Normative Frameworks of Mass Communication Research Paper

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Mass communication, the public dissemination of symbols that are in principle addressed to everyone, has always aroused controversy, not only about specific policies and practices, but about larger philosophical questions concerning morality, politics and art. Frameworks treating the normative dimensions of mass communication fall into two general groupings: those that distrust it and those that do not. The paper examines each in turn.

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1. Distrust of Mass Communication

Despite its twentieth century ring, mass communication is as old and fiercely debated as civilization itself. Mass communication will always occupy a symbolically charged spot in any social order, whether its medium of communication be pyramids or stained glass, newspapers or television; whether its aim be to keep subjects in awe, believers in the fold, or citizens informed. The lack of discrimination as to audiences and the easy transgression of social boundaries are two key objections to mass communication. Over the twentieth century, such media of mass communication as dime novels, comics and radio, television, videogames and the internet have been blamed for about every ill imaginable in modern life, from the degradation of taste to the corruption of youth and the decline of democracy. Though such attacks are motivated by genuine worries attendant to modern conditions, they have intellectual roots that reach into the Judeo–Christian and Greco–Roman past.

Older normative frameworks are very much alive in academic and popular debates alike about the social meaning of mass communication. They often act today more as moral intuitions about what a social order should expect from its public forms of communication than as systematically developed doctrines. Since such intuitions, at their worst, scapegoat mass media and thus invite simplistic causal attributions for complicated social problems, much social research on the effects of mass communication has explicitly contested older moralistic or normative ideas about mass communication. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such ideas are of little interest to social science. First, these larger frameworks provide the moral and political resources that drive the enterprise of social science as a quest for truth, humane social organization, and political progress. Second, many age-old topics are very much on the academic and public agenda today, such as worries about the role of the image in politics, the socialization and education of children, the possibility of global understanding, or the place and purpose of the arts. These topics emerge from distrustful intuitions about mass communication, as is shown below.

1.1 Iconoclasm

The implications of a visually dominated society for politics, cognition and education is a recent concern with a long past. In a deep sense, distrust of the bewitching power of images begins atop Mount Sinai. The second of the ten Mosaic commandments proscribes the making of graven images and of mimetic visual arts in general. Ever since, iconoclasm (the smashing of images) has proven to be an enduring theme in the history of thinking about the public life of signs (Goux 1978). Moses was specifically concerned with the proper representation of deity, but the intuition that images mislead hearts away from the ‘true’ vision or way of life has long had a more-general purchase. In cultures influenced by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, notions of idolatry and simulation are still used to describe communications and their dangers. Around the world today, TV sets are smashed, authors sentenced to death, or CDs bulldozed in acts of puritanical destruction of media forms considered dangerous. Obviously, such acts are a kind of censorship or repression, as they rest upon the viewpoint that certain things should not be represented. That restraint in depiction can be justifiable, however, is a useful lesson for an age sated with information about Princess Diana’s crushed Mercedes or President Clinton’s cigar. The principled refusal to look can stem not only from cowardice, but from tact and civility, and offers a rich vein for considering current ethical dilemmas in media representations (Kieran 1998).

1.2 Fabrications and the Corruption of Youth

Fear of the seduction of youth dates at least to Plato’s Republic. Plato famously banished poets from his utopia, a gesture archetypal for normative thinking on communication since in at least two respects. First, poets are imitators who multiply appearances rather than realities in a world that already suffers from an overpopulation of copies. Just so, distrust of media veracity is widespread today, whether in the routine suspicion that much in the news is fabricated or the far more sinister inkling that the Holocaust was a carefully orchestrated media conspiracy. Second, poets, claims Plato, have a bad influence on the young, even if their falsehoods can be pedagogically useful. Plato’s thought about socialization continues to resonate in debates about mass media, from comics and cinema to popular music and computers. The notion that a just society must patrol public representations appears in the long history of regulating depictions of sexuality and violence in film, and in various content ratings systems for film, television and popular music. Though some twentieth century interpreters of Plato, most notably Sir Karl Popper, read his Republic as the fountainhead of authoritarian thinking, few would deny that mass communication aimed at children deserves special care or that the portrayal of ‘reality’ is a thorny task of public importance.

