6 Media, Technology, and Communication


It is only through technology that mass media can exist. While our interpersonal interactions are direct, our interactions with mass media messages are indirect, as they require technology or a “third party” to facilitate the connection. Mass communication involves transmitting messages to many people through print or electronic media. While talking to someone about a movie you just watched is interpersonal communication, watching the Academy Awards on a network or in clips on the Internet is mass communication.

6.1 The Internet and Digital Media

The “” began in 1990 and continues today. Whereas media used to be defined by their delivery systems, are all similarly constructed with digital, binary code made up of ones and zeros. Instead of paper being the medium for books, radio waves being the medium for sound broadcasting, and cables being the medium for cable television, a person can now read a book, listen to the radio, and access many cable television shows on the Internet. In short, digital media read, write, and store data (text, images, sound, and video) using numerical code, which revolutionized media more quickly than ever before (Biagi, 2007).

From the beginning, the Internet was a mass medium like none other. The majority of the content was user generated and the programs needed to create and navigate online content were in the public domain. This fusing of free access to information and user creativity still forms the basis of digital “new media” that are much more user controlled and personal. Demand for Internet access and more user-friendly programs created the consumer side of the net, and old media companies and regular people saw the web as another revenue generator.

Advertising online, however, is quite different from advertising in other media. Old media advertisers measure their success with ads based on a corresponding increase or decrease in sales—a method that is not very precise or immediate. Online advertisers, on the other hand, can know exactly how many people see their ads based on the number of site visitors, and they can measure how effective their ad is by how many people click on it. This can allow them to revise, pull, or buy more of an ad quickly based on the feedback. Additionally, certain online environments provide even more user data to advertisers, which allows them to target advertisements. If you, for example, search for “vacation rentals on Lake Michigan” using a search engine, ads for lake houses or vacation spots may also show up. The social networks that people create on the Internet also create potential for revenue generation. In fact, many people have started to take advantage of this potential by monetizing their personal or social media sites.

6.2 Media and Representation

Another area of concern for those who study mass media is the representation of diversity (or lack thereof) in media messages. The FCC has identified program, ownership, and viewpoint diversity as important elements of a balanced mass media that serves the public good (Austin, 2011). This view was enforced through the Fairness Doctrine that was established in 1949. It lasted until the early 1980s. That is when the doctrine began to be questioned by those in favor of media deregulation. The Fairness Doctrine was eventually overturned in 1987, but the FCC tried in 2003 to reinstate policies that encourage minority ownership of media outlets, which they hoped in turn would lead to more diverse programming. It remains to be seen whether minority-owned media outlets will produce or carry more diverse programming, but it is important to note that the deregulation over the past few decades has led to a decrease in the number of owners of media outlets who come from minority groups.

An older man with a hard hat using a benchtop wheel grinder in a workshop.
Figure 6.1: Blue-collar workers make up a bigger proportion of the working class than portrayed on television.

Scholars have raised concerns about the number of characters from minority groups on television relative to the groups’ percentage of the population. Perhaps even more concerning is the type of characters that actors from minority groups play and the types of shows on which they appear. Whether we want them to be or not, the people we see featured in media messages, especially those who appear frequently on television, in movies, in magazines, or in some combination of the three, serve as role models for many that view them. These people help set the tone for standards of behavior, beauty, and intelligence, among other things.

claims that media portrayals influence our development of schemata or scripts, especially as children, about different groups of people (Signorielli, 2009). For example, a person who grows up in a relatively homogenous white, middle-class environment can develop schemata about African-Americans and Latinas/Latinos based on how they are depicted in media messages. Since media messages, overall, are patterned representations, they cultivate within users a common worldview from the seeds that are planted by a relatively narrow set of content. For example, people in television shows are disproportionately portrayed as middle-class professionals. In reality, about 67 percent of people working in the United States have blue-collar or service-industry jobs, but they only make up about 10 percent of the people on television (Griffin, 2009).

