Models In Mass Communication Research Paper

Early media studies focused on the use of mass media in propaganda and persuasion. However, journalists and researchers soon looked to behavioral sciences to help figure out the effect of mass media and communications on society. Scholars have developed many different approaches and theories to figure this out. You can refer to these theories as you research and consider the media’s effect on culture.

Widespread fear that mass-media messages could outweigh other stabilizing cultural influences, such as family and community, led to what is known as the direct effects model of media studies. This model assumed that audiences passively accepted media messages and would exhibit predictable reactions in response to those messages. For example, following the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 (which was a fictional news report of an alien invasion), some people panicked and believed the story to be true.

Challenges to the Direct Effects Theory

The results of the People’s Choice Study challenged this model. Conducted in 1940, the study attempted to gauge the effects of political campaigns on voter choice. Researchers found that voters who consumed the most media had generally already decided for which candidate to vote, while undecided voters generally turned to family and community members to help them decide. The study thus discredited the direct effects model and influenced a host of other media theories (Hanson, 2009). These theories do not necessarily give an all-encompassing picture of media effects but rather work to illuminate a particular aspect of media influence.

Marshall McLuhan’s Influence on Media Studies

During the early 1960s, English professor Marshall McLuhan wrote two books that had an enormous effect on the history of media studies. Published in 1962 and 1964, respectively, the Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media both traced the history of media technology and illustrated the ways these innovations had changed both individual behavior and the wider culture. Understanding Media introduced a phrase that McLuhan has become known for: “The medium is the message.” This notion represented a novel take on attitudes toward media—that the media themselves are instrumental in shaping human and cultural experience.

His bold statements about media gained McLuhan a great deal of attention as both his supporters and critics responded to his utopian views about the ways media could transform 20th-century life. McLuhan spoke of a media-inspired “global village” at a time when Cold War paranoia was at its peak and the Vietnam War was a hotly debated subject. Although 1960s-era utopians received these statements positively, social realists found them cause for scorn. Despite—or perhaps because of—these controversies, McLuhan became a pop culture icon, mentioned frequently in the television sketch-comedy program Laugh-In and appearing as himself in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall.

The Internet and its accompanying cultural revolution have made McLuhan’s bold utopian visions seem like prophecies. Indeed, his work has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Analysis of McLuhan’s work has, interestingly, not changed very much since his works were published. His supporters point to the hopes and achievements of digital technology and the utopian state that such innovations promise. The current critique of McLuhan, however, is a bit more revealing of the state of modern media studies. Media scholars are much more numerous now than they were during the 1960s, and many of these scholars criticize McLuhan’s lack of methodology and theoretical framework.

Despite his lack of scholarly diligence, McLuhan had a great deal of influence on media studies. Professors at Fordham University have formed an association of McLuhan-influenced scholars. McLuhan’s other great achievement is the popularization of the concept of media studies. His work brought the idea of media effects into the public arena and created a new way for the public to consider the influence of media on culture (Stille, 2000).

Agenda-Setting Theory

In contrast to the extreme views of the direct effects model, the agenda-setting theory of media stated that mass media determine the issues that concern the public rather than the public’s views. Under this theory, the issues that receive the most attention from media become the issues that the public discusses, debates, and demands action on. This means that the media is determining what issues and stories the public thinks about. Therefore, when the media fails to address a particular issue, it becomes marginalized in the minds of the public (Hanson).

When critics claim that a particular media outlet has an agenda, they are drawing on this theory. Agendas can range from a perceived liberal bias in the news media to the propagation of cutthroat capitalist ethics in films. For example, the agenda-setting theory explains such phenomena as the rise of public opinion against smoking. Before the mass media began taking an antismoking stance, smoking was considered a personal health issue. By promoting antismoking sentiments through advertisements, public relations campaigns, and a variety of media outlets, the mass media moved smoking into the public arena, making it a public health issue rather than a personal health issue (Dearing & Rogers, 1996). More recently, coverage of natural disasters has been prominent in the news. However, as news coverage wanes, so does the general public’s interest.

Figure 2.7

Through a variety of antismoking campaigns, the health risks of smoking became a public agenda.

Quinn Dombrowski – Weapons of mass destruction – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Media scholars who specialize in agenda-setting research study the salience, or relative importance, of an issue and then attempt to understand what causes it to be important. The relative salience of an issue determines its place within the public agenda, which in turn influences public policy creation. Agenda-setting research traces public policy from its roots as an agenda through its promotion in the mass media and finally to its final form as a law or policy (Dearing & Rogers, 1996).

