The term "mass communication" is a term used in a variety of ways which, despite the potential for confusion, are usually clear from the context. These include (1) reference to the activities of the mass media as a group, (2) the use of criteria of a concept, "massiveness," to distinguish among media and their activities, and (3) the construction of questions about communication as applied to the activities of the mass media. Significantly only the third of these uses does not take the actual process of communication for granted.

"Mass communication" is often used loosely to refer to the distribution of entertainment, arts, information, and messages by television, radio, newspapers, magazines, movies, recorded music, and associated media. This general use of the term is only appropriate as designating the most commonly shared features of such otherwise disparate phenomena as broadcast television, cable, video playback, theater projection, recorded song, radio talk, advertising, and the front page, editorial page, sports section, and comics page of the newspaper. In this usage "mass communication" refers to the activities of the media as a whole and fail to distinguish among specific media, modes of communication, genres of text or artifact, production or reception situations, or any questions of actual communication. The only analytic purpose this use of the term serves is to distinguish mass communication from interpersonal, small-group, and other face-to-face communication situations. A second use of the term involves the various criteria of massiveness which can be brought to bear in analyses of media and mass communication situations.

These criteria may include size and differentiation of audience, anonymity, simultaneity, and the nature of influences among audience members and between the audience and the media.

Live television spectaculars of recent decades may be the epitome of mass communication. These may include such serious events as the funerals of John Fitzgerald Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., and such entertainment spectaculars as the Olympic games, the Superbowl, and the Academy Awards. These transmissions are distributed simultaneously and regardless of individual or group differences to audience members numbering in several tens or even a few hundreds of millions. Outside of their own local groups, these audience members know nothing of each other. They have no real opportunities to influence the television representation of the events or the interpretation of those representations by other audience members.

By contrast the audience for most cable television channels is much smaller and more differentiated from other audience groups. The audience for newspapers, magazines, and movies is less simultaneous, again smaller and more differentiated, and there is the potential for a flow of local influences as people talk about articles and recommend movies. But compared to a letter, phone call, conversation, group discussion, or public lecture all of these media produce communication immensely more massive on every criterion.

All of the criteria used in defining mass communication are potentially confused when one is engaged in a specific research project or critical examination. The most confounding problem is encountered when determining the level of analysis. Should the concern be with a single communication event or with multiple events but a single communication channel? Should the focus be upon multiple channels but a single medium? Does the central question concern a moment in time or an era, a community, nation, or the world?

Radio provides an excellent example of the importance of these choices. Before television, network radio was the epitome of mass communication; it was national, live, available and listened to everywhere. Today it is difficult to think of radio this way because the industry no longer works in the same manner. Commercial radio stations depend on local and regional sources of advertising income. Essentially all radio stations are programmed to attract a special segment of a local or regional audience, and even when programming national entertainment materials such as popular songs, stations emphasize local events, personalities, weather, news, and traffic in their broadcast talk. Radio is an industry characterized by specialized channels each attracting relatively small, relatively differentiated audiences. But the average home in the United States has five and half radios, more than twice the number of televisions. Cumulatively the U.S. audience for radio is just as big, undifferentiated, and anonymous as that for television. Is radio today, then, a purveyor of mass communication? It depends on whether the concern is with the industry as a whole or with the programming and audience of a particular station.

Most uses of the term "mass communication" fall into one of these first two categories, either to refer to the activities of the mass media as a whole, or to refer to the massiveness of certain kinds of communication. Both uses have in common that they take issues of communication for granted and instead place emphasis on the massiveness of the distribution system and the audience. Attention is given to what are called the mass media because they are the institutional and technological systems capable of producing mass audiences for mass distributed "communications." Communication, then, ends up implicitly defined as a kind of object (message, text, artifact) that is reproduced and transported by these media. For some purposes this may be exactly the right definition. But it diminishes our ability to treat communication as a social accomplishment, as something people do rather than as an object that gets moved from one location to another. If communication is something people do, then it may or may not be successful, may or may not be healthy and happy. If communication means "to share" for example rather than "to transmit," then what, if anything, of importance is shared when people watch a television show.

Scholars of mass communication are often more interested in communication as a social accomplishment than they are in the media as mass distribution systems. This interest is based on an intellectual independence from both existing habits of terminology, and most importantly, from media institutions as they exist. The term mass, however it may be defined, is then treated as a qualification on the term communication, however it may be defined. Such intellectual exercises, of course, can work out in a great variety of ways, but a few examples will suffice.


At one extreme, if communication is defined so that interaction between parties is a necessary criterion, as in "communication is symbolic interaction," and mass is defined as an aggregate of non-interacting entities, then mass communication is an oxymoron and an impossibility. At the opposite extreme, if the couplet mass communication is defined as involving any symbolic behavior addressed "to whom it may concern" then choices of clothing, furniture, and appliance styles, body posture, gestures, and any other publicly observable activity may well count as mass communication. Both of these extremes may seem like mere intellectual games but they are important precisely because their intellectuality frees them of the practical constraints under which we operate in other realms. The contribution of such intellectual games is precisely to stimulate new thinking. Perhaps pausing to consider the idea that mass communication may be an impossibility could help us to understand some of the paradoxes and incoherencies of contemporary American culture.

Consider a third example in which we use a model of communication to evaluate industry practices. Definitions of mass communication that take communication for granted and focus on the massiveness of the medium are always in danger of implicitly adopting, or certainly failing to question, the taken for granted criteria of evaluation already used in industries. In commercial television, just like any of the other commercial media, what is assumed is that it is a business. The conventions of the industry are to evaluate things in business terms. Is this television show good for business? Would increasing network news to an hour be a good business decision? Would noncommercial, educational programming for children be a successful business venture? In such an environment it is an important intervention to point out that these industries are communicators as well as businesses. As such they can and should be held to communicative standards. The public has a right to ask whether a television show is good for communication, whether an hour of network news would be a successful form of communication, whether there is a communication need for noncommercial, educational children's programming. As the terms of the questions shift, so, of course, may the answers. Becoming aware of such possibilities begins with being sensitive to the definitions of such terms as mass communication.

- Eric Rothenbuhler


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See also Advertising; Americanization; Audience Research; Cable Networks; Market; Narrowcasting; Political Processes and Television; Public Interest, Convenience, and Necessity; Satellite; United States: Cable Television