6.3 Developing Media Literacy

involves our ability to critique and analyze the potential impact of the media. The word literacy refers to our ability to read and comprehend written language (Livingstone, 2004), but just as we need literacy to be able to read, write, and function in our society, we also need to be able to read media messages. To be media literate, we must develop a particular skill set that is unfortunately not taught in a systematic way like reading and writing. The quest to make a more media-literate society is not new. You may be surprised to learn that the media-literacy movement began in the 1930s when Clyde Miller, a journalist and author received funding from department store magnate Edward Filene to promote curriculum materials that would identify propaganda techniques. It is estimated that over one million students used these materials within the first three years of its creation (RobbGrieco & Hobbs, 2013). Despite the fact that this movement has been around since the 1930s, many people still do not know about it.

Media literacy is not meant to censor or blame the media, nor does it advocate for us to limit or change our engagement with the media in any particular way. Instead, media literacy ties in with critical thinking and listening. Media literacy skills are important because media outlets are “culture makers,” meaning they reflect much of current society but also reshape and influence sociocultural reality and real-life practices. Some may mistakenly believe that frequent exposure to media or that growing up in a media-saturated environment leads to media literacy. Knowing how to use technology to find and use media is different from knowing how to analyze it. Like other critical thinking skills, media literacy does not just develop; it must be taught, learned, practiced, and reflected on.

We learn much through the media that we do not have direct experience with, and communication and media scholars theorize that we tend to believe media portrayals are accurate representations of life. However, the media represents race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other cultural identities in biased and stereotypical ways that often favor dominant identities (Allen, 2011). Since the media influences our beliefs, attitudes, and expectations about difference, it is important to be able to evaluate critically the mediated messages that we receive. The goal of media literacy is not to teach you what to think but to teach you how you can engage with, interpret, and evaluate media in a more informed manner. Media literacy is also reflective in that we are asked to be accountable for those choices we make in regards to media by reflecting on and being prepared to articulate how those choices fit in with our own belief and value systems.

There are standard questions you can ask yourself to help you get started in your media criticism and analysis. There are no “true” or “right/wrong” answers to many of the questions we ask during the critical thinking process. Engaging in media literacy is more about expanding our understanding and perspective rather than arriving at definitive answers. The following questions will help you hone your media-literacy skills (Allen, 2011):

  1. Who created this message? What did they hope to accomplish? What are their primary belief systems?
  2. What is my interpretation of this message? How and why might different people understand this message differently than me? What can I learn about myself based on my interpretation? How may my interpretation differ from others’?
  3. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented or omitted in this message? What does this tell me about how other people live and believe? Does this message leave anything or anyone out?
  4. Why was this message sent? Who sent it? Is it trying to tell me something? To sell me something?

After asking these questions, media-literate people should be able to use well-reasoned arguments and evidence (not just opinion) to support their evaluations. People with media-literacy skills also know that their evaluations may not be definitive. Although this may seem like a place of uncertainty, media-literate people actually have more control over how they interact with media messages, which allows them to use media to their advantage, whether that is to become better informed or just to enjoy their media experience.

6.4 Social Media

Aerial photograph of an iPhone on a table with "Social" folder open containing Facebook, Facetime, TikTok, Messages, Phone, Facebook messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other apps.
Figure 6.2: Social media is a way for large groups of people to be connected.

Media and mass media have long been discussed as a unifying force. The shared experience of national mourning after President Kennedy was assassinated and after the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021 was facilitated through media. Online media, in particular, is characterized by its connectivity.

