Checked content

Mass media

Related subjects: Media; Television

About this schools Wikipedia selection

SOS Children, which runs nearly 200 sos schools in the developing world, organised this selection. SOS Children has looked after children in Africa for forty years. Can you help their work in Africa?

The mass media are diversified media technologies that are intended to reach a large audience by mass communication. The technologies through which this communication takes place varies. Broadcast media such as radio, recorded music, film and television transmit their information electronically. Print media use a physical object such as a newspaper, book, pamphlet or comics, to distribute their information. Outdoor media is a form of mass media that comprises billboards, signs or placards placed inside and outside of commercial buildings, sports stadiums, shops and buses. Other outdoor media include flying billboards (signs in tow of airplanes), blimps, and skywriting. Public speaking and event organising can also be considered as forms of mass media. The digital media comprises both Internet and mobile mass communication. Internet media provides many mass media services, such as email, websites, blogs, and internet based radio and television. Many other mass media outlets have a presence on the web, by such things as having TV ads that link to a website, or distributing a QR Code in print or outdoor media to direct a mobile user to a website. In this way, they can utilise the easy accessibility that the Internet has, and the outreach that Internet affords, as information can easily be broadcast to many different regions of the world simultaneously and cost-efficiently.

The organizations that control these technologies, such as television stations or publishing companies, are also known as the mass media.

Issues with definition

In the late 20th Century, mass media could be classified into eight mass media industries: books, newspapers, magazines, recordings, radio, movies, television and the internet. With the explosion of digital communication technology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the question of what forms of media should be classified as "mass media" has become more prominent. For example, it is controversial whether to include cell phones, video games and computer games (such as MMORPGs) in the definition. In the 2000s, a classification called the " seven mass media" became popular. In order of introduction, they are:

  1. Print (books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, etc.) from the late 15th century
  2. Recordings ( gramophone records, magnetic tapes, cassettes, cartridges, CDs, DVDs) from the late 19th century
  3. Cinema from about 1900
  4. Radio from about 1910
  5. Television from about 1950
  6. Internet from about 1990
  7. Mobile phones from about 2000

Each mass media has its own content types, its own creative artists and technicians, and its own business models. For example, the Internet includes web sites, blogs, podcasts, and various other technologies built on top of the general distribution network. The sixth and seventh media, internet and mobile, are often called collectively as digital media; and the fourth and fifth, radio and TV, as broadcast media. Some argue that video games have developed into a distinct mass form of media.

While a telephone is a two way communication device, mass media refers to medium which can communicate a message to a large group, often simultaneously. However, modern cell phones are no longer a single use device. Most cell phones are equipped with internet access and capable of connecting to the web which itself a mass medium. A question arises of whether this makes cell phones a mass medium or simply a device used to access a mass medium (the internet). There is currently a system where marketers and advertisers are able to tap into satellites, and broadcast commercials and advertisements directly to cell phones, unsolicited by the phone's user. This transmission of mass advertising to millions of people is a form of mass communication.

Video games may also be evolving into a mass medium. Video games convey the same messages and ideologies to all their users. Users sometimes share the experience with each other by playing online. Excluding the internet however, it is questionable whether players of video games are sharing a common experience when they play the game separately. It is possible to discuss in great detail the events of a video game with a friend you have never played with because the experience was identical to you both. The question is if this is then a form of mass communication.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as Runescape provide a common gaming experience to millions of users throughout the globe. It is arguable that the users are receiving the same message, i.e., the game is mass communicating the same messages to the various players.


Five characteristics of mass communication have been identified by Cambridge University's John Thompson:

  • "[C]omprises both technical and institutional methods of production and distribution" This is evident throughout the history of the media, from print to the Internet, each suitable for commercial utility.
  • Involves the "commodification of symbolic forms", as the production of materials relies on its ability to manufacture and sell large quantities of the work. Just as radio stations rely on its time sold to advertisements, newspapers rely for the same reasons on its space.
  • "[S]eparate contexts between the production and reception of information"
  • Its "reach to those 'far removed' in time and space, in comparison to the producers".
  • "[I]nformation distribution" - a "one to many" form of communication, whereby products are mass-produced and disseminated to a great quantity of audiences.

