Four Functions of Mass Communication

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  • 0:03 Mass Communication
  • 0:59 Harold Lasswell &…
  • 3:58 Charles R. Wright &…
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

What do you use mass communications for? Education? Entertainment? Enlightenment? How about all three? In this lesson, you'll learn more about the four identified functions of mass communications, then and now.

Mass Communication

Think about the last few shows you've watched on television. Did you check out news in your area or from around the world? What about programs on cultural issues or exploring the depths of different societies? Maybe you went straight for the entertainment: music videos, gossip about celebrities, or shows that make you laugh?

Whatever your preference (and it probably varies from day to day), you've likely checked out programming that fits into each of the main functions of mass communication, which is simply the transmission or exchange of information to large groups of people. We see it in newspapers, radio, magazines, television, and, more recently, the internet and social media.

The function of mass communication has changed over the years as our capabilities have changed. But, in the late 1940s, when experts were just starting to think about what mass communication was, it existed for three primary purposes.

Harold Laswell & Communication

In 1948, communication theorist Harold Lasswell was starting to think about the structure and function of communication in society. In fact, he wrote a paper titled exactly that: ''The Structure and Function of Communication in Society.''

He found three main functions of mass communications:


Surveillance of the environment is a more complex way of saying that a function of mass communications is to tell you about what's happening around the world and deliver that information to you. Surveillance refers to coverage of a wide range of important topics that impact society. Examples of this include newspaper articles about political decisions in Washington, D.C., foreign correspondents reporting on wars in far-flung countries, and emergency alert systems that come through our radio waves.

Today, we have more sources than ever to get our news. Some of these have forever altered how traditional media choices like newspapers and television stations deliver news stories to us. Where once we might have tuned in on our televisions to watch information on a live police chase, today we can turn into these same broadcasts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And don't forget about the internet. Almost anything you want to know (and a lot of stuff you don't) is available with a single click, eliminating for many the need to watch the six o'clock news.


Correlation of parts of society was another of Lasswell's mass media functions. You might call this part shaping opinions or influencing attitude. It's a huge part of the media presence we know today, but back to Lasswell. Lasswell said that the way mass communications outlets share news has an effect on how its audience perceives the event being reported. Many people believe that the role of the media had a profound impact on the way people in the United States perceived the Vietnam War.

In the 21st century, not only do we find people sharing their opinions in in newspaper columns or on television, but we can also talk back to them through message boards, comments on blog posts, or videos in the various social media platforms. Correlation has become a two-way street, one where we can influence the opinions of others more readily.

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