Media-system dependency

Media-system dependency

Media-System Dependency, first introduced by Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur (1976), is defined as “a relationship in which the capacity of individuals to attain their goals is contingent upon the information resources of the media system.” Those information resources can be categorized as the ability to create and gather, process, and disseminate information.

Historical media perspectives

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).

The original theory

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 new theory

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).

Current uses

In modern society, media-system dependency is utilized most significantly by political and economic systems. Ball-Rokeach (1985) suggests that there is even interdependence between them, with each helping the other attain fundamental goals. The goals of each system create a symmetrical, mutual need or contingency with the other. These systems, known as the "central dependency systems" rely so heavily on one another that efforts to create asymmetry by one system or another, are generally circular in nature. The same contingencies are not present in family, educational, religious, and those other systems not considered as central dependencies (Ball-Rokeach 1985).

Goal contingencies


*teaching and reinforcing free enterprise/capitalist values
*linking the production and consumption sectors (advertising)
*conflict management


*profit (via advertising)
*technology development
*corporate growth


*teaching and reinforcing political values and norms
*maintaining order and obedience
*mobilizing the public
*controlling and winning intrasystem conflict


*judicial protection or facilitation (1st amendment rights)
*executive and legislative protection
*political conflict and drama as fodder

Current research

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.

Technology's impact

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.


*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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