Mass media

A mass media is a medium capable of conveying information to a large audience; the phrase, along with the term “mass communication,” was coined in the first half of the 20th century in Anglo-Saxon circles. According to McQuail’s definition, “mass media” or “mass communication” are means designed to carry out forms of communication “openly, at a distance, with many people in a short period of time.

In other words, mass communication (that class of communicative phenomena that relies on the use of media) consists of complex organizations that aim to “produce and disseminate messages to very large and inclusive audiences, comprising extremely diverse sectors of the population. For more than four centuries, the only true mass medium was the “printed word,” thanks to Gutenberg’s invention of movable type (between 1455 and 1457).

In the early 19th century, the development of railroads, along with advances in the distribution of electrical grids, created the conditions for the birth of the second mass medium: the telegraph. It was followed by the telephone, cinema, radio and television, with an increasingly rapid crescendo.

The emergence and commercialization of telematic networks, in particular the advent of the Internet, is currently the most recent stage in this journey. Because of their specific characteristics (not all of which are antithetical to the so-called “traditional media”), we use the term “new media” to refer to devices based on the new networked communication technologies.

Historical background

Mass communication, linked to the technological development of mass media, emerged between the First and Second World Wars as an issue of great sociological importance. In Europe, where cinema and radio proved to be exceptional instruments of political propaganda, used with particular effectiveness by totalitarianisms, until the 1950s there was a concern derived from the traditional critique of civilization (from F. Nietzsche to J. Ortega y Gasset) and partly reflected in the experience of the Frankfurt School and authors such as W. Benjamin and Th. W. Adorno. The research landscape in the U.S. is more articulated, where as early as the 1930s authors such as H. Lasswell initiated methodologically original research on the social effects of the new media system and the communicative universe of information and advertising.

In the period after the Second World War, when the advent of television led to a boundless expansion and thus to a genuine revolution in the communicative system, thematic and methodological contributions emerged that gradually made the analysis less ideological and more empirically convincing (one only has to think of the work of H. M. McLuhan). In France, E. Morin identifies the mass media as the central element of the new cultural industry; in the United States, E. Shils studies their potential for a new political participation, while E. Katz and P. Lazarsfeld, with their paradigm of limited effects, reduce the alarmism of early critics of the mass media; techniques of analysis aimed at the language of the mass media (such as content analysis) receive impetus.

The prevailing position among contemporary scholars seems to be to better define the social reach of large mass media, especially television, by considering not only the immediate (apparent or real) effects on the audience, but also the influence of a more complex communicative circuit. Hence the focus on the sources of broadcasting (managers, journalists, technicians and communication artists) and their new and changing social role. Hence the success of new research techniques based on the semiological approach, i.e. the analysis of the system of signs that allows the analysis of both the latent content and the symbolic dimension of mass media.

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