Theories of Communication – Introduction to Media Studies (2023)

Jessica Shaw, Hannah Sheehan, and Nick Pulliam

In this chapter we will bediscussingtheoriesof mass communication. The Three we have chosen to highlightare The Cultivation Theory, TheSpiral of Silence Theory and the Hypodermic Needle Theory. Understandingthedifferent theories of mass communication is important because it makes you as a viewer moreconsciousof how the media may beaffectingyou.


What is cultivation theory? Cultivation theory is the Idea that media affects its audiences, not only consciously, butsubconsciouslyas well. The theory states when we are constantly exposed to the gender roles, cultural norms, and lifestyles by the media, the more we will try to subconsciously match theseideals (Coenen 21).

This theory was founded by GeorgeGerbnerin 1976, and was based on the ideas that Television has a bigger influence on its viewers than any other form of mass media (Coenen 12). Gerbner believed this because television has become a central part of our lives, and culture in the 21st century. He also stated that television does not mirror reality, but it makes an alternate one. This unrealistic reality, will become the viewers Ideal, and they will tend to reflect this in their own lives (CultivationTheory 2). Themore time anindividual spendswatching TV, the more affected by this they will be. Because television programs are based on the more emotion stirring points in life, such as crime, and tragedy. Heavy TV users can also start to see the world as a much scarier place, this is known as the “Mean World Syndrome” (Cultivation Theory 2). These television shows can make a heavy viewers reality seem much darker than a light viewer because the shows they watch constantly highlight the crime, a light user may not notice or seeintheireverydaylives.

A common misconception about the cultivation theory is the fact that watching violent television programs makes a personviolent.Televisiondoes not change a person, but it can play a part in shaping the way they think, and what they believe. This in turn could make a person violent or it could make them very shy and quiet. How Television affects the person solely depends on what programs they are watching, and what form of reality they are trying to connect with. An example of this is Discovery Channel’s Shark week. Since Discovery started Shark week, survey have shown that people have become increasingly aware, and afraid of sharks. To the point where they have seen a drop in effort for shark conservation and donations to those organizations (Myrick 3). Even though this week of entertainment was created to showcase the power of the animal, but has backfired, because many of the programs show shark attacks, and portray the sharks as killers. It has taken the ideas people had about sharks and begun to shape them into warning signs ofdanger (Myrick 4).

(Video) Introduction to Media and Communication Theory

Spiral ofSilenceTheory

The Spiral of Silence theory is based around the idea that people have an almost unconscious need to belong. Meaning that most people will try to support what’s seen as the majority opinion(Lee, et al 186).Forexample,during a time like World War 1, speaking out against the war could have some major consequences.People were aware of this and most chose not to say anything negative.Spiral of Silence is made up of five pieces:

  1. Threat of Isolation – People are often afraid to speak out because it could result in them being cast out of their social groups. This could mean their group of friends, family, or an organization that they work for.There have been instances in the past where people have been fired from their place of employment because of something they said on the job.And friend groups have definitely been shattered because of differences inopinion.
  2. Fear of Isolation – This component goes hand in hand with the threat of isolation, since people with an unpopular opinion will often hold it in out of fear that speaking out could threaten their social standing.Oftentimes people they know will shut them out, because they’re afraid of being looked down upon as well.
  3. Quasi-statistical Sense – There has been research in the past that people almost have a “sense” of what the popularopinionis.Theirbelief of what’s popular may not come from one place in particular, but from multiple. It could be based on what their family is saying, their friends, the media, and people posting on social media.There’s no definite answer to how peopleacquirethis sense, just that they’ll often listen to it in order to avoid social consequences.
  4. Willingness to Speak – Many people who hold the minority opinion are often afraid to speak out because of the reasons stated above. Oftentimes people are afraid of breaking the statusquobecause doing so can result in backlash. I think a goodexamplewould be when church leaders tried to stop Martin Luther King Junior from protesting in Birmingham, because of the impact it would have on a community. The fear that most people have of speaking out is why it’s so important to support someone when they actually do.
  5. Tendency to Remain Silent – Most people will accept the way things are because doing anything else could end poorly for them. Especially in societies where freedom of speech isn’t aprivilegeand speaking out could bring real harm to a person and their family.In the U.S. freedom of speech is a protected right, but even so, saying something unpopular can result in death threats against you and people close to you.(Spinda 16).

The Spiral of Silence theory was proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974. It’s gained a fair deal of popularity since then but it does have some criticisms as well. One of the more recent ones is how it doesn’t apply to the internet in most cases, thanks to the layer of anonymity you usually find online. People are more willing to speak out when they’re alone, which is why the internet has so many controversial opinions. This doesn’t apply everywhere online, because on social media you usually have your name posted so whatever you say there could be traced back to you. That being said there are plenty of messageboards and forums where you do have a certain layer of anonymity(WeichongandYanshu 80-81).