Uses and Gratifications Theory

Practitioners of the uses and gratifications theory study the ways the public consumes media. This theory states that consumers use the media to satisfy specific needs or desires. For example, you may enjoy watching a show like Dancing With the Stars while simultaneously tweeting about it on Twitter with your friends. Many people use the Internet to seek out entertainment, to find information, to communicate with like-minded individuals, or to pursue self-expression. Each of these uses gratifies a particular need, and the needs determine the way in which media is used. By examining factors of different groups’ media choices, researchers can determine the motivations behind media use (Papacharissi, 2009).

A typical uses and gratifications study explores the motives for media consumption and the consequences associated with use of that media. In the case of Dancing With the Stars and Twitter, you are using the Internet as a way to be entertained and to connect with your friends. Researchers have identified a number of common motives for media consumption. These include relaxation, social interaction, entertainment, arousal, escape, and a host of interpersonal and social needs. By examining the motives behind the consumption of a particular form of media, researchers can better understand both the reasons for that medium’s popularity and the roles that the medium fills in society. A study of the motives behind a given user’s interaction with Facebook, for example, could explain the role Facebook takes in society and the reasons for its appeal.

Uses and gratifications theories of media are often applied to contemporary media issues. The analysis of the relationship between media and violence that you read about in preceding sections exemplifies this. Researchers employed the uses and gratifications theory in this case to reveal a nuanced set of circumstances surrounding violent media consumption, as individuals with aggressive tendencies were drawn to violent media (Papacharissi, 2009).

Symbolic Interactionism

Another commonly used media theory, symbolic interactionism, states that the self is derived from and develops through human interaction. This means the way you act toward someone or something is based on the meaning you have for a person or thing. To effectively communicate, people use symbols with shared cultural meanings. Symbols can be constructed from just about anything, including material goods, education, or even the way people talk. Consequentially, these symbols are instrumental in the development of the self.

This theory helps media researchers better understand the field because of the important role the media plays in creating and propagating shared symbols. Because of the media’s power, it can construct symbols on its own. By using symbolic interactionist theory, researchers can look at the ways media affects a society’s shared symbols and, in turn, the influence of those symbols on the individual (Jansson-Boyd, 2010).

One of the ways the media creates and uses cultural symbols to affect an individual’s sense of self is advertising. Advertisers work to give certain products a shared cultural meaning to make them desirable. For example, when you see someone driving a BMW, what do you think about that person? You may assume the person is successful or powerful because of the car he or she is driving. Ownership of luxury automobiles signifies membership in a certain socioeconomic class. Equally, technology company Apple has used advertising and public relations to attempt to become a symbol of innovation and nonconformity. Use of an Apple product, therefore, may have a symbolic meaning and may send a particular message about the product’s owner.

Media also propagate other noncommercial symbols. National and state flags, religious images, and celebrities gain shared symbolic meanings through their representation in the media.

Spiral of Silence

The spiral of silence theory, which states that those who hold a minority opinion silence themselves to prevent social isolation, explains the role of mass media in the formation and maintenance of dominant opinions. As minority opinions are silenced, the illusion of consensus grows, and so does social pressure to adopt the dominant position. This creates a self-propagating loop in which minority voices are reduced to a minimum and perceived popular opinion sides wholly with the majority opinion. For example, prior to and during World War II, many Germans opposed Adolf Hitler and his policies; however, they kept their opposition silent out of fear of isolation and stigma.

Because the media is one of the most important gauges of public opinion, this theory is often used to explain the interaction between media and public opinion. According to the spiral of silence theory, if the media propagates a particular opinion, then that opinion will effectively silence opposing opinions through an illusion of consensus. This theory relates especially to public polling and its use in the media (Papacharissi).

Media Logic

The media logic theory states that common media formats and styles serve as a means of perceiving the world. Today, the deep rooting of media in the cultural consciousness means that media consumers need engage for only a few moments with a particular television program to understand that it is a news show, a comedy, or a reality show. The pervasiveness of these formats means that our culture uses the style and content of these shows as ways to interpret reality. For example, think about a TV news program that frequently shows heated debates between opposing sides on public policy issues. This style of debate has become a template for handling disagreement to those who consistently watch this type of program.

Media logic affects institutions as well as individuals. The modern televangelist has evolved from the adoption of television-style promotion by religious figures, while the utilization of television in political campaigns has led candidates to consider their physical image as an important part of a campaign (Altheide & Snow, 1991).

