed that a person’s response to aggressive cues depends on whether he is experiencing frustration at the time of exposure to mass mediated violence. It also depends on whether the violence is presented as justified or not. That means if the violence is presented as unjustified, it can inhibit the actual expression of aggression through a sense of guilt.

3.7.3 Social Learning (Social Cognitive) Theory

Social learning theory encompasses both identification and imitation to explain how people learn through observation of others in their environment. Identification is a form of imitation in which copying a model, generalised beyond specific acts, springs from wanting to be and trying to be like the model with respect to some broader quality. In other words, it involves the tendency, especially by children, to identify with admired aggressive heroes and copy their behaviour whenever a relevant situation arises. Imitation is the direct, mechanical reproduction of behaviour.

This theory assumes that people, children especially, tend to learn aggression from the mass media and to model their behaviour after the ones displayed. When people observe media violence, they learn and imitate what is seen. The possibility of actualising what is seen is enhanced when:

  1. The subject expects to be rewarded for such behaviour. 
  2. There is close similarity between the dramatized violence and real –life situation the subject subsequently encounters. 

3.7.4 Reinforcement Theory

It states that mass- mediated violence simply reinforce the existing aggressive inclinations that people bring to media exposure. It is not that the media make people to be violent but they simply reinforce people’s existing aggressive attitudes and behaviours.

3.7.5 Linkage Theory

This theory states that children tend to perceive a link between mass-mediated fantasy and concrete reality. Thus they assume a link between the two, and this tend to guide their behaviour in situations encouraging or stimulating aggressive behaviour.


Do you believe the media is solely responsible for students’ violent behaviours?

3.8 Commonsense (Everyday) Theories

These are derived from experiences of media consumers, but lack research backing that would have enabled them to be crystallised into valid generalisation. They emerged out of the knowledge of the media that people possess as media consumers. One of such is Mc Luhan’s statement that “the medium is the message”

These are theories that emerged from experiences of media consumption, and though they are not generalisations from social-scientific inquiry, these views cannot be dismissed as nonsense. And in reality our experiences of media consumption tend to lend some validity to the views expressed.

3.8.1 ‘Reflective-Projective’ Theory

This theory was proposed by Lee Loevinger, a one-time Federal Communication (FCC) Commissioner. Loevinger says that mass media “mirror” society but the mirror they present is an ambiguous one. While the mass media themselves reflect society as an organised group, individual audience members project their own individual reflections into the images presented. This is the audience differential interpretation of the media mirror.

For example, a programme watched on TV may mean different things to different viewers according to their own experiences, attitudes and moods. Moreover, these individual audience members tend to identify with television and movie characters that are closer to their own idealised selves than to the actual selves. Loevinger also says intellectuals tend to be contemptuous of the TV mirror (TV programme offerings), because there are few or no characters or ideals therein for them to identify with.
Loevinger also pointed to the ambiguity of the media mirror. This is presumed to be a reference to the distortion caused by the “slant” peculiar to each media establishment as well as by the distortion at every stage and level of the gate keeping process, beginning with the news selection stage. The ambiguity of the media mirror and the differential perception by the audience are mutually enhancing and reinforcing. The audience differential interpretation of the media mirror looks like a variant of the perception theory, while the ambiguity of the media mirror can be linked with the gatekeeping theory.

3.8.2 Play Theory

William Stephenson, a British Psychologist, proposed this theory. He divides man’s activity into work and play. Work deals with reality and production, while play deals with entertainment, relaxation or self-satisfaction. Stephenson says that people use mass communication more as play than as work, more for pleasure and entertainment than for information and improvement. For example, newspaper readers give more attention to comics, sports pages, fashion columns, human angle stories etc. than they do to hard news. Have you observed that TV viewers give more time to seeing entertainment programmes like sports, movies, fashion etc?

It is also observed that in societies that use the media mainly for propaganda, a considerable amount of entertainment is injected into the propaganda in order to retain audience attention.

3.8.3 Medium Theory (Channel Theory, or Media Formalism)

The medium theory originated from Marshal McLuhan’s proposition the medium is the message, that is, the medium affects perception. With this claim, he stressed how channels differ, not only in terms of their content, but also in regard to how they awaken and alter thoughts and senses. He distinguished media by the cognitive processes each required. McLuhan popularized the idea that channels are a dominant force that must be understood to know how the media influence society and culture.

Medium theory focuses on the medium characteristics itself (like in media richness theory) rather than on what it conveys or how information is received. In medium theory, a medium is not simply a newspaper, the Internet, a digital camera and so forth. Rather, it is the symbolic environment of any communicative act. Media, apart from whatever content is transmitted, impact individuals and society. McLuhan’s point is that people adapt to their environment through a certain balance or ratio of the senses, and the primary medium of the age brings out a particular sense ratio, thereby affecting perception.


How unscientific is the common sense theory?


Theories are statements, derived from scientific observation, that explain or interpret some phenomenon. Theories emerge from scientific investigation that provides explanations on the working of mass communication. Theories are arrived at through a process known as the scientific method. When this process is followed, a uniformed theory results.

However, when new facts emerge, our knowledge and understanding increase, and this often leads to a paradigm shift- a fundamental, even radical, rethinking of what we believe to be true. There are three factors that have caused a paradigm shift in mass communication theory. They are; Advances in technology or the introduction of new media; Calls for the control or regulation of the new technologies; and the need to protect democracy and culture pluralism.

Consequently, paradigm shift have produced 5 major eras of mass communication theory. They are: The era of mass society theory; the era of scientific perspective; The era of limited effect theory; The era of cultural theory and; The era of moderate effect perspectives


This unit has explored the theories related to mass communication. It gives a vivid understanding of the concept of theory; Characteristics of theory; Why study theory? And the relationship between theory and research. The unit classified all the needed theories into their families and treated them in appreciable detail. The families are :Normative theories; Mass Society Theories (All-powerful Media Effect); Social Scientific Approach (Limited Effects Theories); The Post Stimuli-Response theory; The Two Step Flow Theory; Dissonance theory (the selective process); Theories of Media, Culture and Society; Agenda Setting; Mainstreaming; Knowledge Gap, Spiral of Silence; Media System Dependency;

Active Audience – Uses and Gratification Theory:-Perception Study (Sense Making and Decoding), Framing and Frame Analysis, Information Processing Theory; Media Violence: Children and Effects, Catharsis; Aggressive cue; Social Learning, Linkage theory;
Reinforcement theory and the Common Sense Theories: Reflective Projective and Play Theories.


Name and describe one theory each from each of the following era: The era of mass society theory; The era of scientific perspective; The era of limited effect theory; The era of cultural theory and; The era of moderate effect perspectives.


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