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Mass media has a direct affect on modern culture. This is especially true in the United States where the majority of mass media originates. The moods and attitudes of our society are influenced by messages delivered through mass media channels. Mass media and advertising affect our actions, thoughts, and values. We are at the point where mass media creates and reflects our culture–a mediated culture.

Society controls mass media and vice-versa

A look back through the history of our society will reveal that we were not always influenced by mass media. This is due largely to the fact that our current level of media saturation has not always existed. Television, the most popular mass media medium, was less predominant in the 1960s and 1970s. Even if you were one of the fortunate families to own a television set, only three main channels existed. Additionally, a few public broadcasting and independent stations were in operation. Radio and television shows in the 1960s were targeted to an audience with very high moral values. The audience demographic consisted primarily of two-parent, middle-class families. The programming was a reflection of everyday life. Families living three decades ago would never have tolerated a reality show. Television shows such as, “Leave it to Beaver” was a representation of actual middle-class life in the early 1960s. The same families gathering in front of a television set to watch a 1960s situation comedy would have never accepted the programming of today. Our moral values in the early days of television dictated content and influenced advertising. We controlled mass media by our level of acceptance.

Still photography, motion pictures, telegraphy, radio, telephone, and television were all invented between the years 1860 and 1930. Mass media emerged into a capitalization of the leisure industries to eventually become the dominator of mental life in modern society. Adolf Hitler used radio for propaganda sparking concern that mass media could be used for mind control. Early studies of mass media by sociologists proved that media effects were direct and powerful. However, the level of influence on an individual depended on certain factors such as class and emotional state.

C. Wright Mills defines mass media as having two important sociological characteristics: first, very few people can communicate to a great number; and, second, the audience has no effective way of answering back (The Power Elite, 1956). The introduction of the internet into mainstream mass media has changed communication into a bidirectional process. Responding to email advertisements and answering messages in a chat room change Mills’ definition of mass media. The internet reaches a broad audience but has less of an impact on shaping society.

The majority of research in the 1960s was concentrated on television. Television was believed to be the most pervasive medium. The Mass Communication Theory provides research on the cultural quality of media output. D. McQuail identifies cross-media ownership, and the increasing commercialization of programming by a few select large corporations as a pattern of control. The conflict perspective aligns with this theory.

Media output is controlled and regulated by government. History has shown restrictions ranging from complete censorship to a lighter advisory regulation.

Everyone agrees that mass media is a permanent part of modern culture. The extent of the influence mass media has on our society is the cause of much debate. Both legislature and media executives combine efforts and produce reports showing that mass media is not responsible for shaping society. Sociologists and educators debate these findings and provide a more grounded, less financially influenced theory. Sociologists have three perspectives on the role of mass media in modern culture. The first, limited-effects theory, is based on the premise that people will choose what to watch based on their current beliefs. According to a study by Paul Lazarsfeld, media lacked the ability to influence or change the beliefs of average people (Escote 2008). Individuals living through the early days of mass media were more trusting of news stories. This is evident in the famous radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds.” A startling one out of six people believed we were being invaded by aliens. While the limited-effects theory, also known as the indirect effects theory, was applicable 40 years ago; society is not as naive today. Competing newscasts give us the opportunity to compare stories and accept only what is common between them. Unless the “War of the Worlds” was carried on every major mass media station, society today would recognize it as fiction. Even then, we would be skeptical until our President addressed the nation.

The class-dominant theory argues that the media is controlled by corporations, and the content–especially news content–is dictated by the individuals who own these corporations. Considering that advertising dollars fund the media, the programming is tailored to the largest marketing segment. We would never see a story that draws negative publicity and emotion to a major advertiser. The class-dominant theory in a newsroom extends beyond corporate control. A journalist with a specific agenda can alter or twist a story to suit their own needs.

The third, of the three main sociological perspectives, is the culturalist theory. As the newest theory, the culturalist theory combines both the class-dominant and limited-effects theory to claim that people draw their own conclusions. Specifically, the culturalist theory states that people interact with media and create their own meanings. Technology allows us to watch what we want and control the entire experience. We can choose to skip certain parts of a horror movie and even mute content on live news casts. People interpret the material based on their own knowledge and experience. The discussion forums in an online classroom is one example of the culturalist theory. Although all the students read the same text and study the same content, each student produces a different view based on experiences outside of the classroom. The result is a widely divergent group of posts and many opposite opinions open for discussion.