Mass vs. mainstream

"Mass media" is sometimes used as a synonym for " mainstream media", which is distinguished from alternative media by the content and point of view. Alternative media are also "mass media" outlets in the sense of using technology capable of reaching many people, even if the audience is often smaller than the mainstream.

In common usage, the term "mass" denotes not that a given number of individuals receives the products, but rather that the products are available in principle to a plurality of recipients.

Mass vs. local

Mass media is distinguished from local media by the notion that whilst the former aims to reach a very large market such as the entire population of a country, the latter broadcasts to a much smaller population and area, and generally focuses on regional news rather than global events. A third type of media, speciality media, provides for specific demographics, such as specialty channels on TV ( sports channels, porn channels, etc.). These definitions are not set in stone, and it is possible for a media outlet to be promoted in status from a local media outlet to a global media outlet. Some lcoal media, which takes an interest in state or provincial news can rise to prominence due to their investigative journalism, and to the local region's preference of updates in national politics rather than regional news. The Guardian, formerly known as the Manchester Guardian is an example of one such media outlet. Once a regional daily newspaper, The Guardian is currently a nationally respected paper.


A panel in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., shows the September 12 headlines in America and around the world

Mass media encompasses much more than just news, although it is sometimes misunderstood in this way. It can be used for various purposes:

  • Advocacy, both for business and social concerns. This can include advertising, marketing, propaganda, public relations, and political communication.
  • Entertainment, traditionally through performances of acting, music, sports, and TV shows along with light reading; since the late 20th century also through video and computer games.
  • Public service announcements and emergency alerts (that can be used as political device to communicate propaganda to the public).


The history of mass media can be traced back to the days when dramas were performed in various ancient cultures. This was the first time when a form of media was "broadcast" to a wider audience. The first dated printed book known is the " Diamond Sutra", printed in China in 868 AD, although it is clear that books were printed earlier. Movable clay type was invented in 1041 in China. However, due to the slow spread of literacy to the masses in China, and the relatively high cost of paper there, the earliest printed mass-medium was probably European popular prints from about 1400. Although these were produced in huge numbers, very few early examples survive, and even most known to be printed before about 1600 have not survived. The term "mass media" was coined with the creation of print media, which is notable for being the first example of mass media, as we use the term today. This form of media started in Europe in the Middle Ages. Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press allowed the mass production of books to sweep the nation. He printed the first book on a printing press with movable type in 1453. The Gutenberg Bible, one of the books he published, was translated into many different languages and printed throughout the continent. The invention of the printing press in the late 15th century gave rise to some of the first forms of mass communication, by enabling the publication of books and newspapers on a scale much larger than was previously possible. The invention also transformed the way the world received printed materials, although books remained too expensive really to be called a mass-medium for at least a century after that. Newspapers developed from about 1612, with the first example in English in 1620; but they took until the 19th century to reach a mass-audience directly. The first high-circulation newspapers arose in London in the early 1800s, such as The Times, and were made possible by the invention of high-speed rotary steam printing presses, and railroads which allowed large-scale distribution over wide geographical areas. The increase in circulation, however, led to a decline in feedback and interactivity from the readership, making newspapers a more one-way medium.

The phrase "the media" began to be used in the 1920s. The notion of "mass media" was generally restricted to print media up until the post-Second World War, when radio, television and video were introduced. The audio-visual facilities became very popular, because they provided both information and entertainment, because the colour and sound engaged the viewers/listeners and because it was easier for the general public to passively watch TV or listen to the radio than to actively read. In recent times, the Internet become the latest and most popular mass medium. Information has become readily available through websites, and easily accessible through search engines. One can do many activities at the same time, such as playing games, listening to music, and social networking, irrespective of location. Whilst other forms of mass media are restricted in the type of information they can offer, the internet comprises a large percentage of the sum of human knowledge through such things as Google Books. Modern day mass media consists of the internet, mobile phones, blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds.

