Media dependency theory offers a helpful way to think about the relationship between media and the fulfillment of different audience needs and goals.
At the heart of the theory is the proposition that in industrialized and information-based societies, such as the one we presently live in, individuals come to rely on media to satisfy a range of different needs and goals. These include learning about where those individuals should go to vote as well as staying up-to-date about the latest fashion trends.
Before diving into this theory, it is helpful to be mindful of the fact that journalistic outlets are just one group of social actors within a broader system of information. This broader system includes other mass media actors, like movies and books. It includes other institutional actors, like politicians and non-media corporations. It includes personal contacts, like your friends and family members. It even includes your personal experiences, like your attendance at an event or a study abroad experience that exposed you to a different culture. There are many other potential actors in that system, but this helps illustrate the notion that journalistic outlets operate within an environment made up of many different entities, each of which can offer at least some information that might be of interest to a particular audience member.
This perspective is helpful because it underscores the importance of understanding the context around people’s interaction with information, which is crucial to understanding journalistic media’s role in informing people. That, in turn, is an explicit rejection of earlier, more simplistic theories about the effects of mass media. For example, in the 1930s, scholars and popular intellectuals argued that mass media were incredibly powerful and that people generally accepted the information disseminated by mass media as-is. (This is called the hypodermic needle perspective.) At the same time, this systems perspective rejects the view that mass media have little to no effect — the limited effects perspective began to take hold as the hypodermic needle perspective lost popularity in the 1940s and 50s — as the magnitude of the effect is dependent on the context.
Returning to media dependency theory, it posits that the impacts of journalistic media on people (and of people on journalistic media) depend on the context and the nature of the relationships within a network of social actors, technological actants, and audiences that are relevant to that context.
The theory further posits that an individual’s characteristics and goals (e.g., how interested they are in some topic), their personal environment and interpersonal network (e.g., whether they know people with first-hand experience with that topic), and the dominant media and social systems they live within (e.g., how free they are to access news media they believe would be informative about that topic) all impact the extent to which they may depend on media for information about that topic.
For example, let’s consider the topic of foreign election interference in the 2020 election. Perhaps, as someone passionate about politics, you were very interested in that topic — and thus have a personal goal of learning more about it. However, because you were (most likely) not an intelligence officer and lacked the security clearance needed to review intelligence reports yourself, you probably didn’t have the ability to gain first-hand knowledge about that issue. Moreover, you might not have had any such intelligence officers in your friend or familial networks, so you didn’t personally know someone with first-hand knowledge, either. You thus had to depend on people other than yourself (third parties) and those close to you for information. One such third party might have been a journalist who has been covering the topic of election interference for months as the National Security Correspondent for The Washington Post. As such, you might have come to depend on that journalist for what you believed to be trustworthy information about the topic. (Or, perhaps, you depended on other journalistic outlets who themselves depended on the Post’s reporting for key details.)
However, that could change over time. Perhaps a reputable whistleblower leaked a series of private intelligence reports online. Now, you may find yourself dependent on the whistleblower for access to the information, as they controlled which of the intelligence reports were made available to the public. As you review the leaked documents, you may become less dependent on others’ interpretation of the issue — including The Washington Post’s reporting. Put another way, as your information network changes, the kinds and degrees of dependence also change.
Although journalistic outlets are just one of many sets of constituents within information systems, they are often important. That’s because people generally need journalistic media to function in modern societies, which are more co-dependent than ever before due to increased specialization and globalization. Put another way, personal contacts and experience are no longer enough to satisfy all (or even most) of the things a person needs to know in order to fully participate in modern social life.
Crucially, media dependency theory contends that the degree of ambiguity about news information impacts the degree of media dependency. Put another way, as news information becomes more ambiguous (less clear to you), audiences are presumed to become more dependent on journalistic outlets for understanding that news.
Ambiguity can come from many different sources. It might involve lack of knowledge about some phenomenon, such as whether a new technology developed by a rival nation poses a threat to your nation’s security. It might involve rapid change associated with a phenomenon, such as whether an emerging coup d’état in a friendly nation might impact the diplomatic relationship between them and your nation. It might also involve simple disagreement among institutional elites about some phenomenon, such as which political group is more likely to be correct about the costs and benefits to a proposed renewable energy plan.
That proposition from media dependency theory can further be extended into an argument that journalism can be especially influential on people’s understanding of emerging international affairs. That is, people typically have less certainty (and thus more ambiguity) when it comes to the world beyond their immediate geographical sphere because they might not have recent (or any) personal experience in those contexts — perhaps they have never been to Cambodia — and they might not have any personal contacts who have expert knowledge or experience in those contexts. Because of this, people become more dependent on media depictions of those places, peoples, and issues, and on journalistic outlets when new developments are emerging about those places, peoples, and issues.
According to media dependency theory, when a media organization has exclusive information, it tends to have more power within its relationship with an audience member (and the broader ecosystem) because it increases the degree of information asymmetry. This is particularly true if the information is in demand to satisfy that individual’s valued goals, and doubly so if access to such information is tightly controlled.
Exclusive information does not have to mean classified information, as with the earlier example. It might simply mean that they are the only source for that information at a given time, such as in the early hours following a chemical explosion at a local manufacturing plant. While local officials may eventually put out their account of the event via a televised press conference, people are likely to first hear about it from the breaking news coverage provided by journalists.
However, journalistic media do not inherently get to have exclusive information about breaking news (or confidential affairs). Indeed, some institutional actors, such as governments or private companies, can restrict both media access to important resources and individuals’ access to certain journalistic outlets. In doing so, those institutional actors can try to reorient dependency away from journalistic media and toward their own version of events. For example, a private company may prevent news media from accessing that manufacturing plant or speaking to its employees. Similarly, government officials in some countries may even prevent journalistic media from broadcasting information about the incident until those officials give their approval. Such intervention happens quite often in practice, to varying degrees.
It is important to note that media dependency theory was first proposed during a time of high media concentration, when there were relatively few major broadcast networks in places like the United States. Today’s media ecology is far more complex, though. In particular, mobile devices (e.g., smartphones) and networked media (e.g., social media and messaging apps) have become important elements in today’s media ecology. They allow individuals to serve as intermediaries between mass media and other people. That is, individuals and aggregators with large online followings can become key brokers of news information during an event and thus gain power — even if only temporarily — by virtue of others’ dependence on them. Additionally, people can now more easily find videos and accounts of an event posted by a range of other people who observed it first-hand, thus reducing the exclusivity that any one actor might otherwise have.
Media dependency theory is a systems-level theory that views journalistic outlets as just one group of actors within a broader system of information.
Media dependency theory focuses on understanding relationships within a system, with the strength of the relationships impacting the degree of dependency.
Media dependency theory contends that the degree of ambiguity impacts the degree of media dependency. Journalism can be especially influential on people’s understanding of things that they have limited personal experience with, such as international affairs.
When a journalistic outlet has exclusive information, it has more power in a relationship as the relationship becomes asymmetric. However, different institutional actors, like governments and private companies, can restrict access to important media resources.