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Last updated March 21, 2000


Mass Communication Context
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Media Dependency Theory

Explanation of Theory:

This theory states that the more dependent an individual is on the media for having his or her needs fulfilled, the more important the media will be to that person.

Theorist: Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur

Date: 1976

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

Individual Interpretation:

This theory is based on the Uses and Gratifications Theory and ties into the Agenda Setting Theory.  Uses and Grats identifies how people use and become dependent upon the media.  People use the media for many reasons.  Information, entertainment, and parasocial relationships are just a few of them.  The Dependency Theory says the more a person becomes dependent on the media to fulfill these needs, the media will become more important to that individual.  The media will also have much more influence and power over that individual.  If someone is so dependent on the media for information, and the media is that personís only source for information, then it is easy to set the agenda.  The individual falls victim to Agenda Setting.  As you can see, these three theories intertwine quite a bit.


Media Dependency Theory is Relatively Scientific in nature.  It predicts a correlation between media dependence and importance and influence of the media, but each person uses the media in different ways.  Also, the media affects each person in different ways.  According to Chaffee & Berger Ďs 1997 criteria for scientific theories, this theory is a pretty good one.

  • It has explanatory power, but more of predictive power because it predicts how dependency on the media correlates with importance of the media to a certain person.
  •  It is relatively simple to understand, so it is parsimonious.
  •  It can be proven false.  If a person is not dependent on the media, media will not be of great importance to that individual.
  •  It is internally consistent, with meta-theoretical assumptions on the same side of the continuum. 
  •  It is a springboard to further research, especially so, since it came from other theories.
  •  It helps to organize and relate other media effect theories.

Let me introduce you to Sunny, a friend of mine from Los Angeles who now resides in Lexington, KY.  When Sunny lived in L.A., he would ask his mother what the weather was going to be for the day.   It was usually sunny.  Now that he lives in Lexington, where the weather is sporadic, Sunny uses the media for information about the weather.  Every morning, he gets up and turns on the weather channel on the television, reads the paper, and checks the internet, all for the local forecast for the day.  He has become very dependent on the media.  One month, Sunny forgot to pay the electric bill, and his service was disconnected.  He didnít know what to do.  He had no idea what to put on for the day, because he relied so heavily upon the media for information.  Sunny could have easily looked outside or called a friend, but he was depending on the media to provide him with the information he needed.

More Research on Media Dependency:

     Auter, P. J. (1992). TV that talks back: An experimental validation of a parasocial interaction scale. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 36, 173-181.

     Blumler, J. G. (1979). The role of theory in uses and gratifications studies. Communication Research, 6, 9-36.

     Donohew, L., Palmgreen, P., & Rayburn, J. D. (1987). Social and psychological origins of media use: A lifestyle analysis. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 31, 255-278.

Media Dependency in Texts:

     Infante, D. A., Rancer, A.S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect, Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, Inc., 387-393.

     Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed.). Albuquerque, NM: Wadsworth Publishing, 351-354.