During the 20th century, the growth of mass media was driven by technology, including that which allowed much duplication of material. Physical duplication technologies such as printing, record pressing and film duplication allowed the duplication of books, newspapers and movies at low prices to huge audiences. Radio and television allowed the electronic duplication of information for the first time. Mass media had the economics of linear replication: a single work could make money. An example of Riel and Neil's theory. proportional to the number of copies sold, and as volumes went up, unit costs went down, increasing profit margins further. Vast fortunes were to be made in mass media. In a democratic society, the media can serve the electorate about issues regarding government and corporate entities (see Media influence). Some consider the concentration of media ownership to be a threat to democracy.

Influence and sociology

There are 3 theories to describe the influence of mass media. The website CliffNotes explains in detail the theories with examine the role that mass media plays in modern society. The limited-effects theory, which was originally tested in the 1940s and 1950s, states that "because people usually choose what media to interact with based on what they already believe, media exerts a negligible influence". The class-dominant theory states that "the media reflects and projects the view of a minority elite, which controls it". It continues by explaining that the people who own and control the corporations that produce media comprise this elite. The culturalist theory, which was developed in the 1980s and 1990s, combines the other two theories and claims that "people interact with media to create their own meanings out of the images and messages they receive". This theory states that audience members play an active, rather than passive role in relation to mass media.

In an article entitled Mass Media Influence on Society, rayuso argues that the media is dominated by five major companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney and News Corp) which own 95% of all mass media including theme parks, movie studios, television and radio broadcast networks and programing, video news, sports entertainment, telecommunications, wireless phones, video games software, electronic media and music companies. Whilst historically, there was more diversity in companies, they have recently merged to form an elite which have the power to shape the opinion and beliefs of people. People buy after seeing thousands of advertisements by various companies in TV, newspapers or magazines, which are able to affect their purchasing decisions. The definition of what is acceptable by society is dictated by the media. This power can be used for good, for example encouraging children to play sport. However, it can also be used for bad, for example children being influenced by cigars smoked by film stars, their exposure to sex images, their exposure to images of violence and their exposure to junk food ads. The documentary Supersize Me describes how companies like McDonalds have been sued in the past, the plaintiffs claiming that it was the fault of their liminal and subliminal advertising that "forced" them to perchance the product. The Barbie and Ken dolls of the 1950s are sometimes cited as the main cause for the obsession in modern day society for women to be skinny and men to be buff. After the attacks of 9/11, the media gave extensive coveage of the event and exposed Osama's guilt for the attack, information they were told by the authorities. This shaped the public opinion to support the war on terrorism, and later, the war on Iraq. A main concern is that due to this immense power of the mass media (being able to drive the public opinion), media receiving inaccurate information could cause the public opinion to support the wrong cause.

In his book The Commercialization of American Culture, Matthew P. McAllister says that "a well-developed media system, informing and teaching its citizens, helps democracy move toward its ideal state."

In 1997, J. R. Finnegan Jr. and K. Viswanath identified 3 main effects or functions of mass media. The Knowledge Gap: The mass media influences knowledge gaps due to factors including "the extent to which the content is appealing, the degree to which information channels are accessible and desirable, and the amount of social conflict and diversity there is in a community". Agenda Setting: People are influence in how they think about issues due to the selective nature of what media choose for public consumption. After publicly disclosing that he had prostate cancer prior to the 2000 New York senatorial election, Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City (aided by the media) sparked a huge priority elevation of the cancer in people's consciousness. This was because news media began to report on the risks of prostate cancer, which in turn prompted a greater public awareness about the disease and the need for screening. This ability for the media to be able to change how the public thinks and behaves has occurred on other occasions. In mid-1970s when Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller, wives of the then-President and then-Vice President respectively, were both diagnosed with breast cancer. J. J. Davis states that "when risks are highlighted in the media, particularly in great detail, the extent of agenda setting is likely to be based on the degree to which a public sense of outrage and threat is provoked". When wanting to set an agenda, framing can be invaluably useful to a mass media organisation. Framing involves "taking a leadership role in the organisation of public discourse about an issue". The media is influenced by the desire for balance in coverage, and the resulting pressures can come from groups with particular political action and advocacy positions. Finnegan and Viswanath say, "groups, institutions, and advocates compete to identify problems, to move them onto the public agenda, and to define the issues symbolically" (1997, p. 324). Cultivation of Perceptions: The extent to which media exposure shapes audience perceptions over time is known as cultivation. Television is a common experience, especially in places like the United States, to the point where it can be described as a "homogenising agent" (S. W. Littlejohn). However, instead of being merely a result of the TV, the effect is often based on socioeconomic factors. Having a prolonged exposure to TV or movie violence might affect a viewer to the extent where they actively think community violence is a problem, or alternatively find it justifiable. The resulting belief is likely to be different depending of where people live however.

