Made an awesome project for VCE Media? Make sure you enter Top Design and Top Screen 2015!
Close Notification
Open Notification

Communication Theories

Communication Theories

Communication theories are ways of conceptualising the relationship between the mass media and audiences. Since the early days of mass communication, media theorists have attempted to describe the process of communication in an attempt to understand the nature and extent of media influence.


The Hypodermic Needle Theory suggests that the media has a direct and powerful influence on audiences. It was developed in the 1920s and 1930s after researchers observed the effect of propaganda during World War I and incidents such as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. It became the dominant way of thinking about media influence during the subsequent decades. The Hypodermic Needle theory is a linear communication theory which suggests that a media message is injected directly into the brain of a passive, homogenous audience. This theory suggests that media texts are closed and audiences are influenced in the same way. The Hypodermic Needle Theory is no longer accepted by media theorists as a valid explanation of communication and media influence. Indeed, some dispute whether early media theorists gave the idea serious attention. In their book An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, Michael Salwen and Don Stacks write: “The hypodermic-needle model dominated until the 1940s. As discussed earlier, although there is some question whether such a model influenced scholarly research, anyone reading pre-World War II popular literature will see that it underlay much popular thinking about the mass media and their consequences.” Although the Hypodermic Needle Theory has been abandoned by most media theorists, it continues to influence mainstream discourse about the influence of the mass media. People believe that the mass media can have a powerful effect on people and parents continue to worry about the effect of television and violent video games.


Harold Lasswell’s book Propaganda Technique in the World War was one of the principal source for what would later become known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory. Writing about the effect of Allied propaganda, Lasswell wrote: “From a propaganda point of view it was a matchless performance, for Wilson brewed the subtle poison, which industrious men injected into the veins of a staggering people, until the smashing powers of the Allied armies knocked them into submission.”


The Payne Fund Studies were a series of studies into the effect of movies on children. Although the studies have been criticised for a lack of scientific rigor but were the first, most comprehensive study of media influence. These studies confirmed the belief that the media has a powerful and direct influence on audiences. When writing about the influence of motion pictures, WW Charters – the chairman of the project – wrote: “We see that as an instrument of education it has unusual power to impart information, to influence specific attitudes towards objects of social value, to affect emotions in either gross or microscopic proportions, to affect health in a minor degree through sleep disturbance, and to affect profoundly the patterns of conduct of children.”

Although some of the data gathered from the Payne Fund Studies seemed to prove the hypodermic needle theory, it is important to recognise that these studies also proved significant flaws in this communication theory. As noted in ‘Children and the movies: media influence and the Payne Fund controversy’: “It is also important to realize that the best researchers of the late 1920s were not all naive adherents of what has been caricatured as the “hypodermic” or “magic bullet” theory of mass communication in which media messages were assumed to have a direct and immediate effect on the viewer’s consciousness as if they were injected like a drug into the bloodstream. There are traces of that idea in the PFS, but to some degree it was tested and gone beyond.”


On October 30, 1938 the Mercury Theatre broadcast a dramatization of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Directed by Orson Welles, the program was presented in the format of a news bulletin. Some viewers who tuned in late became convinced that Earth was actually being invaded by martians. As noted on the front page of The New York Times: “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o’clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells’s fantasy, “The War of the Worlds,” led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York. The broadcast, which disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems, was made by Orson Welles, who as the radio character, “The Shadow,” used to give “the creeps” to countless child listeners. This time at least a score of adults required medical treatment for shock and hysteria. In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture. Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids. The program was produced by Mr. Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air over station WABC and the Columbia Broadcasting System’s coast-to-coast network, from 8 to 9 o’clock.” Social psychologist Hadley Cantril conducted research on the Orson Wells broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’. He published his work in a book titled ‘The Invasion From Mars – A Study In The Psychology Of Panic’. The research involved interviews with one hundred and thirty people who listened to the broadcast. One hundred of those interviewed were selected for the study because they were frightened by the program. The only authoritative research on this event was conducted by a social psychologist examining the psychology of mass panic, not the influence of the mass media. In his book, Cantril notes that thousands of people became “panic-stricken”. It is estimated that close to six million people listened to the broadcast.


University of Twente: Hypodermic Needle Theory
Wikipedia: The Hypodermic Needle Model
Audience Theory: An Introduction


In 1948, Paul F Lazarsfeld wrote ‘The People’s Choice’ which summarised his research into the November 1940 presidential election. In the course of his research, Lazarsfeld discovered that people were more likely to be influenced by their peers than the mass media.

Lazarsfeld called these people ‘opinion leaders’. The Two Step Flow Theory suggests that opinion leaders pay close attention to the mass media and pass on their interpretation of media messages to others. The Two Step Flow Theory maintains that audiences are active participants in the communication process.