1.3 Responsibility to Distant Suffering

Both Stoicism and Christianity teach the idea of moral responsibility to the entire world. The Stoics speak of cosmopolitanism, or literally, world citizenship, and the Christians speak of a love that can encompass the entire human family. In the Christian notion of the Gospel, or literally, the good news, there is the ambition, in principle, of dissemination to a worldwide body of communicants. The hope for a great community on a global scale remains a potent political and moral project today, however much it may be stripped of its religious or philosophical content. Here the features of mass communication that usually evoke suspicion are valued. Its lack of discrimination in recipients and ability to cross social barriers make it potentially an inclusive and just form of communication (Peters 1999).

Mass media are prime instigators of responses to distant suffering (Boltanski 1993, Ignatieff 1997). Some suggest that the foreign policy of the USA and NATO is partly dictated by the location of television cameras. Sufferers whose fates can be made graphically visible to influential audiences may, in this argument, be more likely to receive political, humanitarian, or military aid than others who languish beyond the reach of the image. Others suggest that representations of human suffering do not deepen but rather deaden moral sensibilities, as news organizations, fighting for audience share, push the limits on shock and outrage by packaging suffering for popular titillation in ever more gruesome ways. In any case, the ability of the media to alert the public to the rest of the world, to arouse humanitarian interest for those who suffer and to build cross-national bonds of solidarity—or hostility—is clearly one of the most important sites of debate in the politics and ethics of the media today (Moeller 1999). The Christian and Stoic heritage suggests that the representation of one’s fellow humans is an ethical responsibility of the first order. Mass communication cannot act in a vacuum: nothing less in this view than global brotherhood and sisterhood is at stake.

1.4 The Degradation of Art

Finally, a tradition with a complex genealogy extending to early modern thinkers such as Montaigne and Pascal or the Roman satirists criticizes mass communication for its cheapness and low level of taste. Often frankly elitist in its condemnation of vulgarity, commercial production or formulaic structure, the high-art tradition wants communication to be an intense and concentrated aesthetic experience. It is perhaps false to say that elitism offers a normative framework for mass communication at all, since mass communication itself—the fact of widely diffused and openly addressed forms of culture—often seems the prime target. Matthew Arnold’s dictum that genuine culture consists of ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’ or the Frankfurt School’s fulminations against the ‘culture industry’ are two instances of the viewpoint that the arts can be morally and socially redemptive when appreciated in the proper, often rarefied, conditions, but catastrophic when they circulate in a bored and restless mass society (Horkheimer and Adorno 1947).

An affirmative case for art in mass communication is found in the republican tradition. For Cicero, who stands at the tradition’s head, rhetoric is not simply an art for inflating weak arguments and wooing crowds; it is an authentic technique of political deliberation. Republicans typically argue that theater can be a healthy part of political life, not just a tool of deception or manipulation. Granted, a republican such as Machiavelli has a bad reputation on this point, but he also understands communicative artistry as the very stuff of public life. Whereas many democratic theorists distrust the theater for breeding inauthenticity in citizens and silencing the people, republican theorists insist that rhetoric and drama can have a legitimate place in a just polity (Hariman 1995).

Though concern for aesthetic taste and mass culture was the very heart of twentieth century debates about media, culture and society from the 1920s through the 1980s, the dawn of a new millennium finds confidence thin that a canon of works exists whose quality is beyond dispute. High-brow taste has become increasingly omnivorous and elite art hybrid, jumbling heretofore segregated aesthetic levels. Even so, the intuitions that the products of commercial culture are often appalling and that mass communication could theoretically be a thing of beauty are not likely to disappear from the agenda (Gans 1999).

