Does a fish know it’s wet?” influential cultural and media critic Marshall
McLuhan would often ask. The answer, he would say, is “No.” The fish’s
existence is so dominated by water that only when water is absent is the
fish aware of its condition.
So it is with people and mass media. The media so fully saturate our
everyday lives that we are often unconscious of their presence, not to mention
their influence. Media inform us, entertain us, delight us, annoy us.
They move our emotions, challenge our intellects, insult our intelligence.
Media often reduce us to mere commodities for sale to the highest bidder.
Media help define us; they shape our realities.
A fundamental theme of this book is that media do none of this alone.
They do it with us as well as to us through mass communication, and they
do it as a centralÑmany critics and scholars say the centralÑcultural
force in our society.
In its simplest form communication is the transmission of a message
from a source to a receiver. For more than 50 years now, this view of communication
has been identified with the writing of political scientist
Harold Lasswell (1948). He said that a convenient way to describe communication
is to answer these questions:
• Says what?
• In which channel?
Chapter 1 Mass Communication, Culture, and Mass Media 5
• To whom?
• With what effect?
Expressed in terms of the basic elements of the communication
process, communication occurs when:
Straightforward enough, but what if the source is a professor who insists
on speaking in a technical language far beyond the receiving students’ level
of skill? Obviously, communication does not occur. Unlike mere messagesending,
communication requires the response of others. Therefore, there
must be a sharing (or correspondence) of meaning for communication to
A second problem with this simple model is that it suggests that the
receiver passively accepts the source’s message. However, if our imaginary
students do not comprehend the professor’s words, they respond with
“Huh?” or look confused or yawn. This response, or feedback, is also a
message. The receivers (the students) now become a source, sending their
own message to the source (the offending professor) who is now a receiver.
Hence, communication is a reciprocal and ongoing process with all involved
parties more or less engaged in creating shared meaning. Communication,
then, is better defined as the process of creating shared meaning.
Communication researcher Wilbur Schramm, using ideas originally
developed by psychologist Charles E. Osgood, developed a graphic way to
represent the reciprocal nature of communication (Figure 1Ð1). This
A source sends a message through a medium to a receiver producing some effect
Figure 1-1 Osgood and
Schramm’s Model of
Source: From The Process and
Effects of Mass Communication.
Copyright © 1954 by the Board of
Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Used with the permission of the
University of Illinois Press.
6 Part 1 Laying the Groundwork
depiction of interpersonal communicationÑcommunication between
two or a few peopleÑshows that there is no clearly identifiable source or
receiver. Rather, because communication is an ongoing and reciprocal
process, all the participants, or “interpreters,” are working to create meaning
by encoding and decoding messages. A message is first encoded, that
is, transformed into an understandable sign and symbol system. Speaking
is encoding, as are writing, printing, and filming a television program.
Once received, the message is decoded; that is, the signs and symbols are
interpreted. Decoding occurs through listening, reading, or watching that
The Osgood-Schramm model demonstrates the ongoing and reciprocal
nature of the communication process. There is, therefore, no source,
no receiver, and no feedback. This is because, as communication is happening,
both interpreters are simultaneously source and receiver. There is
no feedback because all messages are presumed to be in reciprocation of
other messages. Even when your friend starts a conversation with you, for
example, it can be argued that it was your look of interest and willingness
that communicated to her that she should speak. In this example, it is
improper to label either you or your friend as the sourceÑWho really
initiated this chat?Ñand, therefore, it is impossible to identify who is
providing feedback to whom.
Not every model can show all aspects of a process as complex as
communication. Missing from this representation is noiseÑanything that
interferes with successful communication. Noise is more than screeching
or loud music when you are trying to read. Biases that lead to incorrect
decoding, for example, are noise, as is newsprint that bleeds through from
page 1 to page 2.
Encoded messages are carried by a medium, that is, the means of
sending information. Sound waves are the medium that carries our voice
to friends across the table; the telephone is the medium that carries our
voice to friends across town. When the medium is a technology that carries
messages to a large number of peopleÑas newspapers carry the
printed word and radio conveys the sound of music and newsÑwe call it
a mass medium (the plural of medium is media). The mass media we
use regularly include radio, television, books, magazines, newspapers,
movies, sound recordings, and computer networks. Each medium is the
basis of a giant industry, but other related and supporting industries also
serve them and usÑadvertising and public relations, for example. In our
culture we use the words media and mass media interchangeably to refer
to the communication industries themselves. We say, “The media entertain”
or “The mass media are too conservative (or too liberal).”What Is Culture?
Culture is the learned behavior of members of a given social group. Many
writers and thinkers have offered interesting expansions of this definition.
Here are four examples, the first three from anthropologists, the last from
a performing arts critic. These definitions highlight not only what culture
is but also what culture does:
Culture is the learned, socially acquired traditions and lifestyles of the members
of a society, including their patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling
and acting. (M. Harris, 1983, p. 5)
Culture lends significance to human experience by selecting from and organizing
it. It refers broadly to the forms through which people make sense of
their lives, rather than more narrowly to the opera or art of museums. (R.
Rosaldo, 1989, p. 26)
Culture is the medium evolved by humans to survive. Nothing is free from
cultural influences. It is the keystone in civilization’s arch and is the
medium through which all of life’s events must flow. We are culture. (E. T.
Hall, 1976, p. 14)
Culture is an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbolic
forms by means of which [people] communicate, perpetuate, and
10 Part 1 Laying the Groundwork
develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. (C. Geertz as cited
in Taylor, 1991, p. 91)
CULTURE AS SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED SHARED MEANING
Virtually all definitions of culture recognize that culture is learned. Recall
the opening vignette. Even if this scenario does not exactly match your
early mornings, you probably recognize its elements. Moreover, all of us
are familiar with most, if not every, cultural reference in it. Survivor,
Rolling Stone, McDonald’s, Nike, Dilbert, Matchbox 20Ñall are points of
reference, things that have some meaning for all of us. How did this come
Creation and maintenance of a more or less common culture occurs
through communication, including mass communication. When we talk
to our friends; when a parent raises a child; when religious leaders instruct
their followers; when teachers teach; when grandparents pass on recipes;
when politicians campaign; when media professionals produce content
that we read, listen to, and watch, meaning is being shared and culture is
being constructed and maintained.
FUNCTIONS AND EFFECTS OF CULTURE
Culture serves a purpose. It helps us categorize and classify our experiences;
it helps define us, our world, and our place in it. In doing so culture
can have a number of sometimes conflicting effects.
Limiting and Liberating Effects of Culture A culture’s learned traditions
and values can be seen as patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling,
and acting. Culture limits our options and provides useful guidelines
for behavior. For example, when conversing, you do not consciously consider,
“Now, how far away should I stand? Am I too close?” You just stand
where you stand. After a hearty meal with a friend’s family, you do not
engage in mental self-debate, “Should I burp? Yes! No! Arghhhh. . . .” Culture
provides information that helps us make meaningful distinctions
about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, good and bad,
attractive and unattractive, and so on. How does it do this?
Obviously, through communication. Through a lifetime of communication
we have learned just what our culture expects of us. The two examples
given here are positive results of culture’s limiting effects. But culture’s
limiting effects can be negative, such as when we are unwilling or unable
to move past patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, or
when we entrust our “learning” to teachers whose interests are selfish, narrow,
or otherwise not consistent with our own.
U.S. culture, for example, values thinness in women. How many
women endure weeks of unhealthy diets and succumb to potentially
dangerous surgical procedures in search of a body that for most is physically
unattainable? How many men (and other women) never get to know,
Reflective paper on media and journalism in the UAE with specific emphasis to legal and ethical issues