Technologies of Public Communication

Learning Objectives

Identify how new technologies change the context of public communication.

The Medium Is the Message

In 1964, Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Medium, in this case, is the singular of a word we’re used to seeing in the plural: media. What he meant was that we tend to focus on the content of the message (the words being said or the images shown), but we really need to look at the medium, or the channel through which the communication is taking place. According to this line of thinking, the television is more important for the way it makes us see the world than for any given program it might carry.

Media Ideologies

In the introduction to her book The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media, Iliana Gershon discusses what she calls “media ideologies”—a concept which is essentially a more modern reframing of McLuhan’s idea of the medium and the message:

People’s ideas about the medium shape the ways that medium will deliver a message. No matter what is actually said, the medium becomes part of what is being communicated. Sometimes the medium is in synch with the message, and sometimes it is so out of synch with the message that the message is undercut. . . . That is to say, what people think about the media they use will shape the way they use media.[1]

As Gershon discovered, one of the quickest ways to reveal our often invisible media ideologies is to ask the question, “is it acceptable to break up with someone via text message?”

As you think about the history of media since the 15th century, consider the ways in which media ideologies evolved alongside an ever-growing assortment of options for sending and receiving messages.

Photograph of a man standing behind a wooden printing press

Recreated Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum, Carson, California. Johannes Gutenberg invented (or perfected) the printing press around 1440.

c. 1440–now: The Printing Press

The printing press made written materials much easier to copy and reproduce rapidly. This made text readily available to the masses through newspapers, books, and pamphlets, which sparked a rise in literacy rates and forever changed the ways people learned and communicated.

Despite the increasing availability of print media, public oratory remained an important source of news, information, secular and religious teaching, and political persuasion in Europe and America.

Bronze sculpture of a man sitting in a chair listening intently to the radio

The Fireside Chat, bronze sculpture by George Segal at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, DC.

1900–1944: The Radio

This period brought many changes to the political landscape, with new technologies beginning to significantly alter the communication of political messages. On June 14, 1922, Warren G. Harding became the first president to be heard on the radio.[2] The medium of the radio was put to extremely effective use by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose Fireside Chats between 1933 and 1944 allowed the President to speak directly to Americans about topics of national interest, from economic recovery to the rise of fascism in Europe.

To Listen: FDR

In this Fireside Chat from April 14, 1938, Roosevelt spoke to the nation about unemployment and economic recovery. Listen to the first minute or two of the broadcast, and think about the way the medium of the radio allows the President to speak directly to the individual listener.

You can view the transcript for the first two minutes of “1938, April 14 – FDR – Fireside Chat #12 – On Economic Conditions – open captioned” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Notice how Roosevelt addresses the listener directly, starting with the first line: “My friends. . . .” He also acknowledges that the listener may be busy in the week leading up to Easter (note the tacit assumption there about the religion of the audience), but insists that “what I want to say to you, the people of the country, is of such immediate need and relates so closely to the lives of human beings and the prevention of human suffering that I have felt that there should be no delay.”

When you think about our focus on politics, much of our assessment of political communication came from the work of scholars in the early 20th century. They focused on propaganda analysis, political themes in public communication (magazines, textbooks, etc.), and public opinion research that explored the opinions of society at large on major political and social issues. If you follow politics, you’re obviously familiar with political polls that try to determine people’s beliefs and political values. Political polling is influenced by the early works of Walter Lippman who is considered the father of public opinion analysis. Similarly, Harold Lasswell’s pioneering work on propaganda set the foundation for studying how mass communication influences the social conscious of large groups of people.

1945–2000: The Television

Black and white photo of Nixon and Kennedy

In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate.

After World War II, an improved form of black-and-white TV broadcasting became popular in the United States and Britain, and television sets became commonplace in homes, businesses, and institutions. During the 1950s, television was the primary medium for influencing public opinion.[3] The 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon made it clear that television would transform persuasion politics in the U.S. Chris Matthews describes this debate, the first that had ever been televised:

[More] than either contestant’s words, it was their images, projected on millions of black-and-white Admiral and General Electric televisions, that affected the American judgment. Each time Kennedy spoke, Nixon’s eyes darted toward him in an uncomfortable mix of fear and curiosity. . . . When Nixon was on, Kennedy sat, sometimes professorially raking notes, at other moments wearing a sardonic expression as he concentrated on his rival’s answers. Sargent Shriver would note that it was his brother-in-law’s facial language, more than anything he said, that decided the results of the Great Debate. By raising an eyebrow at Nixon, he had shown he had the confidence to lead the country.[4]

Tellingly, while radio listeners felt that Nixon won the debate, television viewers overwhelmingly thought Kennedy did.[5]

To Watch: Ronald Reagan

One of the masters of television was President Ronald Reagan. In the following excerpt from his famous 1987 speech in Berlin, he challenges Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

You can view the transcript for “Ronald Reagan’s June 12, 1987 West Berlin Speech Excerpts | TIME” here (opens in new window).