Cultivation Analysis

The cultivation analysis theory states that heavy exposure to media causes individuals to develop an illusory perception of reality based on the most repetitive and consistent messages of a particular medium. This theory most commonly applies to analyses of television because of that medium’s uniquely pervasive, repetitive nature. Under this theory, someone who watches a great deal of television may form a picture of reality that does not correspond to actual life. Televised violent acts, whether those reported on news programs or portrayed on television dramas, for example, greatly outnumber violent acts that most people encounter in their daily lives. Thus, an individual who watches a great deal of television may come to view the world as more violent and dangerous than it actually is.

Cultivation analysis projects involve a number of different areas for research, such as the differences in perception between heavy and light users of media. To apply this theory, the media content that an individual normally watches must be analyzed for various types of messages. Then, researchers must consider the given media consumer’s cultural background of individuals to correctly determine other factors that are involved in his or her perception of reality. For example, the socially stabilizing influences of family and peer groups influence children’s television viewing and the way they process media messages. If an individual’s family or social life plays a major part in her life, the social messages that she receives from these groups may compete with the messages she receives from television.

Key Takeaways

  • The now largely discredited direct effects model of media studies assumes that media audiences passively accept media messages and exhibit predictable reactions in response to those messages.
  • Credible media theories generally do not give as much power to the media, such as the agenda-setting theory, or give a more active role to the media consumer, such as the uses and gratifications theory.
  • Other theories focus on specific aspects of media influence, such as the spiral of silence theory’s focus on the power of the majority opinion or the symbolic interactionism theory’s exploration of shared cultural symbolism.
  • Media logic and cultivation analysis theories deal with how media consumers’ perceptions of reality can be influenced by media messages.


  1. Media theories have a variety of uses and applications. Research one of the following topics and its effect on culture. Examine the topic using at least two of the approaches discussed in this section. Then, write a one-page essay about the topic you’ve selected.

    • Media bias
    • Internet habits
    • Television’s effect on attention span
    • Advertising and self-image
    • Racial stereotyping in film
  2. Many of the theories discussed in this section were developed decades ago. Identify how each of these theories can be used today? Do you think these theories are still relevant for modern mass media? Why?

David Altheide and Robert Snow, Media Worlds in the Postjournalism Era (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), 9–11.

Dearing, James and Everett Rogers, Agenda-Setting (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 4.

Hanson, Ralph. Mass Communication: Living in a Media World (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 80–81.

Hanson, Ralph. Mass Communication, 92.

Jansson-Boyd, Catherine. Consumer Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 59–62.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Uses and Gratifications,” 153–154.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Uses and Gratifications,” in An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, ed. Don Stacks and Michael Salwen (New York: Routledge, 2009), 137.

This is a derivative of Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Volume 5, No. 2, Art. 26 – May 2004

Theoretical Perspectives in Media-Communication Research: From Linear to Discursive Models

Monica Colombo

Abstract: This paper aims to provide an overview on traditional linear models vs. dialogical and discursive approaches to the study of mass media communication processes. The ways of conceiving the process of media-communication have changed along with the evolution of the theoretical paradigms of psychology and the social sciences. The main limits of these models which were first developed in the area of media studies derive, on the one hand, from the rigid alternating between source and receivers, and, on the other hand, from the lack of integration of the social variables in the conceptualization of the communication process. This paper will show how an increased focus on the interactive aspects of communication leads to the replacement of traditional linear models with more complex models implying a redefining of the concept of communication, as, for example, the dialogical models and the discursive approach. It is in this perspective that the media is seen to have a fundamental role in the processes of constructing/reconstructing reality, and the development of qualitative methodologies is especially needed.

Key words: media communication process, media effects, dialogical models, discursive approach

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Communication Process: Beyond the Transmission of Information

3. Media Communication and Discourse

4. Conclusions






1. Introduction

The research tradition which can be summed up with the term communication research refers to a highly varied and heterogeneous group of conceptual models and methodological approaches. My aim is to provide an overview on traditional linear models vs. dialogical and discursive approaches to the mass media communication processes and to discuss some of their theoretical and methodological implications. [1]

The ways of conceiving the process of media communication and of media's role in society have changed along with the evolution of the theoretical paradigms of psychology and the social sciences1). As Barrie GUNTER (2000) points out, scrutiny of the range and variety of research methodologies used in a number of different media research contexts suggests that

