Harold Lasswell, Harvard Professor of Politics and Charles Wright, Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania stressed four functions of the media. Lasswell spoke of three and Wright, one; Denis McQuail, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton, England, and later Professor and Head, Department of Mass Communication, University of Amsterdam, added two more functions.
The six major functions are Surveillance of the environment; Correlation of parts of society and Interpretation of events and issues; Socialization and transmission of the cultural heritage; Entertainment; Mobilization; and Democratic Participation.
Let us examine all these six functions, one by one. All of us want a map of our routine day-to-day life and events in our near or far environment. This mapping is done for us to a great extent by the mass media. Johann Galtung, a Norwegian scholar, once said that “there is nothing regular, all-pervasive and ubiquitous as the media of mass communication.”
The six major functions are Surveillance of the environment; Correlation of parts of society and Interpretation of events and issues; Socialization and transmission of the cultural heritage; Entertainment; Mobilization; and Democratic Participation. Minor functions such as publicity and public relations; advertisement; etc., are also discussed in this section.
Let us start with the first major function, namely, scanning and surveillance of the environment in which we live. All of us want to know what is happening around us, in order to reduce the uncertainties that envelop us. Life will be better if we succeed in getting information about personalities that matter to us, and issues that are of importance to us — as much as we can. Let us deal with the first major media function in this article.
Surveillance of the environment
Every day, a set of professionals scan the news sources, the global as well as national news services and the reports from the newspapers’ own reporters and dispatches from national and international news agencies. In earlier decades, local newspaper agents dispatched reports to the editor at the headquarters. Local agents were promoters of circulation and they were the sources of reports about incidents and events that promoted some local celebrities. This was one sure way of increasing the circulation of the newspaper concerned.
The media select certain items for constructing the ‘map of the world’ for us. This process is universal, regular, all-pervasive and limitless. What the selectors consider as important and worthy of users’ attention, are presented in the media.
The media select certain items for constructing the ‘map of the world’ for us. This process is universal, regular, all-pervasive and limitless. What the selectors consider as important and worthy of users’ attention, are presented in the media. This process of selection is important because we find an apparent consensus among selectors most of the time. Do newspapers thus set an agenda of things that readers ought to know? Perhaps, yes.
Thus every morning we get a constructed reality through newspapers, radio and TV at fixed times. Selected events, issues, and personalities are brought to us in a rapid and regular manner every morning, noon and evening. Nowadays we get updated pictures of the world or nation/region every hour of the day, every day on certain TV/Radio channels. We construct our reality, our environment, our world on the basis of media content. Or, do we? This is a matter that can be discussed by citizens who are media users. The fact remains that the media have the technical capability of constructing the world for us on a 24 x 7 basis.
As media users, we have to become more media-educated so that the reality constructed for us is interpreted correctly to the extent possible through extra-media sources. That’s media users’ new task. But the media normally report events and issues, supposedly for the benefit of society. Some media claim that they give the public what they want. But in this process of media selection, agenda-setting is involved. We shall discuss this on another occasion, but let us assume that the information we gather from the media is useful to society.
Dangers lurking in our environment –even water shortage, dangers from endosulfan, air pollutants, chemical effluents reaching our rivers and ponds, terrorist strikes – reach us through the media. Political actions taken against these dangers or the need for political actions is indicated by the media. It is essential for most of us to get the full significance of the events or political developments taking place in our environment. The media, therefore, have to keep a close watch over the environment in which we live. Lasswell called this the “surveillance” function of the media.
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, and the U.S. government security agent, Edward Snowden have raised important questions about the term “surveillance” which is now considered equal to spying. But in the 1940s when this term was used for the first time by Harold Lasswell, it did not have the stigma attached to it now. Coming to think of it, all governments in the world have secret agents working to gather sensitive information from other countries and there is no surprise about it. But surveillance here means only scanning the surroundings to warn media users (newspaper readers, television viewers and radio listeners), citizens’ groups, Panchayat, State and National governments about likely dangers in the environment besides telling them about matters of general interest to them. The media are expected to do honest reporting of events and issues. If the media take the selfish interests and motives of the media proprietors as the aim of their reporting and ignore public service, reporters they become dangerous to society.
The whistle-blowers have to examine if their actions have wide national or international ramifications for their action. They should have a clear conscience and a love of humanity. Otherwise, surveillance turns dangerous to individuals, the immediate environment, international peace and generate global insecurity. More about this on another occasion. Let us now turn to the second major function of the media.