Since the 50s, when cinema, radio and TV began to be the primary or the only source of information for a larger and larger percentage of the population, these media began to be considered as central instruments of mass control. Up to the point that it emerged the idea that when a country has reached a high level of industrialization, the country itself "belongs to the person who controls communications."

Mass media play a significant role in shaping public perceptions on a variety of important issues, both through the information that is dispensed through them, and through the interpretations they place upon this information. They also play a large role in shaping modern culture, by selecting and portraying a particular set of beliefs, values, and traditions (an entire way of life), as reality. That is, by portraying a certain interpretation of reality, they shape reality to be more in line with that interpretation.

Early minstrel shows lampooned the assumed stupidity of black people. Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843
A magazine feature from Beauty Parade from March 1952 stereotyping women drivers. It features Bettie Page as the model.
American political cartoon titled The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things, depicting a drunken Irishman lighting a powder keg and swinging a bottle. Published in Harper's Weekly, 1871.

Racism and stereotyping

Mass media has played a large role in the way white Americans perceive African-Americans. The media focus on African-American in the contexts of crime, drug use, gang violence, and other forms of anti-social behaviour has resulted in a distorted and harmful public perception of African-Americans. African-Americans have been subjected to oppression and discrimination for the past few hundred years. According to Stephen Balkaran in his article Mass Media and Racism, "The media has played a key role in perpetuating the effects of this historical oppression and in contributing to African-Americans' continuing status as second-class citizens". This has resulted in an uncertainty among white Americans as to what the genuine nature of African-Americans really is. Despite the resulting racial divide, the fact that these people are undeniably American has "raised doubts about the white man's value system". This means that there is a somewhat "troubling suspicion" among some Americans that their white America is tainted by the black influence.

Mass media as well as propaganda tend to reinforce or introduce stereotypes to the general public.

Ethical issues and criticism

Lack of local or specific topical focus is a common criticism of mass media. A mass news media outlet is often forced to cover national and international news due to it having to cater for and be relevant for a wide demographic. As such, it has to skip over many interesting or important local stories because they simply do not interest the large majority of their viewers. An example given by the website WiseGeek is that "the residents of a community might view their fight against development as critical, but the story would only attract the attention of the mass media if the fight became controversial or if precedents of some form were set".

The term "mass" suggests that the recipients of media products constitute a vast sea of passive, undifferentiated individuals. This is an image associated with some earlier critiques of "mass culture" and mass society which generally assumed that the development of mass communication has had a largely negative impact on modern social life, creating a kind of bland and homogeneous culture which entertains individuals without challenging them. However, interactive digital media have also been seen to challenge the read-only paradigm of earlier broadcast media.

Whilst some refer to the mass media as "opiate of the masses", others argue that is a vital aspect of human societies. By understanding mass media, one is then able to analyse and find a deeper understanding of one's population and culture. This valuable and powerful ability is one reason why the field of media studies is popular. As WiseGeek says, "watching, reading, and interacting with a nation's mass media can provide clues into how people think, especially if a diverse assortment of mass media sources are perused".

Since the 1950s, in the countries that have reached a high level of industrialization, the mass media of cinema, radio and TV have a key role in political power.

Contemporary research demonstrates an increasing level of concentration of media ownership, with many media industries already highly concentrated and dominated by a very small number of firms.


In 2002, Arnold Kling wrote that "the newspaper business is going to die within the next twenty years. Newspaper publishing will continue, but only as a philanthropic venture." Jim Pinkerton said in 2006 of the future of mass media, "Every country with ambitions on the international stage will soon have its own state-supported media."

Leo Laporte, founder of the TWiT network of podcasts, says that "there will always be a need for storytellers, people who dig up facts and explain them".

Retrieved from ""