"[d]ifferent perspectives on the study of the media have emerged historically in response not only to the findings of empirical enquiries, which changed ideas about the way people respond to the media, but more often and more significantly as a result of paradigm shifts within social science research more generally" (p.2). [2]

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of such different research orientations, some consideration of the theoretical background of the different approaches to media analysis is needed. In my opinion, the shift from linear to dialogical and discursive models is of utmost importance both at a theoretical and methodological level. Traditional linear models are strictly connected to a theory of language and language use that posits language as a fundamentally problem-free and acontestual vehicle for the transmission of information. Widely employed in communication research, they largely imply the adoption of quantitative methods. The dialogical models and the discursive approach which derive from the meeting in the early 1980s of pragmatic linguistics, psycho-social sciences and the philosophy of language lead to the replacement of traditional linear models with more complex models of media communication process2). The term "dialogical" refers here to some specific theoretical and analytic trends that emerged in France during the 1980s whose complex relations with discourse analysis still remain to be investigated in depth. The main point here is that in both perspectives (dialogical and discursive) language is regarded as a social practice and the media are seen to have a fundamental role in the processes of constructing/reconstructing reality. Here, the development of qualitative methodologies is especially needed. [3]

2. The Communication Process: Beyond the Transmission of Information

The perspective underlying many of the different research orientations used in a number of different media research contexts is characterized by the adoption—often implicit—of a simplified model of the communication process deriving from information theory (SHANNON & WEAVER 1949), which is one of the most widely known models. According to this model, the transmission of a message is a simple, linear and unidirectional process: there is a source which codifies information in the form of a signal and transmits it by means of a channel to the other end, where it is decodified. It is, then, a model in which communication is described as a transmission process from a transmitter to a receiver by means of codification and decodification of the information itself where subjects are considered as passive recipients of messages. Translated into a linguistic model (JACOBSON 1963), the communication process conceived in this way could include the following elements: transmitter, message, receiver, context, code and channel. According to GHIGLIONE (1988), the subjects are regarded here as ideal, transparent and possessors of a common communication code. These then are the necessary conditions for bringing about communication, which is understood as the transmission of information. [4]

Following this model, the first theories of mass communication all tended to see the public as an undifferentiated and substantially passive entity upon which it was possible to exert direct influence. As Elihu KATZ and Karl LAZARSFELD (1955) noted,

"the image of the mass-communication process entertained by researchers had been, firstly, one of 'an atomistic mass' of millions of readers, listeners and movie-goers, prepared to receive the message; and, secondly (...) every message [was considered] as a direct and powerful stimulus to action that would elicit immediate response" (p.16). [5]

From this model, which recalls in certain ways the idea of the subject seen as a mere responder to stimuli emphasized in the psychological field by the "first" behaviorism, there emerged the model proposed by Harold LASSWELL (1927, 1935). Even if dated, it undoubtedly constitutes a point of reference in the area of mass-communication studies. The model of the so-called five W's of LASSWELL (Who says, What, to Whom, through Which channel, with What effect) went on to constitute a scheme widely shared in descriptions and analyses of the media communication process. [6]

In psychology, the experimental empirical approach progressively focused attention on the characteristics of each of the elements included in the 5-Ws model, and then went on to isolate, experimentally, the individual variables so as to analyze the way in which they can intervene in the persuasion process. The studies of HOVLAND and his research group at Yale University (HOVLAND 1954; HOVLAND LUMSDAINE & SHEFFIELD 1949; HOVLAND, JANIS & KELLEY 1953) represented the dominant paradigm for a long time3). They considered the complexity of variables which come into play in the relationship between transmitter, recipient and message in the area of the study of persuasion (for example, the characteristics of sources, messages, recipients, the variables intervening between the transmission and the reception of the message and so on). The research of the Yale School contributed to a reworking of LASSWELL's model, which attributed to the media the more or less unlimited ability to influence public opinion, by emphasizing how the effectiveness of messages varies with the varying of certain characteristics of the recipients, and how the effects of mass communication depend essentially on the interaction of these factors. These results contributed to supporting the idea that the direct and intermediate effects of the means of mass communication on changing attitudes were very weak. The ideas of LASSWELL (1927; 1935) with regard to the direct effects of the means of mass information on the attitudes and behavior of the public were gradually abandoned because of an increasing interest in the variables which intervene in the relationship between the message and the behavioral response, e.g., selective perception, the role of the cognitive structures of the receiving subject and the social-demographical characteristics of the audience. [7]

