This introductory unit examines five items that address issues surrounding the understanding of the concept of communication. They are:

  1. Various Definitions of Communication 
  2. Various Definitions of Mass Communication 
  3. Functions of Communication 
  4. Features of Mass Communication 
  5. Difference between Mass Communication and Human Communication 


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. define Communication, either in your own words or by other scholars who are grounded in the field 
  2. define Mass Communication 
  3. identify the main features of communication 
  4. explain the basic functions of mass communication 
  5. distinguish mass communication from human communication. 


3.1 What is Communication?

Communication is a common phenomenon that cuts across the daily activities of human being. As food and water are very important to man’s survival so is communication. It is always a unique feature that differentiates the living from the dead. Obilade (1989) defines communication as a process that involves the transmission of message from a sender to the receiver. A group of Nigerian Communication Scholars namely Babatunde Folarin, Dayo Soola, Isaac Ode, Frank Ugboajah variously define communication as follows:

  1. Any means by which a thought is transferred from one person to another (Folarin 2003). 
  2. The process by which any person or a group shares and impacts information with/to another person(or group) so that both people(or groups) clearly understand one another (Soola 2000). 
  3. Not just giving of information, it is the giving of understandable information and receiving and therefore, the transferring of a message to another party so that it can be understood and acted upon (Ode 1999). 
  4. The process which involves all acts of transmitting messages to channels which link people to the languages and symbolic codes which are used to transmit such messages. It is also the means by which such messages are received and stored. It includes the rules, customs and conventions which define and regulate human relationships and events (Ugboajah 2001). 

In its simplest form, however, Communication is the transmission of a message from a source to a receiver…or the process of creating shared meaning (Baran 20004:4)

3.1.1 Understanding Communication

It has been shown that there exists various definitions for communication, as there are different disciplines. While some definitions are human centred, others are not. For example, communication system may incorporate computers, as well as less sophisticated reproducing devices such as photocopiers. A photocopier may see communication as meaning different thing from the way a marketer perceives it. Similarly, a gospel preacher may think communication is something, which is of course different from what a journalist thinks it is.

Therefore, there is no single definition of communication agreed upon by scholars. Psychologists, sociologists, medical practitioners, philosophers and communication specialists, all define communication based on their orientations and perspectives.

Psychologists define communication as “the process by which an individual (the communicator) transmits stimuli (usually verbal symbols) to modify the behaviour of the other individuals (communicates).” This definition describes what many extension workers and change agents hope to achieve. Sociologists see communications “as the mechanism through which human relations exist and develop.” Some people define communication rather narrowly, saying “communication is the process whereby one person tells another something through the written or spoken word.” This definition, from a book written by a journalist, seems reasonable for those in that field. So, there are definitions of communication as there are various disciplines.

Communication is from a Latin word- COMMUNIS, which means common or shared understanding. Communication therefore is a purposeful effort to establish commonness between a source and receiver (Schramn 1965). Whatever is being shared could be associated with knowledge, experience, thought, ideas, suggestion, opinions, feelings etc. We will define communication here as the process of exchanging or sharing information, ideas and feeling between the sender and the receiver.

Communication is very central to all human activities; this is because everything we do and do not, communicate. Man’s interaction with other human beings is a result of communication. Communication is the key around which human life revolves. Communication is also innate – every man is born with the ability, from childhood, we learn to communicate by crying, smiling, kicking etc.  Communication is dynamic, ongoing and ever changing. Communication is made up of activities of interrelated elements which continue to function in the communication process. The fact is that the word communication is encompassing, ambiguous and pervasive. These three words capture the universal nature of communication and make everyone think they know something about communication.


A. All living animals communicate. Do you agree? Justify your position.B. What makes human communication different from that of other animals?