In sum, several of the most important intellectual sources in the western world—Hebrew, Greek, Roman and Christian—have contributed a number of views about mass communication, all of which converge on the notion that the public dissemination of symbols is of such religious, social, moral and aesthetic weight that it can never be left without some kind of control or restriction. Whether seen as dangerous or valuable, mass communication is held by all these traditions to be powerful indeed.

2. Faith in Openness: Liberalism and its Critics

As opposed to the ancient nervousness about dangerous messages, most modern normative thinking about mass communication developed from or in critical dialog with the Anglo–American tradition, central to which is the proposition that public culture serves society best when left to its own devices. Liberalism, as the tradition has become known owing to its ideal of liberty, emerged from the writings of English Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and has spread widely to become the official doctrine not only of communication policy, but of many principles of government generally throughout the modern world. Mass communication, it argues, may threaten extant powers or opinions, but is never truly dangerous.

Distinctive in liberal thought is the special place given to freedom of communication, considered not simply one of many valuable liberties, but as fundamental to all others. The marketplace, whether of goods or ideas, is considered a refuge against the power of the state or church. Liberals conceive of liberty as the absence of constraint. They abhor censorship. Public toleration of ideas held to be repellent or dangerous is, for liberals, the price paid for liberty and an expression of the faith that truth, in the long run, will triumph. Open discussion, like the open market, is held to be self-correcting. The press, said Thomas Jefferson, ‘is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man’ and liberal thinkers often give newspapers a privileged mission in civil society, sometimes to the neglect of other institutions. The press, as is often pointed out, is the only nongovernmental institution mentioned in the Constitution of the USA. Liberals dream of the press as a ‘fourth estate,’ an unofficial branch of government, an allseeing monitor of society and politics generally, and the public’s lifeline of political truth.

The liberal framework, in sum, values openness, criticism, diversity and liberty in mass communication; enjoins an attitude of vigilance, tolerance, public curiosity and rationality on the part of citizens; and believes in a knowable world and in the ultimate fruitfulness of open discussion for societal progress and discovering truth. It owes much to the Enlightenment confidence that scientific progress will banish all shadows and society can be rationally organized. Because of their strong faith in reason and progress, liberals often dismiss, mistakenly, the older frameworks discussed above as censorious and no longer relevant.

2.1 Nineteenth Century Criticisms and Alternatives

The history of modern philosophical norms of mass communication is largely that of the development and criticism of liberalism. In the course of the nineteenth century, liberalism comes under criticism from the right, the left and from within. From the political right comes the charge that liberalism’s refusal to identify any positive moral good besides liberty is destructive of tradition and public spirit. Its love of freedom splinters civil society either into private egos pursuing their own interests or herds of bovine citizens haplessly searching for leadership. Such critiques urge that the communication structures shaping public life should not be left to shift for themselves but must be actively cultivated so that the ‘best men’ and ideas can prevail.

From within, liberal critics of liberalism such as Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill note the potential of its policies to breed conformity and ‘soft’ forms of despotism. Tocqueville calls for deepened forms of community involvement in voluntary associations, and Mill for a more robust openness in social thought and discussion. Both see the dangers of a tyranny of the majority and the unintended consequences of social atomization. Thenceforth liberals start to consider subtler impediments to liberty besides state and church.

From the left comes an attack on the liberal conception of a self-regulating marketplace, both of goods and ideas. For Marx, most notably, to speak of liberty in the abstract is misguided because it neglects the structures that limit the real experience of free expression. Thinkers in Marxist and socialist traditions have been trenchant critics of the claim that unrestrained discussion will automatically yield truth rather than ideology. Quite like right-wing critics of liberalism, they argue that freedom must mean more than the absence of constraint. It must include meaningful chances for the people to act and speak in public, a point made by feminist and civil rights reformers as well. Freedom of the press is wonderful, the old quip goes, if you happen to own one. For leftist critics, the liberal equation of trade and discussion helps reinforce massive inequalities in the power to propagate ideas. To achieve the ideal of authentically free communication, citizens must have access to the means of communication. More than freedom from censorship, this ideal hinges on people playing meaningful roles in the making of history.