The idea emerged that interpersonal relationships have a key role in the processes of influence exerted by the means of communication. In fact, KATZ (1959) presented the hypothesis that the communication process may be described in terms of a two-step flow of communication: the first step regards relatively well-informed individuals (opinion leaders) that, in the second step, not only spread information to those individuals who follow the media less assiduously, but who also supply an interpretation of the content of the message. In this sense, the opinion leaders and the interpersonal relationships have a mediating function of selection between the means of mass communication and the recipients of the messages transmitted by them. In short, the theories based on the concept of selective attention place between the two variables "stimulus" and "response" three other kinds of variables: individual differences, social-cultural categories and social relationships. [8]

This reworking of the model introduced a more complex view of media communication, but it did not lead to any paradigm shift: basically, communication is still regarded as a transmission process and research continues to be theoretically framed by a (neo)positivist approach to measurement. Recent development within mainstream social psychology seems to follow the same trend. [9]

The link between the mass-communication processes and the characteristics of the social context within which these take place became central for the sociological empirical approach. Here, the audience is no longer considered as a passive receptor with no link to its social environment. In fact, it was emphasized that individuals are reached by the media through a filter of social bonds, i.e., of other meanings and groups which constitute a point of reference for social insertion and the development of identity. In this perspective, KLAPPER (1960) proposed what was called the model of minimal (or limited) effect: according to this approach, selectiveness is linked not so much to the individual's psychological processes, as it is to the network of social relationships which constitute the environment in which he lives and which form the groups to which he belongs. The audience began to be considered as a group of active persons which directs its attention to whatever it considers interesting, and reinterprets these messages in relation to pre-existing knowledge and attitudes. However, language is still regarded as a fundamentally problem-free and acontestual vehicle for the transmission of information. [10]

Attention to the role carried out by the media in the representation of reality began to emerge in the late 1960s in the area of media studies through research which combined the analysis of mass-media communication with ideas developed by the sociological theories and the sociology of knowledge. It is in this perspective that the media is given a fundamental role in the symbolic construction of reality by means of those processes of production, reproduction and distribution of knowledge which allow recipients to give meaning to the world and to model their perception of it (McQUAIL 1987). These ideas come together in present-day media studies which are characterized by the theory of dependence, the cultivation theory and by models of agenda setting and newsmaking.4) [11]

As MAZZOLENI and VENINI (1997) have noted,

"This basic conviction that recent studies on the persuasive effects of the media have reached is not so much an affirmation of the limitations of its effects, so much as the awareness of how deeply rooted the communication processes are within the highly complex social fabric in which economic, sociological, psychological and psycho-social variables (one's group, social representations, social identity and processes of social interaction) interact incessantly. This means that the effectiveness of the media (...) derives, even more than from the content they transmit, from the characteristics of the surrounding social system, from the links among the individual components and the network of significant relationships of each subject and from the representations in play and shared" (p.217). [12]

These theories imply a redefining of the relationship between the audience and the media; however, the interactive nature of media communication and the recognizing of language as social practice still remain unquestioned. These elements are at the core of the dialogical models which were first developed at the beginning of the 1980s from the meeting of pragmatic linguistics, the psycho-social sciences and the philosophy of languages. These models appear to be very marginal in media communication research while they would open new theoretical, methodological and practical perspectives in that they imply a redefining of the concept of communication, the recognizing of the contractual nature of communication and the revising of the notion of interaction (GALIMBERTI 1992). [13]

The first aspect can be traced back to the definition of the concept of communication proposed by Francis JACQUES (1985) within a perspective which we may define as "strong interactionism": it goes beyond the linear and retroaction conceptions of interaction by introducing the idea of a circular communication regarded as an activity tied to the co-production and negotiation of meanings. The communication process turns into an "interlocutory relationship" which is characterized by a relationship of a psycho-social nature (GALIMBERTI 1992). [14]

An important contribution to defining the contractual nature of communication processes was developed by GHIGLIONE (1988). In his perspective to communicate means "the construction of a reality with the help of a system of signs, thereby accepting a certain number of principles which allow for exchange and a certain number of rules which regulate it" (GHIGLIONE 1986, p.102). The concept of "locutor" and that of "transmitter/receiver" are here substituted by the concept of "interlocutor/co-locutor" which refers to a conception of communication and discourse as an activity of co-construction of possible worlds. Communication, from this point of view, is considered as what is at stake:

"communicating is a game which sets the stakes which the interlocutors play for according to principles, rules and regulations, whose substratum can be found in the stability of the interlocutors with regard to a single aim: attempt to act upon the other according to the structure of a possible world" (GHIGLIONE 1988, p.53). [15]

The aim of communication consists in the sharing of a certain world order (or in the wanting to share it with another).