3.2 Functions of Communication

Communication performs diverse kinds of functions. We will look at the following functions:
1.Social InteractionHuman interaction is possible because we can communicate. We relate with friends, parents, colleagues, etc because we share codes that make us understand each other. Without communication this will not be possible.
2.Business and TradeCommunication provides opportunity to transact business and engage in trade. We are able to make known what we are offering for sales and what we want to buy. We also negotiate the prices, mode of delivery etc. through communication
3.Exchange of Ideas and Spread of KnowledgeWe express freely our ideas, opinions and feelings on issues affecting us. We also share knowledge as we engage in discussion and write books. In classroom situation, a teacher is able to impart knowledge into students through communication.
4.Social-Political DevelopmentDevelopment is made possible through communication. Communication helps to mobilise people to work together for their social and political development.
5.Social-Cultural IntegrationCommunication enables exchange of culture and values. Through music, interaction in communities, we are able to learn one another’s cultures and blend for harmonious co-habitation.

3.2.1 Functional Meaning of Communication

Communication could be defined based on its perceived functions. Severin and Tankard (1980) highlight some of the basic differences in the way communication has been perceived. They grouped these into three major areas:

  1. Definitions that stress sharing 
  2. Definitions that stress intentional influence and 
  3. Definitions that include any kind of influence or response (with or without intent) 

Definitions that Stress SharingA number of scholars defined communication in relation to its etymology hence, communication is seen as a concept of sharing or making common. One of such definitions is Cheryl et al (1982) which says that it is “the process of sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings with each other in commonly understandable ways”. Similarly, Bennett (1976) refers to communication as the process of sharing meaning through the use of symbols.

Definitions that Stress Intentional InfluenceAnother school of thought suggests that communication is mainly dependent on persuasion. Horne et al (1965) lend credence to this when they stated that “communication is the process through which a person motivates and influences others to control and modifying their behaviours”. Keegan (1980) refers to communication as “all forms of information transfer and persuasion concerning a product”.

Definition that include any kind of influence or response (with or without intent)These definitions could also be referred to as “all inclusive” definitions. As Lederman (1977) puts it: Communication is a word used to refer to multitude of activities in which people engage such as talking, touching, writing, looking etc”. Luthans (1985) opines that “communication means the flow of material information, perception and understanding between various parts and members of an organization”.

A second look at the aforementioned functional definitions would show that each of them serves some useful purposes despite their inherent weaknesses. For instance, the belief that the essence of communication is based on persuasion may be true in some cases but definitely not in every situation. When a piece of public service announcement is made in the broadcast media or print media, the goal may not necessarily be to persuade the public into believing the message but simply to inform them. However, this does not mean that, we don’t have occasions when communication is designed mainly to persuade the listeners or reading public. This is true of advertisement and public relations activities.

From the fore-going, we can conclude here that, communication can serve a number of different functions like information, education, entertainment, persuasion, and so on.


Give your own definition of communication based on your perceived functions.

3.3What is Mass Communication?Mass Communication is a means of disseminating information or message to large, anonymous, and scattered heterogeneous masses of receivers who may be far removed from the message sources through the use of sophisticated equipment. In other words, communication is the sending of message through a mass medium to a large number of people. Mass Communication represents the creation and sending of a homogeneous message to a large heterogeneous audience through the media. Mass communication studies the uses and effects of the media by many as opposed to the study of human interaction as in other communication contexts.

Stanley Baran defines Mass Communication as the process of creating shared meaning between the mass media and their audience. Also, John Bittner defines Mass Communication as messages communicated through a mass medium to a large number of people. One needs to underscore the underlying fact that what is common in every definition of mass communication anywhere in the world is that it is communicated through a mass medium. In other words, for any message to be regarded as being mass communicated, it must be disseminated through a mass medium like Radio, Television, Newspaper and Magazine.

Mass Communication can also be defined as a device by which a group of people working together transmits information to a large heterogeneous and anonymous audience simultaneously. It is a process by which information originates from the source to the receiver, having been thoroughly filtered and transmitted through a channel ( Sambe 2005:29).


What makes Mass Communication to be Mass Communication?

3.4 Features of Mass Communication

Mass Communication is distinguished from other kinds of communication by a number of features or characteristics. They are:

  1. Mass Medium 
  2. Presence of Gatekeepers 
  3. Delayed Feedback 
  4. Limited Sensory Channels 
  5. Impersonal Vs Personal Communication 

Mass MediumFor a medium to be regarded as mass in communication it must have acquired fifty million adopters (Kaye & Medoff 2005). Radio, Television, internet etc are examples of media which are regarded as mass media because they can reach out to no fewer than fifty million audience at a time. In mass communication, messages reach far beyond the immediate proximity of the sender and could even get to the uttermost part of the world.