As Joseph Klapper noted in The Effects of Mass Communication: “Research has been focused on the process by which people come to decisions regarding public issues, change their food purchasing habits and habits of dress, and select the movies they attend. Specialist studies have inquired into how farmers come to adopt new farming practices and how physicians come to adopt new drugs. In all of these matters, and presumably in others, many people appear to be more crucially influenced by specific other individuals than by pertinent mass communications.”


University of Twente: Two Step Flow Theory
Wikipedia: Two Step Flow Theory


The Agenda Setting Function Theory was developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw as a result of their 1968 study of North Carolina voters during a presidential election campaign. They found a correlation between issues that voters believed were important and issues that the media gave prominence to. They argued that the media can’t tell audiences what to think but they can tell them what to think about, that the media has the power to set agendas. As McCombs noted: “The power of the news media to set a nation’s agenda, to focus public attention on a few key public issues, is an immense and well-documented influence. Not only do people acquire factual information about public affairs from the news media, readers and viewers also learn how much importance to attach to a topic on the basis of the emphasis placed on it in the news. Newspapers provide a host of cues about the salience of the topics in the daily news – lead story on page one, other front page display, large headlines, etc. Television news also offers numerous cues about salience – the opening story on the newscast, length of time devoted to the story, etc. These cues repeated day after day effectively communicate the importance of each topic. In other words, the news media can set the agenda for the public’s attention to that small group of issues around which public opinion forms.”


Wikipedia: The Agenda Setting Function Theory
University of Twente: Agenda Setting Function Theory
The Medical Journal of Australia: The Kylie Effect
The Age: ‘Kylie effect’ helped raise breast screening


Early thinking about communication theories focused on what the media does to people. The Uses and Gratification Theory, which was explored by Elihu Katz and Jay Blumler in a 1974 collection of essays titled The Uses of Mass Communication, concerns itself with what people do with the media. This theory proposes that audiences are active participants in the communication process. They choose media texts to gratify their own needs – such as the need for information, personal identity, integration, social interaction or entertainment. Uses and Gratification researchers maintain that the best way to find out about media use is by asking the audience because they are “sufficiently self-aware” to explain their reasons for using media texts. According to this theory, texts are open and audiences are active. In fact, the Uses and Gratification theory suggests that audiences actually have power over the mass media. For example, if they choose not to watch a particular program it won’t rate and will be taken off the air.


Why do people watch television?
Uses and Gratification Theory


In 1960, theorist Joseph Klapper published ‘The Effects of Mass Communication’ in which he proposed the Reinforcement Theory. As Klapper noted: “Whatever it is to be called, it is in essence a shift away from from the tendency to regard mass communication as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, towards a view of the media as influences, working amid other influences, in a total situation.” Klapper argued that the mass media does not have the ability to influence audiences. “Regardless of whether the effect in question be social or individual,” he wrote,”the media are more likely to reinforce than to change.” Klapper argued that people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviour was more likely to be influenced by their family, schools, communities and religious institutions. He argued that the only time the media could influence people was when the media introduced a new idea or concept. Klapper also pointed out that there are particular attitudes and beliefs that the mass media is particularly unlikely to change, such as racial and religious tolerance because attitudes on such topics are “crucial to their self-images and central to clusters of related attitudes, they have occasionally been called “ego-involved,” attitudes and it has become somehting of a dictum that ego-involved attitudes are peculiarly resistant to conversion by mass communication – or, for that matter, by other agencies.”

When writing about whether media violence encourages people to be more aggressive, Klapper wrote: “Communications research strongly indicates that media depictions of crime and violence are not prime moves towards such conduct. The content seems rather to reinforce or implement existing and otherwise induced behavioral tendencies. For the well adjusted, it appears to be innocuous or even to be selectively perceived as socially useful. For the maladjusted, particularly the aggressively inclined and the frustrated, it appears to serve, at the very least, as a stimulant to escapist and possibly aggressive fantasy, and probably to serve other functions as yet unidentified.”

In ‘The Effects of Mass Communication’, Klapper cites a number of studies that support his theory, including a 1948 study by Larzarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet which revealed that voters were predisposed to opinions and beliefs held by their families. As Klapper notes: “For persons such as the young man who reported his intention to “vote Democratic because my Grandfather will skin me if I don’t” – or for his opposite number who explained that “I will vote Republican because my family are all Republicans so therefore I would have to vote that way” – exposure to months of campaign propaganda was found particularly likely to be reinforcing, and particularly unlikely to effect conversion.”

Comparing Theories

Download and print out this table to help you revise the difference between theories for the SAC and the examination.