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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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Networks; Market; Narrowcasting;
Processes and Television; Public
Interest, Convenience, and Necessity; Satellite;
States: Cable Television