The 1940s and 1950s saw the beginnings of increased research into the functions of mass communications. Post the Second World War, there was widespread interest in trying to understand the impact of mass media messages on society.
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The focus on understanding the effects of mass communications, especially its social consequences and its impact on maintenance of social order gave rise to a theoretical framework called functionalism. Functionalism focusses on explaining slow, evolutionary change and not sudden changes. The limited capacity of functionalism to be used only in policy research, evaluation and planning has been criticized by many theorists. The focus of functionalism is on how mass communication serves society and fails to account for how humans interact with mass communication and construct meanings from messages. The focus on maintaining the existing social order and not allowing for any meaningful change has also being criticized.
According to Merton, the functions of mass communication can either be manifest or latent. Manifest functions are the readily observed and intended consequences of the media. Latent functions on the other hand refer to the impacts that are not as easy to be observed or those which are unintended.
Lasswell and Wright’s Functions of Mass Communication
1) Surveillance of the Environment: An important function of the media is to keep up a surveillance of all the happenings in the world and provide information to the human society. The media has the responsibility of providing news and cover a wide variety of issues that is of some service to the society. Media help maintain social order by providing instructions on what has to be done in times of crisis, thereby reducing confusion among the masses.
Example: In times of natural disasters, war, health scares, etc., it is the role of the media to create awareness by providing information on what is happening and of ways in which the disaster can be faced.
2) Correlation of parts of Society: This function relates to how the media’s selection of certain news and its interpretation affects how society understands and responds to it. People’s attitudes towards political issues, events, public policy, etc. are influenced to an extent by how the media frames and presents the issue in their discussions and presentations.
Example: The media’s reporting on the war in Vietnam played a role in changing the mindsets of Americans who started opposing sending soldiers to fight a losing war. Hitler used the media in his propaganda war against the Jews.
3) Cultural Transmission: This refers to the ability of the media to teach the various norms, rules and values that exist in a society and ensure its transfer from one generation to the next. Television programmes by and large reflects the society in which they are broadcast and promote the understanding of a society’s cultural heritage. Children’s television programmes are designed to showcase good behaviors and moral standards which children can learn by watching.
Example: Shows like Lassie, Full House, Seventh Heaven and the Brady Bunch promoted family values.
4) Entertainment: This popular function of the mass media refers to the ability of the media to help relax people and create a means of escape from the stress of everyday life. The entertainment function of mass media has both positive and negative effects. The low quality of content is often criticized but the other benefits like helping people experience new events, stimulating emotions and helping people pass their leisure time show how important this function is.
Example: Television offers opportunities for people to view events that they would otherwise not be able to participate in like the Oscars, Independence Day Rallies, the Olympics, etc.