(Video) Communication Theories Overview

Hypodermic Needle Theory

This theory was created around 1920’s and 1930’s, it wasinspiredbytheeffectthatCivil War propaganda had onitsaudience. It is one of the earliest theories of how communication connects and effects it’saudience (Lamb 32). It is a linear theory that indicates that propaganda and media is like a hypodermic needle being injected into a passive audience members brain and they will not question theinformation that is beingcommunicatedtothem.It conveys the messagethatallof us,as anaudience, will processand understandmedia in thesame way.

In 1929-1932, the Payne Fund Studies did a study on how movies have direct effectson how children view and process the media, which was a way for them to prove that media is a direct way to inject opinions and/or ideas into theiraudience’sheads (Lamb 32). These studies went through a lot ofcriticismfor not displaying enough scientific evidencetowardstheir proposal. Allthroughoutthe 1930’s these studies were judged but also considered (Lamb 32). By then end of the decade, theresearchersbegan to express that they too were feeling as if theirresults weren’t enough to prove any kind oftheory at all.

Go here for more information about the Hypodermic needle theory.

(Video) Introduction to AL Media Theory


These are just threeofmany theoriesof communication. It’s important tounderstandwhat they arebecause they can have a profound impact on our lives, especially as we continue to consume more media than everbefore.Cultivation Theory is asprevalentas ever since the medias constant barrage of tragic stories is creating a more cynical world.The Spiral of Silence theory is interesting because it doesn’t have a real impact on people when they use the internet, since they feel more comfortable speakingopenly.That doesn’t mean they aren’t afraid of speaking out in group settings though. TheHypodermic NeedleTheorymay be more important than it’s ever been. In the past blatantpropagandawas used to influence a passive audience. In today’s digital world, anyone can post anything and pass it off as the truth and more often than not, the passive audience will believe it to be the truth. If people don’t want to be manipulated by media creators, they need to understand the major theories of communication so that they can form their own opinion.

Works Cited

Coenen, Lennert and Jan Van denBulck. “Cultivating the Opinionated: The Need to Evaluate Moderates the Relationship between Crime Drama Viewing and Scary World Evaluations.”Human Communication Research, vol. 42, no. 3, July 2016, pp. 421-440.

“Cultivation Theory.”Communication Studies, 5 May 2012,

(Video) Media theories

Lamb, Brett. “The Hypodermic Needle Theory.”Lessonbucket, 12 Apr. 2013,

Lee,Hyegyu.,Tsuyoshi Oshita,Hyung J.Oh,and Thomas Hove.“When Do People Speak Out? Integrating the Spiral ofSilenceand the Situational Theory of Problem Solving.”Journal of Public Relations Research26 (2014): 185-189.

Li,WeichongandYanshuSun.“Re-examining the Spiral of Silence Theory in the Chinese Social Context of Weibo.”Intercultural Communication Studies,26.1 (2017):80-108.

Morgan, Michael, et al. “Yesterday’s New Cultivation, Tomorrow.”Mass Communication & Society, vol. 18, no. 5, Sep/Oct 2015, pp. 674-699.

Myrick, Jessica Gall and Suzannah D. Evans. “DoPsasTake a Bite out of Shark Week? The Effects of Juxtaposing Environmental Messages with Violent Images of Shark Attacks.”Science Communication, vol. 36, no. 5, Oct. 2014, pp. 544-569.

(Video) Media Studies - Stuart Hall's Representation Theory - Simple Guide For Students & Teachers

Spinda,JohnS.“Keep itLocal or KeepitOut? An Examination of the Spiral of Silence and Local Alcohol Option Laws in Kentucky.”Kentucky Journal of Communication,33.2 (2014):44-65.


What are the theories of media and communication? ›

The Three we have chosen to highlight are The Cultivation Theory, The Spiral of Silence Theory and the Hypodermic Needle Theory. Understanding the different theories of mass communication is important because it makes you as a viewer more conscious of how the media may be affecting you.

What are the communication theories? ›

Communication Theories Definition

Communication theories refer to three things; a sender, a message and a receiver. It can take the form of one human being and the perceived environment through messages in the form of signs, symbols and thought (Mowlana, 2018).

What are the 4 theories of communication? ›

Answer and Explanation: According to many communication studies scholars, the four theories of mass communication are the Authoritarian Theory, the Libertarian Theory, Soviet-Communist Theory, and Social-Responsibility Theory.

What are the 7 theories of communication? ›

1) cybernetic, 2) socio-psychological, 3) socio-cultural, 4) critical, 5) rhetorical, 6) phenomenological, 7) semiotic.

What are the types of theories? ›

Sociologists (Zetterberg, 1965) refer to at least four types of theory: theory as classical literature in sociology, theory as sociological criticism, taxonomic theory, and scientific theory. These types of theory have at least rough parallels in social education. Some of them might be useful for guiding research.

