A. General thoughts on media theory:


1.     Some theories are descriptive, some are predictive.  Some are both. 

Some offer prescriptions (beyond the realm of theory - "is" vs. "ought")


2.     Some theories deal with the process, some with the

effects.  Some deal with both.


3.     For any media theory, we can ask, "how does this

theory view humanity?"


4.     The media environment is ever changing

(cyclical nature)


              Functional development - when the functions of

an existing medium are replaced by a newer

technology, the older medium finds new functions

 (or dies)


Ex. Radio


Joseph Schumpeter:

the process of creative destruction


Product/industry lifecycles:

introduction, growth, maturity, decline


Forces at work - technological change, content

innovation, and consumer demand.


5.     Media theory is ever changing in response to changes in the media environment




B. Mass Society Theory - Idea that media are corrupting influences that undermine the social order through their influence over defenseless "average" people.

(The critique - such theories fail to account for the findings of media effects research)


The Media is powerful, influential, and has a negative effect.

Media "manipulates," "controls," "brainwashes" etc. in the cultural war to shape thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.  Media affects other social institutions.  Mass media are symbolic of all that is wrong with society.

       (see the 6 assumptions)

       ex. George Orwell's "1984"


C. Propaganda - no-holds-barred use of communication to propagate specific beliefs and expectations.


Goal: to change the way people act and to leave them believing that those actions are voluntary, that the newly adopted behaviors - and the opinions underlying them - are their own.


The first media theories arose from theorists analyzing media content and speculating about its influence.


Media is the focus (unlike mass society theory in which media is only one of the potentially socially disruptive forces)


Government and military uses?

       Dropping leaflets

       Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" (1934)

              Shows troops of Hitler youth at play, ranks of laborers,

parades of storm troopers, close-ups of Hitler, etc.,

creating a mystical, primitive union between the dictator and

his followers and exalting Nazi unity in Germany.


       One key is who controls the media -

the government or private sources?


In response to the effectiveness of some of these propaganda campaigns researchers began to seek to understand and explain the ability of messages to persuade and convert thousands or even millions of individuals to extreme viewpoints.


1. Behavioralism - The notion that all human action is a conditioned response to external, environmental stimuli.


       Stimulus - response models

              Ex. Pavlov's dog


       Ex. B. F. Skinner - "Walden Two"


2. Magic bullet theory - Media penetrate people's minds and instantly create effects.


Media effect is:






Don't think about:





























Ex. "The War of the Worlds" broadcast.



3. Lasswell's Propaganda theory - the existing environment can make people susceptible to propaganda.


People need to be slowly prepared to accept radically different ideas and actions.

       Sort of a long term magic bullet approach!


Long term campaigns can be implemented to gradually teach people to associate specific emotions with master (or collective symbols).


Then, subsequent uses of the master symbol trigger ideas and actions (a conditioned response).


       Examples of master symbols:

              Book: the American flag


Many examples of "bad" propaganda, could social scientists develop "good" propaganda?

              Ex. Voice of America


Walter Lippmann  - popularizer of Lasswell's views

       Proposed that an elite agency control information


John Dewey - public education can teach the "average"

person to resist propaganda.


Propaganda theory today - chapter 9



D. Normative Theories


What should the role of the media be in a society?


       Questions on page 97.


Theories developed that describe an ideal way for media systems to be structured and operated.


Prescriptive in nature.


Theories run the gamut from First Amendment absolutists (libertarian) to technocratic control (authoritarian).


Highlighting a few of these normative theories:


1. Milton's Areopagitica (1644)



self-righting principle - in a fair debate truth will

always win out


       thus, free speech (a fair environment) is in the public interest


       suppressing the truth is not in the public interest


       though, there are some types of content that the King

should censor (speech that is treasonous,

slanderous, blasphemous)


2. The First Amendment

       Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.


       What does this mean?

              "No law" - Balancing theory

              "Speech" - not all speech is equal

              "The Press" - not all mediums are equal


3.  Marketplace of Ideas

       Let the market regulate itself (laissez-faire approach).

       Let ideas be traded vigorously.

       Good ideas will flourish, bad ideas will wither and die.


       Caveat emptor or consumer protection laws?


       A contrast - the Chicago school.

              The marketplace of ideas leads to domination by

elite groups (the socially dominant). 

A counterbalance is needed to ensure that weaker

groups have a voice.

              Ex. PBS


4. Social responsibility theory

       a compromise between press freedom (libertarianism)

and government control (authoritarianism)


media should police itself (codes of conduct)

media as fourth estate - a watchdog on other


              media should be pluralistic and present a diversity

of voices

                             do new communication technologies

foster diversity or Balkanization?



  Back to COM610 syllabus