Background reading material from Encyclopedia Britannica 2004 for Year 2 Semester 1 PPSD session on 18th November 2006

Lively controversy centers on the effect of public communication upon audiences, not only in matters concerning public opinion on political issues but in matters of personal life-styles and tastes, consumer behavior, the sensibilities and dispositions of children, and possible inducements to violence. Feelings regarding these matters vary greatly. Some people construe the overall effects of mass communication as generally harmless to both young and old. Many sociologists follow the theory that mass communication seems to influence attitudes and behavior only insofar as it confirms the status quo—i.e., it influences values already accepted and operating in the culture. Numerous other analysts, usually oriented to psychological or psychiatric disciplines, believe that mass communications provide potent sources of informal education and persuasion. Their conclusions are drawn largely from observations that many, or most, people in technological societies form their personal views of the social realities beyond their immediate experience from messages presented to them through public communication.


To assume that public communication is predominantly reflective of current values, morals, and attitudes denies much common experience. Fashions, fads, and small talk are too obviously and directly influenced by material in the press, in films, and in television to support this view. The success of public communication as an instrument of commercial advertising has also been constant and noticeable. Present evidence indicates that various instruments of mass communication produce varying effects upon different segments of the audience. These effects seem too numerous and short-lived to be measured effectively with currently available instruments. Much of the enormous output on television and radio and in print is probably simply regarded as “play” and of little consequence in affecting adult dispositions, although many psychologists believe that the nature of children's play experiences is critical to their maturation.


The role of newspapers, periodicals, and television in influencing political opinion is fairly well established in the voting behavior of the so-called undecided voters. Numerous studies have shown that while the majority of citizens in the United States cast their votes along party lines and according to social, educational, and economic determinants, middle-of-the-road voters often hold the balance of power that determines the outcomes of elections. Politicians have become sensitive to their television images and have devised much of their campaign strategy with the television audience in mind. Advertising agencies familiar with television techniques have been brought into the political arena to plan campaigns and develop their clients' images. The effectiveness of television campaigning cannot yet be determined reliably.


Public communication is a near-ubiquitous condition of modernity. Most reliable surveys show that the majority of the people of the world (including those of totalitarian countries) are usually satisfied with the kind of mass communication available to them. Lacking alternatives to the communication that they easily and conveniently receive, most people seem to accept what they are given without complaint. Mass communication is but one facet of life for most individuals, whose main preoccupations centre on the home and on daily employment. Public communication is an inexpensive addendum to living, usually directed to low common denominators of taste, interest, and refinement of perception. Although mass communication places enormous potential power in the hands of relatively few people, traditional requirements for popular approval and assent have prevented its use for overt subversion of culturally sanctioned institutions. Fear of such subversion is sometimes expressed by critics.

ŠProfessor Omar Hasan Kasule, Sr. November, 2006