Media’s Role in Society

Problem Definition

Near-constant exposure to media is a fundamental part of contemporary life, more so because they consistently generate popular interest and debate about almost all aspects of society. Media act as the bridge between our private and public worlds, playing many different – and maybe incompatible – roles. For the audiences, it is a source of entertainment and information. For mediapersons, it is an industry that offers income and a professional identity. For media owners, it is a source of profit and political power. For us in general, it helps us see ourselves and our place in society. It is because of such connections that we feel a growing need to understand the mass media-society equation.

From a sociological perspective, the significance of the media is not limited to the content of media messages. It extends to the effects of the process, wherein media affect how we learn about our world and interact with one another, literally mediating our relationship with social institutions. For instance, we are dependent on the media for what we know of and how we relate to the world of politics. We read or watch political debates followed by instant analysis and commentary, which is why politicians rely on media to communicate their message. Ironically, most of our knowledge is not based on experience, but on government news accounts. Similar dynamics are present in other mediated events such as televised sports and televangelism. Our daily interactions are defined by our consumption of media, be it as a diversion or a unifying force – or even a source of conflict. And this is where our concerns begin. In what ways, and to what extent can we allow the media to shape our lives? It is true that media play an outstanding role in strengthening society, by informing, educating and entertaining people. They even serve as the people’s watchdog in a democracy. But when the media are moved by both prosocial and antisocial forces, and they propagate both progressive as well as counter-developmental messages, our concerns regarding their impact on us gain more importance.

Theories and models are analytical tools that help us understand, interpret, explain and make sense of a phenomenon. Leading social theorists in the field of media studies have propounded many theories and devised various models to explain the complex relationship between the mass media and society, and the different ways in which the former influence the latter. The present paper attempts to study and evaluate the major theories explaining the effects of mass media on society.


To gain a better understanding of the effects of mass media on society by studying the major theories which attempt to explain the complex relation between the two, and at the same time trace a history of the development of media effects research.

Literature Review

In McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory (1994, 2005), Denis McQuail examines theories about media and society by dividing them into three broad categories. His first category consists of ‘macro theories’ concerning the relations between media and other social institutions, which bear on the extent to which the media are autonomous. Theories in this category deal with questions about whether media offer alternative visions of, or simply reinforce otherwise dominant lines of power and influence. The second category consists of theories that focus more directly on media institutions and organisations and on how they carry out their chosen or given tasks, especially under conditions of changing technology and competition for resources and support. The last category focuses on the perspective and needs of the audience and the consequences of their using media to gain social experience. It also covers the question of the everyday life experience of audience members and the social context of media reception. Commenting on the nature and limitations of theory, he says: “The theories available to us are fragmentary and selective, sometimes overlapping or inconsistent, often guided by conflicting ideologies and assumptions about society. Theory formation does not follow a systematic and logical pattern but responds to real-life problems and historical circumstances” (McQuail, 2005: 86). On the limitations of empirical research and constructing theories of mass communication based on surveying scattered evidence, he quotes Rosengren (1981b): “…research gives only ‘inconclusive, partly even contradictory, evidence about the relationship between social structure, societal values as mediated by the media, and opinions among the public’” (p. 80). He also says: “As with many of the issues to be discussed, there are more theories than there is solid evidence, and the questions raised by this discussion are much too broad to be settled by empirical research” (Ibid.). He however upholds the possibility that different theories could hold under different conditions and at different levels of analysis. He discusses seven approaches to explaining media-society relations: the mass society theory, Marxism, functionalism, critical political economy theory, social constructionism, communication technology determinism, and the information society theory. Prior to describing each of these theories in detail, he first identifies four major themes for media theory – power and inequality, social integration and identity, social change and development, and space and time.