The Functionalist Perspective

Functionalists believe that mass media contributes to the benefit of society. Charles Wright (1975) identified several ways in which mass media contributes to creating equilibrium in society. He claims the media coordinate and correlate information that is valuable to the culture. The media are powerful agents of socialization. Through the media, culture is communicated to the masses. Serving society through social control, the media act as stress relievers which keep social conflicts to a minimum.

The functionalists idea of equilibrium is evident in news broadcast as well as late night drama programs. In both instances, all human acts lacking morality are reinforced by showing them as unacceptable and wrong. Crimes, such as murder, robberies, and abuse are shown as deviant behavior. Mass media make our world smaller. People gather in groups to watch, they talk about what they see, and they share the sense that they are watching something special (Schudson 1986).

Functionalists view mass media as an important function in society. Mass media can influence social uniformity on scale broader than every before. The internet reaches more individuals in most social groups more often than television or radio. Mass media has been accused of creating dysfunction. Postman (1989) argued that popular media culture undermines the educational system. Claims have been made that there is a link between television viewing and poor physical health among children.

The Conflict Perspective

Conflict theorists believe that mass media is controlled by corporations with the intent of satisfying their own agendas. News casts and sitcoms are not designed to entertain and inform, but rather to keep our interests long enough to deliver a well paid advertisement. The conflict perspective views mass media as a conduit for social coercion. The controllers of mass media use programming and advertising to influence certain social classes. Trends are introduced through mass media and mimicked by the public lending credence to the theory that coercion, domination, and change in our society is partly due to television, radio, print, and the internet. From the conflict perspective, modern mass media are instruments of social control (Sullivan 2007). While functionalists and interactionists agree that mass media is necessary, followers of the conflict perspective view mass media as a necessary evil. As instruments of social control, mass media plays an important role in shaping our society.

The Interactionist Perspective

From the interactionist perspective, mass media is used to define and shape our definitions of a given situation. This perception of reality seems to evolve as our everyday values and cultures change. A definition of the average American family from the 1950s and 1960s is drastically different from what we expect today. The mass media portrayal of family life has always been a benchmark to compare our own lives and successes. Mass media serves as our social acceptance gauge by providing symbols representing what is proper and what is unacceptable. The interactionist perspective shares similarities with the functionalist perspective. Both theories agree that mass media symbolizes a perfect society that individuals strive to emulate. Celebrities, athletes and other role models promote clothing, brands, and behavior while sometimes encouraging values and moral guidelines.

Mass media is defined as “the channels of communication in modern societies that can reach large numbers of people, sometimes instantaneously (Sullivan 2007).” Only recently has technology been advanced enough to realize so many methods of communication. Television, radio, and print were the original members of mass media. The internet brought chat-rooms, email, and the idea of social networking to an already media saturated society. Television and radio represent “push” communication. The consumer has little choice over the content streamed through the cable and onto their television. They can choose to change stations or turn off the television. The internet, specifically web sites, can only be delivered to a consumer if they have made a request to “pull” the content. Mass media has completed a paradigm shift from content and programming we chose to accept, to content designed to shape our society. In the 1960s and 1970s, society controlled mass media. Today, mass media has the single largest impact on our culture.  Guidelines for behavior, major beliefs, and values are all influenced by mass media. Every sociological theory concludes that mass media affects modern culture–a mediated culture.


Escote, Alixander (April 2008). Limited Effects Theory. http://www.socyberty.com/Sociology/Limited-Effects-Theory.112098

CliffsNotes.com (July 2008). The Role and Influence of Mass Media. http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/CliffsReviewTopic/topicArticleId-26957

Sullivan, Thomas J. (2007). Sociology: Concepts and Applications in a Diverse World. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Wright, Charles (1975). Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective.

Schudson, Michael (1989). The Sociology of News Production. Sage Publications, Ltd.

Leon-Guerrero, Anna (2005). Social Problems: Community, Policy, and Social Action. Pine Forge Press

Mills, Charles Wright (1956). The Power Elite. Oxford Press