Wright (1960) characterizes seven functions of mass communication that offer insight into its role in our lives.
The first function of mass communication is to serve as the eyes and ears for those of us seeking information about our world. When we want to find out the latest news about what’s happening, we can turn on the television, surf the internet, or read a newspaper or magazine. We rely on mass communication for news and information about our daily lives such as the weather, stock reports, or the start time for a game.
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What was one of the first things you did after you heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center? More than likely, you were glued to the Internet or your television waiting for details about the disaster. In fact, your authors’ campus closed down to allow people to stay at home to collect information and be with loved ones, even though our campus is located on the other side of the country.
Correlation addresses how the media present facts that we use to move through the world. The information we get through mass communication is not objective and without bias.
The grandmother of a friend of your authors stated that the information she heard on the radio, “had to be true” because it was on the radio. This statement begs the question, how credible are the media? Can we consume media without questioning motive and agenda? Someone selects, arranges, interprets, edits, and critiques the information we see. A friend of your authors’ has a brother who edits for a major reality TV show. When asked if what we see if a fair representation of what really happens, the person who does the editing simply laughed and said “no. ”
There is an old saying in the news industry-“if it bleeds, it leads” that highlights the idea of sensationalization. Sensationalization is when the media puts forward the most sensational messages to titillate consumers. Elliot poses some interesting food for thought: “Media managers think in terms of consumers rather than citizens. Good journalism sells, but unfortunately, bad journalism sells as well. And, bad journalism-stories that simply repeat government claims or that reinforce what the public wants to hear instead of offering independent reporting -is cheaper and easier to produce” (2004, . 35).
Mass media provide us with an escape from daily routines and problems by entertaining us (Zillmann & Bryant, 1986, p. 303). Media like People Magazine and E-TV keep us up to date on the doings of our favorite celebrities. We watch sports on television, go to the movies, play video games, and listen to our ipods and radios. Most mass communication simultaneously entertains and informs. We often turn to media in our leisure time to provide an escape from our boredom and relief from the predictability of our everyday lives.
We rely on media to take us places we could not afford to go or imagine, acquaint us with bits of culture, and make us laugh or cry. Entertainment can have the secondary effect of providing companionship and/or catharsis through the media we consume.
Mass media is a vehicle to transmit cultural norms, values, rules, and habits. Consider how you learned about what is fashionable to wear or what music to listen to. Mass media plays a significant role in the socialization process. We look for role models to display appropriate cultural norms, but all too often, we do not recognize inappropriate or stereotypical behavior.
We start shopping, dressing, smelling, walking, and talking like the person in the music video, commercial, or movies. Why would soft drink companies pay Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey millions of dollars to sell their products? Have you ever bought a pair of shoes or changed your hairstyle because of something you encountered in the media? Obviously, culture, age, type of media, and other cultural variables factor into how mass communication influences how we learn and perceive our culture.
Mass communication functions to mobilize people during times of crisis (McQuail, 1994).
Think back to 9/11. Regardless of your political preferences, we mourned as a nation and rallied around national pride and patriotism during this time of crisis. Using our earlier example, your authors’ campus decided to suspend classes to allow the campus community time to mourn the loss of fellow citizens. With instant access to media and information, we can collectively witness the same events taking place in real time somewhere else, thus mobilizing a large population of people around a particular event.
The rising popularity of political websites such as moveon. rg is another key example of the use of mass communication to mobilize people for political action.
Mass communication functions to validate the status and norms of particular individuals, movements, organizations, or products. The validation of particular people or groups serves to enforce social norms (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1971). If you think about most television dramas and sitcoms, who are the primary characters? What gender and ethnicity are the majority of the stars? What gender and ethnicity are those that play criminals or those considered abnormal?
The media validates particular cultural norms while diminishing differences and variations from those norms. A great deal of criticism focuses on how certain groups are promoted, and others marginalized by how they are portrayed in mass media. Given the power of the various functions of mass communication, we need to be reflective about its presence in our lives (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). We will now turn our attention to the study of mass communication by looking at what mass communication scholars study, and how they study it.
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