Elizabeth Perse, in Media Effects and Society (2001), discusses media-society relations from the perspective of media effects. She identifies six different ways to conceptualise media effects, each focussing on a particular dimension. Her first and most-iterated conceptualization is along the cognitive-affective-behavioural dimension. “Cognitive effects are those that concern the acquisition of information – what people learn, how beliefs are structured (or restructured) in the mind, how needs for information are satisfied or not. These effects include concerns about what is learned as well as how much is learned” (Perse, 2001: 17). Affective effects involve the formation of attitudes, or positive or negative evaluations about something. They concern emotional reactions to media content such as fright or amusement, or the development of feelings toward other objects as a result of media exposure. Behavioural effects are observable actions that are linked to media exposure. Such actions can be part of anti- or prosocial behaviour. The other dimensions of her conceptualisation include micro- versus macrolevel, intentional versus unintentional, content-dependent versus content-irrelevant, short term versus long term, and reinforcement versus change media effects. She then discusses four models for understanding media effects: direct effects, conditional effects, cumulative effects, and cognitive-transactional effects. Each model focuses only on one part of the cause of media impact, and has corresponding theories associated with it. The ‘direct effects model’ focuses on media content as the major cause for understanding media effects. It is most relevant where media content affects most people similarly and automatically. Media content attributes that are associated with involuntary responses are thus most relevant to this model. The ‘conditional model’ of media effects looks to the audience as the prime explanation for media effects. “According to this model, audience attributes, such as social categories, social relationships, and individual differences act as conditions that either mitigate or enhance media effects” (Ibid.: 254). A central concept in this model is selectivity. People selectively expose themselves to specific media content, selectively attend to certain aspects of media messages, selectively perceive what they pay attention to, and selectively recall certain information afterward. The ‘cumulative effects model’ emphasises the consistency and consonance of media content within and across channels. That is, certain patterns of images are so constant and regular in the media that selective exposure is irrelevant. The model considers that media effects can be explained by understanding the nature of media content; and, content defines effects. And, the more that audience members are exposed to media content, the more likely they are to be affected. “So, in the case of cultivation, the more the more time someone spends watching television (i.e., living in the “television world”), the more likely he or she is to fashion a view of the world that mirrors the content of television” (Ibid.: 256). Perse argues that the cumulative model is an appropriate framework to use to explore effects that focus on consistency of media content across channels. For example, the model could be used to identify the effects of saas-bahu television shows on different sections of Indian society, since the content (and audience) of most these shows is along the same lines. The ‘cumulative-transactional model’ focuses on the role of active and passive mental activity on media effects. It postulates that when the audiences are active and goal-oriented, they direct attention and mental activity to seek out media content to satisfy their goals. So, schemas that are used are under the control of the individual. When the audience is passive, or relaxing, salient aspects of media content have greater potential to prime, or activate schemas that will then influence how people interpret media content and respond to other stimuli in their environment. This transactional model emphasises the importance of both individual audience factors and aspects of media content in understanding media effects. In this way, Perse accounts for most of the media-society theories through these four models.


The industrialised world depends on media for all kinds of entertainment and information. A major reason for this dependency is that we live in a society in which networks of interpersonal ties are not as deeply established as they once were (McQuail, 1994). In modern societies most of our information is not received through family ties and networks of friendships but rather through the mass media. Most people live in physical proximity to one another but with extensive differences based on ethnicity, race, education, income, religion, language, and other characteristics. Some social and cultural differences can impede interpersonal communication. This tends to inhibit the free flow of information between people and leads them to turn to other sources. As a result, the mass media, in satisfying this need for information, create a condition of dependency (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach, 1982). People come to depend more and more on the media and less on each other. The French sociologist Gustave Le Bon in 1895 saw an emergence of an age of crowds, without ties between people, as opposed to an age of community, in which people are linked by strong social bonds.

Development of Media Effects Research

The development of thinking about media effects can be said to fall within three periods in history. This thinking was strongly shaped by the circumstances of time and place. Scholars in the first period (1900-1930) viewed media as all-powerful agents of change and developed the Magic Bullet Theory to explain media influence. They predicted immediate, direct, and uniform effects on everyone who received a media message. The mass media was credited with considerable power to shape opinion and belief, and to mould behaviour according to the will of those who control the media and their content. These conclusions were not based on any empirical research, but on observations of the popularity and importance of media in people’s lives.