Presence of GatekeepersIn mass communication, sent messages do not reach the audience in raw form. Messages are usually ‘treated’. The implication of this is that there is usually no guarantee that what the message receivers get is exactly the message sent by the source. In mass media organizations, the gatekeepers are usually the reporters, sub-editors, editors, producers, writers, etc. The concept of gatekeeper was first coined by Kurt Lewin who describes gatekeepers as individuals or groups of persons who govern the travels of news items in the communication channels.

Gatekeepers could also be defined as any person or formally organized group directly involved in relaying or transferring information from one individual to another through a mass medium. A gatekeeper can be a film producer who cuts a scene from the original script, a network censor who deletes a scene from a prime – time show because it is perceived as being too sexually explicit, a director who determines what segment of film to use in a documentary, a newspaper executive who determines the topic for an editorial, or any other individual in the processing or control of messages disseminated through mass media (Bittner 1989:12).

In actual sense, a gatekeeper does three major functions:

  1. Limiting the information through editing before dissemination. 
  2. Expanding the amount of information by injecting additional views or angles. 
  3. Reorganizing or Reinterpreting the information gathered before disseminating it. 

Delayed FeedbackUnlike in interpersonal communication where reply/feedback is made almost instantly, the feedback in mass communication is always delayed, say for a day, week or month. Burgoon et al 1978 cited in Folarin 1994 says “Feedback is often limited, delayed and indirect”. Mass Communicators are usually subject to additional feedback in form of criticism in other media, such as a television critic writing a column in a newspaper (Baran 2004:7). In other words, feedback in mass communication is not instant. It is mostly through letters to the editor or telephone calls or personal calls on the media Stanley Baran coined the term ‘delayed inferential feedback’ when he said that television executives do not usually wait for feedbacks on what they must do not to improve programming but only infer using the rating measured by the number of viewers.

Limited Sensory ChannelsThis feature has to do with the fact that mass medium limits the number of sensory channels upon which audience can draw. In other words, mass communication only enables one to use his or her sense of sight and hearing since one can only see the visual picture and hear the voice of the speaker on the broadcast station. This is unlike in a face- to- face communication where the audience can shake hands or hug the politicians and as such, have no limitation to the sensory channels.

Impersonal and Personal Communication
Unlike in face – to – face communication where communication is personal, participants in mass communication are usually strangers and, hence messages are more impersonal.


What are the distinguishing attributes of Mass Communication?

3.5 Between Mass Communication and Human Communication

Simply put, Human Communication is a dynamic process of sharing information between individuals. It encompasses all kinds of communication that involves man. It must be pointed out that mass communication is part of human communication. It is one of the three major parts of human communication. The other parts being interpersonal and intrapersonal communication. The easiest way to distinguish mass communication from other parts of human communication is to highlights the unique features inherent in mass communication, which had been discussed earlier in this unit.


  1. Mass Communication is a subset of human Communication. Discuss. 
  2. Draw out the dichotomy between Mass Communication and Human Communication. 


Communication traverses every facet of human life. Without communication nothing can be done. In other words, communication holds the foundation of every human society. It is the process of exchanging, transmitting, transferring, expressing or importing ideas, sentiments, attitudes, feelings, meanings, information or opinion between individuals, groups or organizations. (Sambe 2005:2).


In this unit, we have been able to establish that communication is an essential part of human life and that human communication and mass communication are integral part of communication, hence we cannot study any of them in isolation of the concept of communication. We also attempted an overview of the concept of communication, mass communication and human communication, as well as the similarities and differences between them. The unit also highlighted the features that distinguish mass communication from other forms of communication.


Write a three – page essay on why you chose to study Mass Communication as against Human Communication in the University. If given the opportunity, would you prefer to study human communication and not mass communication or you still prefer to study mass communication?


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