Media Dependency Theory
Media dependency theory (also called media system dependency theory or simply dependency theory) holds that the mass media’s influence varies based on how much people need or use particular media. Instead of claiming that media effects are always powerful, or always limited, dependency theory seeks to explain why media have powerful effects in some cases and limited effects in others. This entry provides the background on the development of media dependency theory, summarizes the theory’s key tenets, and discusses how the theory relates to corporate reputation.
Media dependency theory developed out of the uses and gratifications approach to media research. The uses and gratifications approach was proposed by Elihu Katz in the late 1950s after much of the post–World War II communication research found only limited effects of mass media on people’s beliefs and behavior. Katz suggested that researchers ought to focus less on what the media do to people and more on what people do with the media. The uses and gratifications approach assumed that people made relatively autonomous choices about using media, and these choices were driven by people’s desire to gain specific benefits from specific media. For example, people might read newspapers for information or listen to the radio for relaxation.
In the 1970s, Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach expanded on the uses and gratifications approach with media dependency theory. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach argued that individual choices about media use are not made in a vacuum but within a complex social system. The core of dependency theory is that the audience, the media, and other societal systems are all interdependent. This interdependence influences what individuals do as well as what the media and society do.
Media dependency theory operates at both a macro- and a microlevel. At the macrolevel, the theory states that a tripartite relationship exists between the media, the audience, and society. Social institutions like governments, corporations, and nonprofit organizations depend on the media to help them communicate with individual audience members. At the same time, the media depend on these social institutions to make news or buy advertising. Social institutions also depend on individuals to buy products, donate to causes, or vote for candidates. In return, social institutions give individuals certain material and nonmaterial goods. Finally, individuals depend on the media for information and entertainment, while the media depend on those individuals to generate revenue by paying for services or by providing an audience for advertisements. This interdependence between individuals, media, and society influences the choices each one makes.
At the microlevel, dependency theory posits that the more individuals depend on a particular medium to meet their needs, the more influence that medium has over them. People’s level of dependence is shaped by two main factors. The first factor is a medium’s unique ability to meet an individual’s needs. For instance, people who want information about politics may turn to newspapers, television, talk radio, or the Internet. These options are called functional alternatives because they can each perform the same function. On the other hand, people who want to read the opinion of a particular columnist will not accept other writers as functional alternatives. One’s favorite columnist is likely to be highly influential because one is highly dependent on that columnist.
Some media are capable of meeting a wider variety of needs than other media. The more needs a medium can meet, and the more important those needs are, the more dependent people tend to be on that medium.
The other factor that influences media dependency is social upheaval. Changes or conflicts make people feel uncertain about life. These feelings make people more likely to turn to the media for information that will help them reorient to the world around them.
Media dependency theory states that when people depend on the media for information, the media have more power to produce cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects on people. These effects can include agenda setting (i.e., telling people what issues are important), shaping attitudes and values, producing emotions, and influencing people to take action. The potential to create these effects has obvious implications for corporate reputation management.
Applications for Reputation Management
Media dependency theory is relevant to corporate reputation management because much of the communication between organizations and individuals is mediated. Sometimes individuals can form opinions about an organization through firsthand experience, such as when they use a company’s products or meet members of an organization. However, much of the information that affects an organization’s reputation—such as its financial performance or its social responsibility—is only available to stakeholders through the media. Organizations can communicate some information to stakeholders directly, but information communicated by the news media tends to be more credible.
Stakeholders may consider certain information especially relevant to an organization’s reputation. For example, some people are concerned about how a company treats its employees, while others care more about the company’s environmental practices. When it comes to forming perceptions of an organization’s reputation, stakeholders especially depend on media that can provide the most relevant information. Dependence on particular sources increases as alternative sources of relevant information decrease.
When organizations engage in media relations and media planning, they should consider which media outlets their stakeholders use. Different stakeholders depend on different media, so choosing the right communication channels for a particular message or audience is vital. Media can act as third-party endorsers of an organization by reporting news about it. This effect is generally stronger on more media-dependent stakeholders. Furthermore, since media dependency increases during periods of instability, choosing the right media for crisis communication is especially crucial. Organizations seeking to protect or rebuild their reputations should use the medium most likely to influence key stakeholders.
Ball-Rokeach, S. J., & DeFleur, M. L. (1976). A dependency model of mass-media effects. Communication Research, 3(1), 3–21.
DeFleur, M. L., & Ball-Rokeach, S. L. (1989). Theories of mass communication (5th ed.). New York: Longman.
Einwiller, S. A., Carroll, C. E., & Korn, K. (2010). Under what conditions do the news media influence corporate reputation? The roles of media dependency and need for orientation. Corporate Reputation Review, 12(4), 299–315.