The second phase of media effects research is often called the era of limited effects. This phase is marked by regarding media as having only minimal influence on the audience. Joseph Klapper (1960) expressed the limits on media effects: “Mass communication ordinarily does not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, but rather functions among and through a nexus of mediating factors and influences.” The reason for media’s limited effects was the power of the audience to selectively choose and use media content. In other words, people controlled media and their content through various selectivity processes: a) selective exposure, or control over what they watched, listened to or read in the media; b) selective attention, or control over which elements of media messages people would pay attention to; c) selective perception, or control over how messages were interpreted; and d) selective recall, or control over how and what was learned from the media (Perse, 2001). This view of the power of the audience grew out of persuasion and election research that found that media’s impact was limited by the social connections among people (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955), and by a host of personal experiences and attitudes (Hovland, Lumsdaine, and Sheffield, 1949). Social connections drew people together and led to shared interpretations of media messages. People’s personal characteristics led them to seek out media content that reinforced their beliefs and pre-existing attitudes. So media impact was seen as quite limited in this era. This phase lasted until the 1960s and led several scholars to question the value of continuing to study media effects (e.g., Berelson, 1959). There seemed to be little justification to studying media effects, if media’s influence was so minimal.

The introduction and widespread adoption of television brought scholars to a new phase of effects research. By the mid-1960s, television had replaced newspapers as the most believable medium, and the average American household was watching television more than five and a half hours a day. Scholars began to question whether selective exposure was feasible in such a television saturated media environment. During this period, several studies began to show that it was possible for the mass media to overcome the tendencies of the audience toward a selective approach to using mass communication. In fact, this era is often referred to as ‘the return to the concept of powerful mass media’. McClure and Patterson (1974) noted that television had the possibility to overcome some selectivity processes. During elections, political advertisements on television were so prevalent during prime time that people could not avoid them. Although people might selectively avoid news programs, it was much more difficult to avoid political ads interspersed during entertainment programming. McClure and Patterson found that people learned about the candidates from the many political ads on television, even if they were not particularly interested in the election.

Other studies found strong media effects; i.e. consistent reiteration of important news items led people to adopt the media’s agenda as their own (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Agenda setting marked the ability of the mass media to tell people ‘what to think about’. Gerbner and Gross (1976) found that the heaviest viewers of television were the most likely to be “cultivated” by its patterns of images and accept the television worldview as their vision of reality. These heavy viewers, of course, were relatively unselective in what they watched on television. It should however be noted that these studies did not focus on obvious, behavioural media effects. McClure and Patterson (1974) did not argue that exposure to political ads led people to change their voting behaviour, but that these ads had “dramatic and direct” impact on people’s beliefs about candidates. McCombs and Shaw (1972) did not argue that media were powerful in telling people what to think, but what to think about. And Gerbner and Gross (1976) did not argue that the violence on television made people act aggressively, only that watching that large amounts of television violence made people feel afraid. So, this era of media effects focussed on media’s power to bring about subtle, yet direct media effects.

Dominant Paradigms

The direction of research and theories of audience studies varied from one period to another, as noted in the previous section. The media have been seen as all-powerful agents of social change with their effects being not only direct and immediate but also uniform. Within this perspective, audiences are seen as passive isolated individuals who are affected by messages sent by a source with a specific intention (effects or stimulus response models). On the other hand, audiences are seen as actively engaged in decoding and using media messages. This tradition falls within the uses and gratifications perspective. Between the 1970s and 1990s a third school of thought became increasingly popular. This new tradition attempted to ‘synthesize insights from communication theory, sociology, semiology, and psychology to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the communicative circuits operating in social contexts’ (Miller, 1995). This perspective, broadly labelled cultural studies, views the media-audience relationship in a much broader context. This involves two major propositions: that ‘media “construct” social formations and history itself by framing images of reality (in fiction as well as news) in a predictable and patterned way; and second, that people and audiences construct for themselves their own view of social reality and their place in it, in interaction with the symbolic constructions offered by the media’ (McQuail, 1994). This perspective is not entirely inconsistent with earlier formulations of the ‘effect’ process. Yet, it does vary radically ‘in terms of methods and research design calling for broader, more in-depth, and qualitative evidence in understanding the context within which media consumption occurs and the social environment which influences interpretations of media messages’ (Johnson, 2000).