How many types of communication theory are there? ›

Communication can be categorized into three basic types: (1) verbal communication, in which you listen to a person to understand their meaning; (2) written communication, in which you read their meaning; and (3) nonverbal communication, in which you observe a person and infer meaning.

What is the first theory of communication? ›

What is communication Theory ? Communication theory was proposed by S. F. Scudder in the year 1980. It states that all living beings existing on the planet communicate although the way of communication is different.

What are the most common communication theories? ›

Here's a list of eight mass communication theories you might apply:
  1. Agenda setting theory. ...
  2. Aristotle's communication model. ...
  3. 3. Entertainment education. ...
  4. Gatekeeping theory. ...
  5. Limited effects theory. ...
  6. Media dependency theory. ...
  7. Media richness theory. ...
  8. Mood management theory.
23 Nov 2021

Why are theories of communication important? ›

A theory can illuminate an aspect of your communication so that you understand the process much more clearly; theory also can hide things from your understanding or distort the relative importance of things. We consider a communication theory to be any systematic summary about the nature of the communication process.

What are the three theories of communication? ›

These prominent theories are as follows:
  • (a) Classical Theory of Communication:
  • (b) Human Relations Theory of Communication:
  • (c) Open System Theory of Communication:

What are the 6 theories? ›

The six Grand Theories in Psychology are: Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Ecological, Humanism, and Evolutionary. The theorists of the well-known theories are (Freud, Erickson), (Watson, Skinner), (Piaget, Vygotsky), (Bronfenbrenner), (Rogers, Maslow), (Lorenz).

What are the 6 models of communication? ›

The introduction of noise may affect clear communication.
  • Aristotle's model‍
  • Lasswell's Model‍
  • Shannon-Weaver Model.
  • Berlo's S-M-C-R Model.
  • Pros of linear communication models.
  • Cons of linear communication models.
  • Osgood-Schramm Model.
  • The Westley & Maclean Model.

What are the three basic theories? ›

If you have ever taken a Sociology class, you know there are three major basic theories. Symbolic interactionism, Functionalism and Conflict theory. Symbolic Interactionism theory focuses on the individual and the way they relate to symbols.

What theories explain? ›

A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true. Scientific theories are testable. New evidence should be compatible with a theory. If it isn't, the theory is refined or rejected.

What are theories and examples? ›

In biology, a theory is a widely accepted explanation of a biological phenomenon based on sound evidence from rigorous empirical experiments and scientific observations. An example of a popular biological theory is Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Who is the father of communication theory? ›

Communication Theory. Modern Communication Theory is based on mathematical theorems developed by Claude Shannon, an engineer and researcher at Bell Laboratories, in 1948.

What is a theory in communication studies? ›

The term theory, in communication research, as well as elsewhere, gets used in a number of ways, ranging from what is essentially a guess to a well-explored scientific area of study. In a general sense, it can be defined as an explanation for how and why something works as it does, in a given circumstance.

What is communication theory in communication? ›

variants or less commonly communications theory. : a theory that deals with the technology of the transmission of information (as through the written word or a computer) between people, people and machines, or machines and machines.

What are the functions of theories? ›

Theory provides concepts to name what we observe and to explain relationships between concepts. Theory allows us to explain what we see and to figure out how to bring about change. Theory is a tool that enables us to identify a problem and to plan a means for altering the situation.

What is scope in communication theory? ›

Scope refers to how broad or narrow a theory is (Infante, Rancer & Womack; Shaw & Costanzo). Theories that cover various domains are considered good theories, but if a theory is too broad it may not account for specific instances that are important for understanding how we communicate.

What are the 3 media theories? ›

Finally, using three of the most recent theories within media effects, namely framing effects, agenda-setting, and priming, the entry explains media effects theory and the psychological mechanisms involved in these three theories.

What are the three theory of communication? ›

CMC theories fall into three categories: cues-filtered-out theories, experiential/perceptual theories, and adaptation to/exploitation of media.

What are the 6 types of communication media? ›

As you can see, there are at least 6 distinct types of communication: non-verbal, verbal-oral-face-to-face, verbal-oral-distance, verbal-written, formal and informal types of communication.

How many types of media theory are there? ›

The six theories are Cultivation, Agenda Setting, Framing, Uses & Gratifications, Social Cognitive Learning, and Third Person.

Why theories are important in media? ›

Why do mass communication theories matter? Mass communication theories matter because they provide insight into how people consume, engage with and distribute media. The messages contained in media may have an impact on the audience, and these theories provide a framework for understanding that impact.

Why do we have theories of communication? ›

It plays an important role in understanding of human beings. (Richard West & Lynn H. Turner ,2014) said that communication theory helps to understand people and their communities, the media and associations with families, friends and companies. People's behaviours can be studied by learning communication theories.

What is the most popular communication theory? ›

1. Agenda-Setting Theory. The Agenda-setting theory holds that the mainstream media sets the agenda for social discourse.

What are the four types of communication media? ›

4 Types of Communication: Verbal, Non-verbal, Written, Visual.


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