2.2 Twentieth Century Developments

In the twentieth century, fascism emerged from the right-leaning critique of liberalism. European social democracy and the American New Deal developed as left-leaning correctives, with the state in each case assuming an affirmative role in subsidizing social services not delivered by the market, including new mass communication services. In the USA, where the role of the state was weaker than in Europe, broadcasting became a commercial enterprise with only light federal regulation. Even so, broadcasting in theory served the ‘public interest, convenience, or necessity’. Though rarely enforced, the public ownership of the airwaves, including the right of listeners to reply and to have programming that met their needs, was found constitutional in several important Supreme Court cases in the USA (Lichtenberg 1990).

In Europe, broadcasting developed as an organ of the state, with a different history in each nation. Whereas media in the USA operated in a capitalist system with occasional governmental oversight, in Europe and elsewhere, government or quasi-government institutions were developed to provide information and entertainment to the entire nation. The British Broadcasting Corporation, long seen as the international flagship of public-service broadcasting, rested on such principles as universal service, quality programming, a bulwark against creeping commercialism (often read as Americanism) and national integration. Public-service broadcasting was one part of the welfare state’s program of providing citizens with the common necessities of life (Calabrese and Burgelman 1999).

Important theoretical treatises on mass communication in the twentieth century reflect a belief that mass communication should serve the public and not simply be free from constraint. In the USA, an important proposal for reform was A Free and Responsible Press (1947), better known as the Hutchins Commission. Its title already tells the story: freedom is not enough; the press must actively contribute to the commonweal and stand responsible for its effects. Highly critical of sensationalistic and shallow reporting, which it traced to the economic conditions that require media institutions to grab rather than educate audiences, the report did not, however, call for the state to intervene in the business of public information. Its answer was professional self-regulation within capitalism. Many journalists received the report with hostility, though the project of private ownership combined with public responsibility prevailed in the best postwar American journalism, both print and broadcast (e.g. NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation) and CBS (Columbia Broadcasting Service) news in their heyday). Here the normative vision combines the classic liberal doctrine of freedom from state interference with an affirmative concern for civic duty.

Perhaps the most important theoretical treatise on the normative grounds of mass communication in the second half of the twentieth century was the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). It articulates the European sense that mass communication is a social good too precious to be left to the market or the state. Notable about this book is its historical and social contextualization of the project of rational public communication. Habermas’s notion of the public sphere is a rethinking of the liberal ideal of publicity (now often called ‘transparency’) for radical democratic purposes. Whether interpersonal or mass, any act of communication discloses, Habermas believes, the potential of persuasion without violence. Habermas’ thinking about mass communication turns on the normativity of uncoerced discussion in which the only power is that of the better argument. Rationality and participation are his requirements for just communication; he does not believe that the culture industries (mass media) will do the job. Though his practical alternative is not always clear, his aim is to deepen social democratic ideas and practices of mass communication (Calhoun 1992).

With the globalization of the world economy and the deregulation of the media in the USA, Europe and elsewhere in the last two decades of the twentieth century, classic liberal ideas have come roaring back in the realm of mass communication. Talk of liberty and the free market has been persuasively used to justify massive mergers of newspapers, radio and TV stations, film studios, cable services and internet services, among other outlets of mass communication. Neoliberal arguments have emphasized one side of liberal doctrine (the lack of state regulation of the market of goods and ideas) over the other (the creation of free, open, and diverse public fora). Concentration of ownership in media industries, as well as their conglomeration with non-media industries, has raised fears about conflicts of interest and monopolistic (propagandistic) control. Hence, many recent critics of the deregulation and commercialization of the media have sought to reclaim the affirmative or socially responsible side of liberalism, much like earlier critics (Keane 1991; see Journalism).