Effects Studies

The ‘effects school’ is concerned with the transmission of media messages, how senders and receivers encode and decode those messages, and what channels are used in this transmission. It views the process of transmission as linear. This stimulus-response model, also referred to as ‘hypodermic needle model’, envisages the media as a hypodermic syringe that injects the audience with its contents like a drug – giving a mental image of the direct, strategic, and planned infusion of a message into an individual. The most famous incident often cited as an example for the hypodermic needle model was the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the subsequent reaction of widespread panic among its American mass audience. However, this incident actually sparked the research movement led by Lazarsfeld and Herzog, which disproved the magic bullet or hypodermic needle theory as Cantril (1940a) managed to show that reactions to the broadcast were in fact diverse, and were largely determined by situational and attitudinal attributes of the listeners. Lazarsfeld proposed the ‘two-step model’ (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet, 1944) which hypothesised that ideas flow from mass media to opinion leaders, and from them to a wider population. Unlike the hypodermic needle model which considered mass media effects to be direct, the two-step flow model stressed human agency. According to Lazarsfeld and Katz (1955), mass media information was channeled to the “masses” through opinion leadership. The people with most access to media, and having a more literate understanding of media content, explained and diffused the content to others.

The ‘communication effects’ models were criticised, and modifications were made in light of the growing research. It was argued that these models privileged the text over the audience. They viewed the message as a fixed entity which was received (directly or indirectly) by an audience incapable of giving meaning to the message. The intended meaning resulted in an intended response, and the mass audience members were seen as passive non-negotiators. There was also no room for feedback by the audience, an element deemed critical to understanding media effects. Issues like motivations for watching, the role of the social environment, or the potential needs that were being satisfied by media consumption were not addressed. Questions such as these formed the basis for a theoretical perspective developed in response to effects models of communication.

Uses and Gratifications

Attempts to understand the uses audiences made of the available media and the gratifications they derived from exposure to their selections resulted in the uses and gratifications theory. This begins with the audience making a conscious and motivated choice as to the content of the media. Another key assumption is that ‘the meaning of media experience can be learned only from people themselves. [Within this approach] media use is more suitably characterised as an interactive process, relating media content, individual needs, perceptions, roles and values, and the social context in which a person is situated’ (McQuail, 1994). The earliest and most dominant form of this theory, described by Katz, et al. (1974), tends to be functionalist in formulation. Media use is seen as a problem-solving, functional, activity to solve social and psychological circumstances.

A reformulated, less mechanistic or functionalist version of the description provided by Katz, et al. is mentioned by Johnson (1994): (a) Personal social circumstances and psychological dispositions together influence both (b) general habits of media use and also (c) beliefs and expectations about the benefits offered by media, which shape (d) specific acts of media choice and consumption, followed by (e) assessments of the value of the experience (with consequences for further media use) and, possibly, (f) applications of benefits acquired in other areas of experience and social activity.

This new approach took into account the fact that different people selected different content from the media and interpreted it in different ways. Thus, the media had both selected and limited influences (as opposed to the previous Magic Bullet perspective which saw the media as powerful, uniform, and having immediate effects) on people who are exposed to a particular message. The uses and gratifications theory was developed to try to explain why audiences do not passively wait for media messages to arrive. It seeks to understand why audiences are active, deliberately seeking out forms of content that provide them with information that they need, like, and use (DeFleur, 1970). This psychological theory focuses on the audience’s interests, needs, attitudes and values that influence media selection.

