Media System Dependency Theory

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Media System Dependency Theory was formalized as a theory by Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Marvin DeFleur in 1976. It is essentially an extension of Uses and Gratifications Theory in its audience needs based approach to media use. But it goes a step further because it addresses the potential effects of media use. It deals with relationships between media, individuals, and social institutions. The theory reveals that there should be a direct relationship between the amount of overall media dependency and the degree of media influence at any given point in time (Baran, 2010).


Theory Fundamentals

The theory differs from traditional effects based theories because it assumes that the audience is goal-oriented in its media selection. The audience is not seen as mindless drones that can be influenced by an all powerful media. But, as addressed earlier, it goes further that Uses and Gratifications because it does not ignore the persuasive impact of media. As a needs based perspective with an effects emphasis, the theory assumes that the more needs a medium fulfills for an individual then the more dependent that person will become on the medium. Subsequently, the more dependent that person becomes then the more influence that medium will have (Baran, 2010).

Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur provide four assumptions for the theory. The first assumption essentially says that media influence is dependent on the relationships between society, media, and the audience. Basically, if we look at one dimension of this assumption, the more society relies on media to function then the more influence that media will have. The second assumption of the theory says that the key variable in predicting media effects is the degree of audience dependence. The more reliant the audience becomes on a particular medium then the more power that medium will have over the individual. On a macroscopic level, the more reliant a large population is on one medium, then the more influence it will have on society. The third assumption addresses the needs of the audience. It reads much like a boiled down version of Uses and Gratifications Theory. The theory says that the audience uses media to create meaning of the social world, to learn how to act in society, and for entertainment. These are meant to be categories for needs rather than specific definitions. The fourth and final assumption of the theory is that dependency is directly correlated to the needs addressed. This explains why not everyone will be affected by media the same (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976).

Practical Application

Media System Dependency Theory has proven most effective in explaining media use and effects in times of crisis. It has been used to explain the effect of 9/11 coverage on audiences. More specifically how individuals became more reliant on media and subsequently showed greater support for President Bush (Hindman, 2004). It has also been used to explain how government control of the media is used to control society. Specifically research was conducted to explain how China uses its control of the mass media to affect the citizens (Hearns-Branaman, 2009).

Media System Dependency could prove to have many uses in new media research. It could help explain why the Internet has become so popular. The Internet, through its multimedia content delivery systems, has the capacity to fulfill many needs for the audience. Under Media System Dependency, this also means that the web has the capacity to have great influence on an audience. New media research using this theory is sparse. One notable research study examined the effects of the liberal website for political action. It was used to predict how email mobilization by the organization could be used to affect change in society (McNeal & Fernandez, 2004). In another study it was used in determining specific variables in predicting dependency on the Internet (Matei, 2010).

Strengths and Weaknesses

As with all theories of Mass Communication there are myriad strengths and weaknesses to Media System Dependency Theory. One key strength in this theory is its descriptive power. It is a simple to use theory to understand how individuals come to use media and how that reliance can allow the audience to be affected. Its greatest power is understanding times of crisis. It explains media from a microscopic and macroscopic perspective. The shortcomings of Media System Dependency are not to be taken for granted. Because of its vague definition of key terms, it is difficult to verify empirically. Also, the emphasis on microscopic and macroscopic effects make the theory difficult to quantify. Lastly, the main key weakness of this theory is its inability to explain long-term media effects. Its assumptions all deal with issues related to the present. The theory must be adapted further to have any long-term practical use (Baran, 2010).


Ball-Rokeach, S. J., & DeFleur, M. L. (1976). A dependency model of mass media effects. Communication Research, 3, 3-21.

Baran, S. J. (2010). Mass communication theory : foundations, ferment, and future (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Hearns-Branaman, J. O. (2009). A Political Economy of News Media in the People's Republic of China. [Article]. Westminster Papers in Communication & Culture, 6(2), 119-143.

Hindman, D. B. (2004). Media System Dependency and Public Support for the Press and President. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 7(1), 29-42.

Matei, S. A. (2010). Can media system dependency account for social media? Or should communication infrastructure theory take care of it? Retrieved September 27, 2010, from

McNeal, R., & Fernandez, K. E. (2004, 2004 Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL). Grassroots Political Warriors( Email and Political Mobilization.

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