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The Rise and Fall of Mass Communication

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William L. Benoit and Andrew C. Billings

Mass communication theories were largely built when we had mass media audiences. The number of television, print, film or other forms of media audiences were largely finite, concentrating people on many of the same core content offerings, whether that be the nightly news or a popular television show. What happens when those audiences splinter? The Rise and Fall of Mass Communication surveys the aftermath of exactly that, noting that very few modern media products have audiences above 1–2% of the population at any one time. Advancing a new media balkanization theory, Benoit and Billings neither lament nor embrace the new media landscape, opting instead to pinpoint how we must consider mass communication theories and applications in an era of ubiquitous choice.
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Chapter One When ‘Mass’ Meant ‘Massive’: Cohesive Audiences and Heavy Impact

CHAPTER ONE

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When ‘Mass’ Meant ‘Massive’: CohesiveAudiences andHeavy Impact

One could argue that the pinnacle of mass media audience levels ascribed too much power to single entities—and sometimes even single persons. For instance, Walter Cronkite helmed the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962–1981), with national polls frequently finding him to be the most trusted man in America (Folkenflik, 2009). When Cronkite offered his signature phrase at the end of each broadcast, “and that’s the way it is,” large swaths of the U.S. concurred. Allowing a single media figure to have such sway over a mass audience can certainly be concerning, yet most would agree Cronkite wore the crown of trust quite well.

However, Cronkite is a key exemplar for why mass communication is an extremely important field of inquiry to navigate both our past and present worlds. Both terms—“mass” and “communication”—are key components of this concept. “Communication” is a means of disseminating information, ideas, attitudes, and feelings to others (the audience) via messages (technically we would say it is a way to try to evoke meaning in audiences, rather than “transmission”). The size of the audience for a given message, of course, is an important factor in determining the magnitude of effects in communication. The larger the audience, the greater the potential for influence and reverberation (other factors, such as who is the intended audience, matter as well). Of course, some audience members will experience little or no influence from a given message...

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