Basic Functions of the Mass Media

Communication is crucial to the existence of man. It is the live wire of every society. The advent of modern technologies has enhanced the communication process to the extent that every aspect of existence has been influenced in diverse ways. From information storage, retrieval, processing, and dissemination, modern technologies have impacted society positively and negatively. Mass communication is the dissemination of information to a large, diverse audience through a mass medium (such as radio, television, newspapers, magazines, the internet). Information and Communication Technologies (ICTS) have expanded the process and reach of mass communicated messages across the world. The fact remains that no matter how technologies have altered information sharing, there are basic functions that mass communication plays in every society. You should know these functions to understand how the communication process impacts the society.

There are four basic functions which mass communication plays in every society. They are: surveillance, correlation, cultural transmission and entertainment. Despite the advent of ICTs, these four functions of mass communication are still relevant and in contemporary society.

Surveillance of the Environment

This entails monitoring events in the society and keeping people informed about them. Mass communication observes and informs the society of developing events and happenings. Mass media keeps citizens informed of news and events happening in their immediate and distant environment. In the event of crisis, mass media announcements offer warnings and instructions.

A typical example is when natural disasters occur, such as hurricanes, blizzards and tsunamis, traditional and social media outlets are the key communication tools to relay information about the path of an impending storm or to inform people about school and business closures, and how to seek shelters and find evacuation routes. Through the mass media government keeps in touch with citizens, businesses keep in touch with customers, the society is kept alive and active through proper information dissemination.

The Correlation Function

The media observe events in the society, select specific ones and present or interpret them the way they want their audiences to understand them. Correlation function refers to interpretation of news presented through the mass media. The mass media frame certain news stories in specific ways they want the public to view them. They connect or ‘correlate’ news stories to the life of audiences, by interpreting them sometimes in ways that the audiences might feel sentimental about them. This function deals with how the media’s selection of specific news and its interpretation affects how society understands and responds to it. Through mass communication, people’s attitudes towards political issues, events, public policy and other government activities, happenings across the world, etc. are influenced to an extent, based on how the media frames and presents the issue in their discussions and presentations.

The mass media determines what the audiences get as news. This role was once monopolized by only traditional or mainstream news outlets. They were once the only arbiters of what was selected as newsworthy and of how broadcasters and journalists interpreted information. The advent of internet with emergence of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has changed that scenario. In fact, this has become worse with the advent of fake news largely propagated via social media platforms. Users of social media can be fed farfetched stories that look like “real news,” when, in fact, they are not. This is why it is always good to crosscheck any information from social media with mainstream traditional media before relying on it. The social media at not necessarily news sites but they play correlation information too.

Cultural Transmission and Influencing Societal Norms

While the first two functions are aimed at providing and interpreting news and information, this function allows media to reflect and influence societal norms. The media serve as transmitters of cultural messages, letting people in the society understand what are considered acceptable forms of behaviour. This function reflects the evolving nature of culture. What was once taboo can become the norm when enough people embrace it and when the media frequently report on it. This means that what was not regarded as culture decades ago may be regarded and reported as culture today based on its acceptance as a way of life. For instance, in the 1980s, cooking shows had women as anchors or presenters who cooked different dishes and taught audiences how to do so. Today, you have men as presenters of some cooking shows, changing the narrative that only women should be in the kitchen. Storybooks read by kids especially in Nigeria decades ago presented the nuclear family as Father, Mother and children but there are books today projecting the concept of single parenthood. This is how the media reflect dominant culture at different periods. That’s the evolving nature of the cultural transmission function of mass communication.

Education and Entertainment

The mass media play education function teaching the audiences new ways of doing things. Mass communication provides both formal and informal educational function. The formal educational role involves radio and television programmes that teach topics and subjects from the school curricula, that is, things learnt in formal educational schools. There are such programmes as Instructional Television (ITV), school quiz and debates on television, among others. The print media also provide such educational contents. On the other hand, informal educational programmes teach audiences new skills, behaviour, and ways of doing things; topics outside the formal school curricula. Most media contents have informal educational value, just that some of such contents may have negative educational presentations (such as crime or pornographic programmes). Political, health, sports, business, and several other programmes and articles in the mass media educate the audiences in diverse ways.

The mass media also play entertainment function in the society. Before the advent of mass media, people were forced to entertain themselves in various ways. Some participated in activities that entertained them such as playing with friends and peers, hanging out together, or engaging in pleasurable events. Some others attended live events. The advent of mass communication enabled viewers and listeners to see and hear, and learn in real time from wherever they are. This helped the audiences satisfy information needs for escape and relaxation through entertainment.

The entertainment function has been taken further with the emergence of the social media. With these platforms you no longer need to rely on radio broadcasters or producers to provide your entertainment. Any individual with a smartphone can upload a crazy video to YouTube and make you laugh for hours. There are numerous comedy skits online these days. The social media now provide wide array of entertainment for users.

Finally!

The mass media are vital in ensuring normal existence of people in every society. Through these four basic functions, mass communication sanitizes the society, makes the world inhabitable for man and provides platform for interactional coexistence of people of diverse cultures across the world. With the emergence of technology which has taken the world to a global village level, mass communication is even more crucial in serving as the live wire of society.

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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