"Each time that the interlocutors stages a world by means of language, he constructs a simple world structure. This constructs a world structure on the basis of a few key notions (...). These notions are articulated according to a logic-creating programme (within a concern for the textual consistency to be translated, or to have someone believe in its cognitive consistency) which are staged for an argumentative programme to convince the other of the basis, of the reality, of the truth of a world as it is made to appear by a particular individual" (GHIGLIONE 1988, p.36). [16]

The principle of drawing up contracts is valued even when the two interlocutors are not present in person, as is the case of the relationship which is created between the media and the audience since the media replaces interlocutory validation which ensures the effectiveness of the communication contract with a range of discursive devices that leads one to believe that the latter actually exists. The strategies for reaching this aim are all based on the relationship between the real and the possible, between what is true and what appears to be true. In fact, as BROMBERG (1990) notes,

"Media language has reintroduced the logic of what appears to be true, since what it shows—even if it is accompanied by images—is not reality or the truth (...) what it shows is a function, which for this very reason is ambiguous since it is not the opposite of the truth, i.e. a lie, but it is verisimilar" (p.314). [17]

By considering the nature of the communication process in this way, there emerges the possibility of going beyond the simplified idea of the communication process which characterize traditional linear approaches. From this point of view, all those elements which intervene in the process (locutory, interlocutory, locution or expressed content, illocution or complete linguistic actions, for locution or effects sought by means of anticipating the interlocutory and his cognitive world, preparatory conditions and conditions of sincerity) are contextualized and understood in a wider framework of social interaction. In this perspective, the mass-media communication process can be seen as a specific production process supplying general interpretative frameworks which individual and collective subjects use to give meaning to the social reality. In this perspective, as CHARAUDEAU (1984) states, each means of communication "informs, of course, but, above all, it constructs significance and meanings" (p.64). According to him, the aims of "information" and "incitement" which characterize a media contract determine a frame for the treatment of discourse in which the media source has to: (a) give an account of the event in order to transform it into news (and to turn it into a reported event) by using descriptive and narrative operating procedures, sometimes objectifying (in order to be credible), sometimes dramatizing (in order to keep the attention of its audience); (b) explain the event (analysis or commentary) by using argumentative operating procedures; and (c) produce a new event by using operating procedures which encourage interaction (debates, talk shows, interviews). The places assigned to the partners in this contract determine a frame for the treatment of utterances in which the media source must construct for itself the image of an uninvolved, distant and neutral speaker. It must also construct an image of the recipient who is supposed to be involved (in the name of citizenship), to be affected (in the name of human nature) and to be making attempts to understand (in the name of good will). (CHARAUDEAU 2002, p.310). [18]

3. Media Communication and Discourse

A fundamental contribution to the definition of the viewpoint within which to examine the problem of the conception of the mass-media-communication process can be traced back to the analysis of discourse. As VAN DIJK noted in the introduction to his book "Discourse and Communication: New Approaches to the Analysis of Mass Media and Communication" (1985, p.V): "There are two vast fields of research that, despite their common interest for text, talk and communication, seem to virtually ignore each other: the study of mass communication on the one hand and discourse analysis on the other hand." A change towards a growing interest between these two fields of research can now be stated—new theories about media discourse analysis have been developed and some major empirical studies using discourse analysis as a method to investigate complex communication events have been done. There is a broad range of definitions of discourse and discourse analysis which has led to a certain terminological flexibility of these terms. BELL and GARRETT's volume "Approaches to media discourse" (1997) presents and discusses different approaches to media discourse analysis showing similarities and differences between some of the most established approaches to discourse analysis by focusing on the various definitions of discourse, the methodical design and the aims of discourse analysis. [19]

I will discuss here two approaches that can be placed alongside but also partially in contrast: critical discourse analysis (CDA) and discursive psychology. According to FAIRCLOUGH (1992), critical approaches differ from non-critical ones in focusing on how discourse is shaped by relations of power and ideologies: studies of media discourse are characterized by the identification of grammatical categories and structures in order to show how their uses are shaped by ideological interests. On the contrary, following discursive psychology assumptions, analysis focuses on rhetoric:

"the relevance of wider explanatory and ideological context—press ownership, political economy and manipulation, legal frameworks guaranteeing and restraining press freedom, the press's normative, democratic role in conveying facts, serving public interests, mediating between government and public, an so on—arise for analysis to the extent that the press invokes, handles and manages them within the content of press coverage itself" (MAC MILLAN & EDWARDS 1999, pp.153-154). [20]

Within CDA framework, media are conceptualized as an institutional context which appropriates, organizes and constructs certain representations of the world according to its own logic and purposes. The concept of discourse points at the fact that media discursive practices actually constitute reality in the process of communication (see FAIRCLOUGH 1995). Discourse is seen as the main instrument of production and reproduction of shared social knowledge, and it is studied not just as "form, meaning and mental process, but also as a complex, hierarchical structure of interaction, as social practice" (VAN DIJK 1997, p.7). In this sense it is not possible to think of individuals as generic, neutral locutors and interlocutors engaged in "abstract communicative interaction: the individuals who interact are always considered as "real" people, member of social categories, located within concretely defined situations. Thus, from a CDA point of view, the concept of the audience is unsatisfactory since it allows for a false identification with the average reader (or television viewer), a pure abstraction and artifact constructed by the media itself to reinforce its processes of influence. [21]

The considerations of VAN DIJK on the role of the means of mass communication can be linked to the more general aim of formulating a multidisciplinary theory of ideology, its expression and its reproduction through discourse. The theoretical framework adopted is based on the triangle formed by the concepts of cognition, society and discourse (with the processes of influence and bidirectional, multilevel dependence, both cognitive and social). From the point of view of social functions, ideologies support group interest, orient, legitimate and justify social actions by controlling the underlying social representation. From a cognitive point of view, ideologies organize and monitor attitudes that are shared socially; in other words it gives them an overall orientation, a consistency and organization. In this framework, the news transmitted by the press and television are to be considered as a particular type of discourse since they constitute a complex communicative event which must be analyzed not just with regard to its linguistic and textual components, but also with regard to the social practices and ideologies of newsmaking and to the institutional and macrosociological contexts of within which it is produced: "Textual dimensions account for the structures of discourse at various levels of description. Contextual dimensions relate these structural descriptions to various properties of context, such as cognitive processes and representations or sociocultural factors" (VAN DIJK 1988, p.25). [22]

Such an analysis should provide a qualitative alternative to traditional methods of content analysis. In the analytical approach developed by VAN DIJK, several levels of textual description are differentiated: a) microstructural description which include grammar (phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic descriptions) and pragmatics (speech acts); b) macrostructural descriptions which deal with whole parts of discourse, or entire discourses in their global semantic, syntactic and pragmatic aspects; c) style; d) rhetoric. Macrostructures are hierarchical organized sets of propositions governed by three major macrorules (deletion, generalization and construction) which guarantee the global coherence of discourse. This analysis shows, for instance, that news discourse exhibits a thematical structure that is basically top down, relevance controlled and cyclical. Moreover, the realization of topics in news discourse takes place by the application of specification rules: "High-level, abstract information is specified so that for overall events or actions, detailed descriptions are given as to the identity and properties of the participants, conditions, components and consequences of the action, time, place, or manner of the events and various kind of circumstances. Specification takes place in cycles in news discourse" (VAN DIJK 1988, p.44). From this analysis a schematic superstructure of news discourse can be derived: it defines the possible forms in which themes may be ordered in actual texts. News style is constrained by various contextual factors and it is characterized by distance towards the implicitly present communicative partner (for instance, the reader), the tacit presupposition of a generally shared knowledge, institutional impersonality. In news rhetoric, strategic devices that enhance truthfulness, plausibility, correctness, precision and credibility are used:

"These devices include the remarkable use of numbers; a selective use of sources; specific modifications in relevance relations; ideologically coherent perspectives in the description of events; the uses of specific scripts or attitude schemata; the selective uses of reliable, official, well-known, and especially credible persons and institutions; the description of close, concrete details; the quotation of eyewitnesses or direct participants; and the reference or appeal to emotions" (VAN DIJK 1988, p.94). [23]