What to watch:

The media-savvy Reagan knew that the Berlin Wall would be a powerful backdrop for his speech, and used this potent symbol to condense the history of the Cold War into a single demand. Despite the misgivings of his advisers, Reagan insisted on using the line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”[6] It’s a stretch to say that this speech “ended the Cold War,” but it was certainly one of the most memorable lines in modern history.

2000–present: The Internet


One of the most important changes brought about by the growth of the internet is the removal of traditional “gatekeepers” in mass communication. Shoemaker and Vos define gatekeeping as the “process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people every day, and it is the center of the media’s role in modern public life. [. . .] This process determines not only which information is selected, but also what the content and nature of the messages, such as news, will be.”[7] The information presented on network television news, for instance, has been filtered through a number of gatekeepers, from reporters and fact-checkers to producers and presenters. Because of this process, information shared via traditional mass media tends to be selected according to established criteria of the industry, for instance: factual accuracy, credibility, and general “newsworthiness.” Market forces act as powerful gatekeepers for the traditional media, as information is often selected according what the audience “wants to hear” or what the advertisers want to be associated with. Likewise, the personal experience, partiality, and biases of the gatekeepers will influence what they allow into the public sphere. As many critics have pointed out, the world portrayed by mass communication often looks like the experience of the gatekeepers, and thus tends to skew white, male, and middle class.[8][9][10] The #OscarsSoWhite campaign was one example of a challenge to racially biased gatekeeping, in this case in film awards. [11]

In the case of the internet, however, many of the traditional gatekeepers have been removed. Anyone can publish a message to a worldwide audience with just a few clicks. This is not to say, however, that there are no gatekeepers on the internet. Some of the most consequential gatekeeping functions are now performed by algorithms (computer logic), such as the logic by which certain information does or doesn’t appear in one’s social media feeds. The Google search algorithm is likewise extremely influential in determining which information is accessed most widely on the internet.[12]


One of the unfortunate media ideologies that has developed in relation to the internet is that idea that, because it is possible to write or say things that can’t be traced back to a particular individual (at least not easily), any and all speech is permissible. This has led to the phenomenon of trolling, or deliberately posting inflammatory, outrageous, offensive, or hurtful messages. As we’ll see in the section on communication ethics, this kind of behavior is unethical and unacceptable, and often leads to unexpected negative consequences. It is always wise to treat the internet as what it is: a public forum, requiring the same standards of responsible speech that one would follow in a face-to-face setting.

Social Media

In The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu describes the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and with them, the pursuit of followers, “likes,” and a new avocation for the 21st century: microfame. “With Facebook and Twitter, everyone could now have a brand, and derive a little of the excitement and attention that went with traditional celebrity—perhaps even find a way to resell a bit of that attention. It portended a future a bit different than Andy Warhol had predicted [that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame], for in this future ‘everyone will be famous to fifteen people,’ as the technologist David Weinberger quipped.”[13] Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok allow access to audiences both within one’s immediate social circle and throughout the world. In terms of the communication model we outlined earlier, this leads on the one hand to numerous new channels for powerful and productive communication, and on the other hand to an enormous amount of noise in the system. As a society, we’re still unpacking all the impacts, opportunities, and dangers of the ever-expanding online social network. For the time being, the most important thing to keep in mind is that social media—no matter how intimate or niche the forum seems—should always be considered public speech. Assume that everything you say or do on social media could become available to a wide audience.

  1. Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Cornell University Press, 2012, p. 3
  2. “Warren G. Harding Becomes the First President to Be Heard on the Radio.”, A&E Television Networks, 16 Nov. 2009,
  3. Diggs-Brown, Barbara. Strategic Public Relations an Audience-Focused Approach. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012.
  4. Matthews, Chris. Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America. Free Press, 2011.
  5. “Sept. 26, 1960 | First Televised Presidential Debate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2011,
  6. Ratnesar, Romesh. Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War. United Kingdom, Simon & Schuster, 2009. 89
  7. Shoemaker, Pamela J.; Vos, Tim P. Gatekeeping Theory. Routledge, 2009, p. 1
  8. Tanzina Vega. “#MediaDiversity: Why Newsrooms Are so White.” CNNMoney, July 29, 2015,
  9. Drizin, Julie "Why Is Public Media so White? Current, June 24, 2020,
  10. Martin, Christopher R. No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class. Cornell University Press, 2019.
  11. Ugwu, Reggie. “The Hashtag That Changed the Oscars: An Oral History.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2020,
  12. For more on algorithmic gatekeeping, see O'Neil, Cathy. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Penguin Books, 2017.
  13. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. United States, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, p. 307.