2.3 Other Criticisms

A long tradition of social research on the production of news shows how the liberal dream can serve as a legitimating ideology for professional journalists and mask the social reality of newswork. The sociology of news production shows that journalists follow formulaic routines and organizational cultures that shape their output more decisively than does a fearless quest for truth. The actual content and practices of journalism seem unaffected by the liberal idea of the press. Exalted rhetoric about the free press coexists with a long history of sensationalism that dates to eighteenth century broadsheets, if not earlier. Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) captures the realist bent in empirical research on journalism well by arguing that liberal dreams should be replaced by a more accurate scientific modes of analysis and reporting.

Postmodernism offers another philosophical attack. The liberal model of communication, postmodernists argue, is simplistic, missing the instability of language. Further, in an age rife with visual rhetorics, censorship should not be the chief worry. Public consciousness can be manipulated through too much information, or information selectively presented or ‘spun’. For postmodernists, liberalism’s fear of coercion from church or state leaves it unprepared for the simulations and dreamworlds that stem from the market or the psyche itself. Not only suppression but seduction shapes the public agenda.

A similar point is made by cultural Marxists: instead of overt coercion, power largely works through the cooptation of consent or the creation of ‘hegemony.’ The liberal public sphere can serve as a forum of pleasurable domination. In contrast to the liberal emphasis on dissemination, Marxist-inspired cultural studies often focus on reception: how audiences read messages against the grain of dominant ideologies. Here, the liberal emphasis on active citizens is mirrored, but with a richer, more politicized account of the receiving end of mass communication. As in classical Marxism, neo-Marxists insist on looking at the results, not just the liberties, of communication.

Communitarians, the descendents of nineteenth century rightist and centrist critics of liberal egotism, have a revisionist program for mass communication. They often assail television for its alleged stupefactions and call for new forms of news-gathering and dissemination to invigorate community ties and public involvement. For communitarians, a chief ill of contemporary life is the alienation of ordinary people from public communication. It becomes the task of the press, among other agencies of mass communication, to draw citizens into the common good. The ‘public journalism’ movement, which reflects communitarian ideas, calls for the participation of all citizens in open and public dialog. Its normative vision of mass communication is not the liberal free dispersion of ideas but a civic conversation of all with all about the important issues of the day (Glasser 1999).

Finally, some fault liberalism for its overly rational emphasis. The American philosopher John Dewey (1927), sometimes a communitarian hero, argued that one fault of the liberal conception of mass communication was its dryness. For him, as for the British Marxist Raymond Williams (1989), drama in its diverse forms is a key resource in modern society. Similarly, recent advocates of public service broadcasting endorse entertainment as more than frivolity; it can play a role in widening sympathies for fellow citizens, allowing a sort of communion among strangers (Curran 1991). These theorists take artistry in mass communication to be a means of expanded social imagination, rather like the republican tradition. They contest the liberal commitment to the leftbrain, as it were, of mass communication: the privilege of news in public life. Fiction, they argue, can have as important a civic role as fact.

3. Whither Media Ethics?

Media ethics has been largely concerned with the practices of media professionals, especially the analysis of hard cases that face journalists (deception, disclosure of sources, the blurry borders of objectivity, etc.). The sheer range and diversity of frameworks reflecting on mass communication and its larger social, political, moral, spiritual, pedagogical, economic, cultural and aesthetic implications suggest a richer agenda for media ethics. Questions about the tenor of public life, the experience of childhood, the relief of suffering, or the possibilities of artistic expression, for instance, might take a rightful place in debates about mass communication next to questions about liberty, information and ideology. Though various normative frameworks may be mutually incompatible in their principles, emphases, or conclusions, each one has something to offer.


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