To explain the reasons why people select certain media, McQuail, Blumler and Brown (1972) developed a typology consisting of four categories: diversion (including escape from routine and the burden of daily life); personal relationships (including substitute companionships); personal identity (including reality exploration and value reinforcement); and surveillance (informing ourselves about the world around us. The authors argue that people use media and consciously select media content to gratify one of these four needs.

Although this theory brings back the focus from the text to the audience, it limits audience analysis by viewing their interaction with media in isolation from other social forces. In addition, it fails to consider one’s position within the social order and possible external social forces which may influence the level of consumption, the type and the motivation for interaction with media.

Cultural Studies

Dennis McQuail (1994) has outlined the salient features of the culturalist tradition of audience research:

-The media has to be ‘read’ through the perceptions of its audience, which constructs meanings and pleasures form the media texts offered (and these are never fixed or predictable).

-The every process of media use as a set of practices and the way in which it upholds are the central objects of interest.

-Audiences for particular genres often comprise ‘interpretative communities’ which share much the experience, forms of discourse, and frameworks for making sense of media.

-Audiences are never passive, nor are their members all equal since some will be more experienced or more active fans than others.

-Methods have to be ‘qualitative’ and deep, often ethnographic, taking account of content, act of reception, and context together (pp. 297-298).

Though many of these features have been borrowed from other perspectives, this approach to media research is most distinctive in its emphasis on hegemony. As Lull (1990) argues, ‘preeminent theoretical contribution to cultural studies came from elaboration of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of ideological hegemony’. It is advocated that focus be given to media experience and how the audience related to it. This allows the ‘reader’ more interpretative power while ‘consuming’, ‘decoding’, and ‘reading’ the media texts. Cultural studies attempt to understand these texts’ role in society and culture, especially among oppositional or marginalised groups (Miller, 1995).

Cultural studies research is interdisciplinary and its key concepts are based on critical approaches to mass media. Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony, ideology, and consensus are important in understanding the process of the ruling class establishing and maintaining dominance not just by force, but by encouraging consensus among diverse social groups. Society and its various divisions are not seen as an organic whole but as a series of interconnected parts. Social relations are analysed in terms of power, ‘in terms of a structure of domination and subordination that is never static, but is always the site of contestation and struggle’ (Miller 1995). Gramsci believed that the production of meanings is closely linked to the social structure and hence, to understand those meanings one must understand the structure and history which have produced them.

Cultural research is thus also based in Marxist ideology with specific reference to class, power, and hegemony. The drawback of this is that if research begins with a class-ideological focus it is possible that other key variables may be overlooked. The researcher runs the risk of producing agenda-laden ethnography, which may lead to distorted conclusions (Miller, 1995). Another drawback in the cultural studies approach is that it remains to a great extent a perspective favouring theory over practice (Allen, 1987). There have, however, been worthy attempts to rectify this in the recent past. Moores and Lull are two scholars grounded in this theoretical perspective and carrying out ethnographic fieldwork. They both argue for the ethnographic approach as researchers in cultural studies pursue questions of meaning and social context in relation to media (Johnson, 2000).


The theoretical perspectives on the relation between media and society covered in the above discussion are diverse in several respects, emphasising different causes and types of change and pointing to different paths into the future. Each theory has its own merits and limitations. They cannot all be reconciled, since they represent alternative philosophical positions and opposed methodological preferences. Nevertheless, we can make some sense of them in terms of the main dimensions of approach, each of which offers a choice of perspective and method. The present study provides only an overview of the main paradigms observed in media research, and not a detailed description of all available models and theories within each paradigm. It does not include newer perspectives that have emerged as a result of progress in technology and changes in the media environment which have reallocated the time spent on different media and generated new audience responses. It also does not account for new media technology and its impact on media-society relations.


-McQuail, Denis (1994) ‘Mass Communication Theory’, Sage, New York.

-Perse, Elizabeth M. (2001) ‘Media Effects and Society’, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., New Jersey.

-Johnson, Kirk (2000) ‘Television and Social Change in Rural India’, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

-Mitra, Ananda (1993) ‘Television and Popular Culture in India: A Study of the Mahabharat’, Sage Publications, New Delhi.


About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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