Media systems dependency theory

Media systems dependency theory

Media Systems Dependency Theory (MSD) was first proposed by Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur in 1976, and consists of a complex system in which the media, individuals, their interpersonal environment, and the social environment have dependency relationships with each other; Each component depends on the other components in a system by drawing on resources in order to satisfy goals. Particular attention is given to the resources of media systems in modern society and the consideration of conditions which will increase or decrease individuals' reliance on media systems[1].


Basic framework

"Media system power derives from control over information resources that others–individuals, groups, organizations, social systems, societies–must access to attain their goals."[2]. Dependency relationships within the MSD theory go both ways; Media sources may adjust their content based on audience dependency relationships, and audiences may adjust their choice of media sources based on media dependency relationships.

Media system dependency relations are categorized into dimensions of understanding (social and self), orientation (action and interaction), and play (social and solitary). Media system dependency relations and media-specific dependency relations derive from the personal goals individuals pursue and from the media resources employed to attainment them. As individuals develop expectations that the media system can provide assistance toward goal attainment, individuals generally develop dependency relations with the media or medium perceived to be the most helpful in the goal pursuit[3].

The MSD theory states that industrialization and urbanization have decreased the influence of interpersonal social networks, and, therefore, increased the role of media systems. Because the media controls many critical information resources, individuals develop dependency relationships around the need for understanding self (themselves and others), orientation (action and interaction), and play (both in solitary and social settings). Individuals see media systems as the provider for obtaining those goals and develop dependency relations with the sources they find most helpful.

MSD's system components are divided into three levels: macro, micro, and meso. Macro includes the social environment and media systems. Micro includes individuals with goals, and positions within a social environment. Meso involves interpersonal relations.

Though microscopic and macroscopic factors influence dependency, two play a rather large role: social climate and an individual's social environment. Dependency increases during times of conflict because of an increased need for information and orientation. Social relationships alone will not provide enough information. In times of stability, only limited effects are observed.


Early research described media-system dependency in relation to meeting information needs:

  • understanding the social world (i.e. currents events)
  • conforming to social norms (i.e. trends, pop culture)
  • fantasy-escape from social reality (i.e. entertainment)

Dependency is said to increase as one's needs increase. For example, during large-scale social crises such as war, fantasy-escape needs increase dramatically, thus increasing dependency on media-systems as a source of entertainment (Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur 1976).

The “hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” effect, first introduced in the 1920s, suggested that mass media had a profound, immediate psychological effect on its audience. It implied that the communicator, in this case the media, had significant control over the message receiver. This idea is no longer seen as valid by social science scholars. However, the public at large still views the media as having a significant effect on public opinion and behavior (Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur 1976, Ball-Rokeach 1985, Miller 2005:249).

Current research and applications

Later research suggests that media-system dependency involves more than just meeting the needs of an audience. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) suggest that there are actually three factors that influence dependency:

  • information needs
  • individual personalities (i.e. values)
  • stage of development (i.e. age)

These factors cause media to have a “selective influence” on any particular member of an audience. For instances, the lyrics of an explicit song may not register to a young child, but may be the epitome of popularity to a teenager or college student, while maybe being socially unacceptable to parents and grandparents (Miller 2005:250-251).

Much of the modern research on media-system dependency focuses on hot button political items such as abortion (Ball-Rokeach and Power 1990), health care (Wilkin and Ball-Rokeach 2006; Morton and Duck 2001, 2000), and internet usage (Patwardhan and Ramaprasad 2005). There has also been a great deal of research surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, producing such titles as Dependency During a Large-Scale Social Disruption: The Case of September 11 (Lowrey 2004), Media System Dependency and Public Support for the Press and President (Hindman 2004), and Agenda Setting in a Culture of Fear: The Lasting Effects of September 11 on American Politics and Journalism (Matsaganis and Payne 2005). This solidifies even more the notion of interdependence between media, economic, and political systems.

In 1976, Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur stated that as technology increases the way in which media can be delivered, its influence becomes even more powerful. Today, with TiVo, podcasts, smartphones, and ever expanding ways to stay connected, this assertion could not be more true. Business transactions can be made electronically in real-time anywhere in the world. News is known internationally almost as quickly as it is known locally. Businesses and individuals depend so heavily on media systems that even small outages seem catastrophic. Media-system dependency has, in a sense, become a global pandemic.



  1. ^ Miller, Katherine (2005). Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts. McGraw-Hill. pp. 261-262. 
  2. ^ Ball-Rokeach, Sandra (1998). A Theory of Media Power and a Theory of Media Use: Different Stories, Questions, and Ways of Thinking. Mass Communication & Society. pp. 16. 
  3. ^ Loges, William E. and, Ball-Rokeach, Sandra J. (1993). Dependency Relations and Newspaper Readership. Journalism Quarterly Vol. 70. pp. 603. 
  • Ball-Rokeach, S.J. (1985). The origins of individual media-system dependency: a sociological framework. Communication Research, 4, 485-510.
  • Ball-Rokeach, S.J., DeFleur, M.L. (1976). A dependency model of mass-media effects. Communication Research, 1, 3-21.
  • Ball-Rokeach, S.J., Power, G.J., Guthrie, K.K., Waring, H.R. (1990). Value-framing abortion in the United States: an application of media system dependency theory. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 3, 249-273.
  • Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: perspectives, processes, and contexts.(2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Morton, T.A., Duck, J.M. (2001). Communication and health beliefs: mass and interpersonal influences on perceptions of risk to self and others. Communication Research, 5, 602-626.
  • Morton, T.A., Duck, J.M. (2000). Social identity and media dependency in the gay community. Communication Research, 4, 438-460.
  • Patwardhan, P., Ramaprasad J. (2005). Internet dependency relations and online activity exposure, involvement, and satisfaction: a study of American and Indian internet users. Conference Papers—International Communication Association; 2005 Annual Meeting. New York, NY, 1-32.
  • Wilkin, H.A., Ball-Rokeach, S.J. (2006). Reaching at risk groups. Journalism, 3, 299-320.

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