Whereas a large audience was connected to the same radio or television broadcast, newspaper story, book, or movie via a one-way communication channel sent from one place to many, online media connects mass media outlets to people and allows people to connect back to them. The basis for this connectivity is the Internet, which connects individual computers, smartphones, and other devices in an interactive web. This web of connected personal media devices like computers and smartphones facilitates and defines social media. Technology has allowed for mediated social interaction since the days of the telegraph, but these connections were not at the mass level they are today. Therefore, even if we think of the telegram as a precursor to a “tweet,” we can still see that the potential connection points and the audience size are much different. While a telegraph went to one person, Olympian Michael Phelps can send a tweet instantly to 1.2 million people, and Justin Bieber’s tweets reach 23 million people. Social media does not just allow for connection; it allows us more control over the quality and degree of connection that we maintain with others (Siapera, 2012).

The potential for social media was realized under the conditions of what is called Web 2.0, which refers to a new way of using the connectivity of the Internet to bring people together for collaboration and creativity—to harness collective intelligence (O’Reilly, 2012). This entails using the web to collaborate on projects and problem solving rather than making and protecting one’s own material (Boler, 2008). Much of this was achieved through platforms and websites such as Napster, Flickr, YouTube, and Wikipedia that encouraged and enabled user-generated content. It is important to note that user-generated content and collaboration have been a part of the World Wide Web for decades, but much of it was in the form of self-publishing information such as user reviews, online journal entries/ diaries, and later blogs, which cross over between the “old” web and Web 2.0.

The most influential part of the new web is , which allow users to build a public or semipublic profile, create a network of connections to other people, and view other people’s profiles and networks of connections (Boyd & Ellison, 2008). Although SNSs have existed for over a decade, earlier iterations such as Friendster and Myspace have given way to the giant that is Facebook. Facebook, which now has more than 955 million monthly active users, is unquestionably the most popular SNS.

Social networking sites like LinkedIn focus on professional networking. In any case, the ability to self-publish information, likes/dislikes, status updates, profiles, and links allows people to construct their own life narrative and share it with other people. Likewise, users can follow the narratives of others in their network as they are constructed. The degree to which we engage with others’ narratives varies based on the closeness of the relationship and situational factors, but SNSs are used to sustain strong, moderate, and weak ties with others (Richardson & Hessey, 2009).



Figure 6.1: Blue-collar workers make up a bigger proportion of the working class than portrayed on television. Ahsanization ッ. 2018. Unsplash license. https://unsplash.com/photos/wpvEMgFV4w0

Figure 6.2: Social media is a way for large groups of people to be connected. Nathan Dumlao. 2020. Unsplash license. https://unsplash.com/photos/kLmt1mpGJVg

Sections 6.1-6.4

Allen, B. J. (2011). Difference matters: Communicating social identity (2nd ed.). Waveland.

Austin, C. (2011). Overwhelmed by big consolidation: Bringing back regulation to increase diversity in programming that serves minority audiences. Federal Communications Law Journal, 63(3), 746–748.

Biagi, S. (2007). Media/impact: An introduction to mass media. Wadsworth.

Boler, M. (2008). Digital media and democracy: Tactics in hard times. MIT Press.

Boyd, D. M., & Ellison, N. B. (2008). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00393.x

Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Livingstone, S. (2004). Media literacy and the challenge of new information and communication technologies. The Communication Review, 7(1), 3-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714420490280152

O’Reilly, T. (2005, September 30). What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. https://www.oreilly.com/pub/a//web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html

Richardson, K., & Hessey, S. (2009). Archiving the self? Facebook as biography of social and relational memory. Journal of Information, Communication, and Ethics in Society, 7(1), 25-38. https://doi.org/10.1108/14779960910938070

RobbGrieco, M., & Hobbs, R. (2013). A field guide to media literacy education in the United States. https://mediaeducationlab.com/sites/default/files/Field%2520Guide%2520to%2520Media%2520Literacy%2520_0.pdf

Siapera, E. (2012). Understanding new media. Sage.

Signorielli, N. (2009). Minorities representation in prime time: 2000–2008. Communication Research Reports, 26(4), 323-336. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824090903293619


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Communication in the Real World by Faculty members in the School of Communication Studies, James Madison University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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