An outstanding example of this type of analysis is reported in "Racism and the Press" (1991) in which VAN DIJK analyses news articles on ethnic themes. Through an in-depth analysis of the semantic macrostructures—which consist of a conventional news scheme and a hierarchical organization of categories—VAN DIJK shows how ethnic minorities are depicted as problematic groups. Further applications, both analytical and critical, of this earlier work in the study of the structures, expression, and communication of ethnic prejudices in discourse, e.g., conversation, news in the press and social science textbooks are presented in "Elite Discourse and Racism" (1993) and "New(s) Racism" (2000). [24]

In the past fifteen years discursive psychology has introduced not only new ways of conceptualizing research questions and a new methodological approach to inquiry but also, as ANTAKI, BILLIG, EDWARDS and POTTER (2003) argue, new ways of understanding the aims of research itself. Over the last decade, a discursive approach to the study of media communication has been developed in parallel to more established research traditions. In this framework, discourse analysis deals with

"how factual descriptions are assembled and made factual through a range of rethorical devices; how various kind of stake, motive or interests are marshalled in ways that undermine factuality; and how factual descriptions and narratives routinely handle and manage the causality and accountability of actors in events, and of speakers/writers of texts" (MACMILLAN & EDWARDS 1999, p.153). [25]

It implies the adoption of an inductive approach where induction is "a normative analytic claim and principle (...) It amounts to avoiding the use of systemic coding categories or interpretative schemas, in favour of examining the details of texts as found, and tying analytic claims closely to those details" (MACMILLAN & EDWARDS 1999, p.153). [26]

Discourse analysis aims to explicating how texts work and should avoid dealing with why issues:

"Indeed we see the question why as bringing with it various interpretative problems, briefly summarized as follows: 1) Much effort at answering why in discourse studies of the mass media takes the form of general declarations. The empirical grounding remains the textual analysis itself, rather than any systematic study of social organizations (...) 3) much of what is collected under the issue why can be dealt with under how, by formulating the issue as not necessary external to, underlying, or explaining the text under analysis, but, in various ways, handled and managed in those texts (cf. Billig, 1992) and approachable as the discursive management of fact and accountability (Edwards & Potter, 1992; Potter, 1994)" (MACMILLAN & EDWARDS 1999, p.154). [27]

For example, MACMILLAN and EDWARDS (1999) examined the British newspapers' coverage of the death of Princess Diana. This study is part of a large scale project which has daily monitored all British national newspapers and broadcast news content between October 1996 and September 1998. One focus is on how the press provides a self-commentary on its own adequacy which appears not only in specialized articles but as an implicit feature of press reporting in general. In this study their focus was on how the press dealt with the issue of their own involvement and responsibility as part of their reporting. Their analysis showed how the press deployed a series of interrelated categories distinctions and rhetorical oppositions (for instance, regular press vs. paparazzi, tabloid vs. broadsheet, British vs. foreign, supply vs. demand) in order to assign and avoid blame. Even if they focused on the rhetorical deployment of specific words and expressions, they did not regard formal linguistic categories and structures as the essential framework for explicating the "constructive, rhetorical and performative business of discourse" (p.171). It is the particular context of use of specific words that are relevant rather than the grammatical categories or syntactic structures they are part of. Interestingly, technical analytic categories are drawn not only from rhetoric and linguistics, but also from conversation analysis. [28]

4. Conclusions

We have seen how the first studies of the media went from a model of linear, unidirectional communication to more complex models in which communication is not understood as a mere passing of information but refers to a staging of a world co-constructed by the interlocutors. This conception involves a major shift from the conventional view of language as a tool of description and to a view of language as social practice. From the dialogical-discursive perspective "the transparency of language and the consistency of discourse are just illusion" (GHIGLIONE, MATALON & BACRI 1985, p.13). [29]

As a consequence of this shift, the adoption of quantitative vs. qualitative methodologies does not seem to be just a methodological problem, but also a theoretical and epistemological one. Indeed, the term "discourse analysis" does not refer simply to an option of a strictly methodological kind which contrasts qualitative and quantitative approaches, but rather it refers to a group of theoretical perspectives that consider discourse as the object of research whereas the conceptualization of discourse points at the fact that media discursive practices actually constitute reality in the process of communication. [30]



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Monica COLOMBO is a researcher in Social and Community Psychology at the Department of Psychology, University of Turin (Italy). Her main research interests are: discourse and narration, identity, qualitative research methods.


Monica Colombo

Dipartimento di Psicologia
Via Verdi, 8
10100 Torino (Italy)

Tel.: +39 11 6702017



Colombo, Monica (2004). Theoretical Perspectives in Media-Communication Research: From Linear to Discursive Models [30 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 5(2), Art. 26,


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