The Message Flow Model

Author’s note: This is an original theory created by myself (Gavin Davie) and Tyler Crane as part of our graduate work.


This essay attempts to lay out the principles, uses, and characteristics of the flow model. The flow model is a proposed model for the study of mass communications and a suggested tool which is useful in understanding message flow through audiences. It aids understanding of the processes which messages undergo as they are transmitted within and between audiences. Within the paper are contained the introduction, which explains the flow model, followed by a brief literature review highlighting the main theories which are involved within the construction of the flow model. Following the literature review is a discussion section which explicates the flow model in more depth and makes the case for its use in the study of mass communications as well as communication. This section also discusses the various tests for theories and evaluates how the flow model stands up when held to the criteria for a theory as provided by Chaffee and Berger (1987).

We have arrived at the idea that we can combine gatekeeping theory, agenda setting theory, framing, and basic systems theory into one encompassing communication theory – that the audience is THE medium.

Taken together, we apply gatekeeping, agenda setting, and framing as a paradigm in which we can understand the way messages flow. Messages flow from or to individuals or groups, then from these individuals or groups to other individuals or groups (the audience) and create a circular flow of a message. The message is being constantly gatekept, agenda set and then framed and then passed on to the next group or individual. Every individual or group, including media, are audiences in their own way, in this sense, the message enters a circular flow.

Within this flow, the message passes through the agenda setting and gatekeeping processes to framing and then to the audience. Then the audience passes the message back through the agenda setting and gatekeeping processes and so on. In this sense the audience is the medium through which messages always pass.

Communications studies and mass communications studies have a history of being separated. While mass communications uses many studies from communications, the reverse is not true. The Crane-Davie Model changes that. This model takes the idea that the flow of messages goes through the same processes at the individual communication level and at the mass media level.

The key issue in this model is that the medium of the message is the audience, and everyone is an audience. This is the case in individual, group, organizational, and mass communication. At all of these levels, when the message goes through a medium, many decisions are made. Among these decisions are whether or not to send a message to another medium (gatekeeping), and if a message is sent, in what way is it framed (agenda-setting). This model takes the belief that every time a message is changed it has gone through a medium.

Example –

Step 1- Information (Who will win the football game?)

Step 2 – What Medium? (Individual, Group, Organizational, Mass)

Step 3 – The Answer (The Giants)

Step 4 – The Feedback or Dis/Continuation of the message through the Medium

(Agreement or Disagreement with the statement or the end of the message)


The flow model incorporates gatekeeping theory, agenda setting theory, and framing into an encompassing communication model. This model is based on the assumption that the audience is the medium or mode of transmission for messages. By applying gatekeeping theory, agenda setting theory, and framing as a paradigm one can understand the way messages flow. Messages flow from or to individuals or groups, then from these individuals or groups to other individuals or groups (audiences) and create a far reaching web of message transmission.

The message is constantly being gate-kept, agenda set, and framed, and then passed on to the next group or individual. Every individual or group, including media, is an audience of the message at a different point in the process (see Figure 1). Within this flow, the message passes through the agenda setting and gatekeeping processes to framing, and then to the audience. Then the audience passes the message back through the gatekeeping and agenda setting processes and so on. In this sense the audience is the medium through which messages always pass.

Communications studies and mass communications studies have a history of being separated. While mass communications uses many studies from communications, the reverse is not true. The flow model changes that. This model takes the idea that the flow of messages go through the same processes at the individual communication level and at the mass media level. The key concept in this model is that the medium of the message is the audience, and everyone is an audience.

This is the case in individual, group, organizational, and mass communication. At all of these levels, when a message passes through a medium, many decisions are made. Among these decisions are whether or not to communicate a message to another medium, and if a message is sent, how the sender chooses to frame it. According to this model, whenever a message passes through a medium it must undergo change or be terminated, keeping the message exactly the same is impossible.

For example, when the a message is sent it is received by an individual, a group, an organization, or a mass media audience. This message passes through the medium of the audience and is changed based on whether the audience chooses to change it or terminate it. If the audience decides to pass it on, the message is always changed by the act of retransmission from the receiving audience to another audience. The process of retransmission is the key part of the flow of messages. Within this process the audience frames the message based on their own paradigm. Once the receiving audience transmits the message to another audience the process continues perpetually until the message is terminated or becomes so changed that it shares no relation with the original message.

The best way to visualize this is within a three dimensional Cartesian coordinate plane. In this model the plane is composed of an x, y and z axis. The original message begins at point (0,0,0). Once that message reaches the first medium it is changed, then transmitted to a new point on that plane. This continues every time that message reaches a new audience. A message is terminated in this model when an audience chooses not to retransmit it. In this case a message or information will not reach a new medium. Through this model information transmitted between audiences exponentially expands.

Literature Review

Gatekeeping Theory

According to gatekeeping theory, gatekeepers can facilitate or constrain the diffusion of information as they decide which messages to allow to pass through the gates (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009, p. 21). In gatekeeping theory there are a variety of components and factors that influence the message. As cited in Shoemaker and Vos, Hickey defined three types of organizational information control. These were information through a communication handler, a channel manipulator, and a content manipulator. A communication handler controls the passing of message within an organization. The channel mediator controls the nature of the channels or networks through which information can pass. The content manipulator performs both of the roles listed above, but also shapes the nature of the content by relying on their own judgements. As noted by Singer (2001) they rely “heavily on… [their] own value judgments for making those decisions” (p. 66).

In the flow model, gatekeeping theory applies not only to media organizations, but individuals as well. Regardless of whether they want to receive a message or not, a person, group, or organization must decide whether or not to pass along information after they have received it, taking on all of the three roles Hickey defines above. According to Shoemaker and Vos, “The entrance to a channel and to each section is a gate, and movement within the channel is controlled by one or more gatekeepers or by a set of impartial rules (Lewin, 1951, p.186)” (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009, p. 13). Each individual audience in the flow model becomes a gate. This also means the decision by that audience whether or not to retransmit a message is not just a process and function of media, but a function of every audience.

The gatekeeping process has generally been associated with the news media. Many studies have been conducted regarding why some information is let through gates while others are withheld, usually based on value judgments (Sylvie & Huang, J, 2008). The basic premise of the process is that messages are created information from events that have actually passed through gates multiple times and changed during that process. (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). The message changing in the process is a key component to the flow model. Every time a message is let through these gates it then moves into the agenda-setting process in an audience’s mind, and consequently the way it is framed defines the way the message is changed.

Agenda Setting, Second Level Agenda Setting, & Framing

Agenda setting theory is the secondary theory and process within the flow that is associated with the flow model process. As cited in Chaffee and Berger (1987), Cohen states that, “the media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling people what to talk about” (p. 105). Once a message has been allowed to come through the gates, agenda setting allows for the audience to frame the message in any way they see fit. Based on Cohen’s statement, the audience in the flow model will eventually tell the receiver of the message – the next audience, the information in the way they desire, inherently changing the message. Framing plays a central role in the agenda-setting process. It involves selecting a subject and making it important to the audience (Entman, 1993). In the news media framing by a media outlet can affect the way in which the public perceives the issues that are covered by a particular outlet (Golan & Wanta, 2001). The effects caused by framing on audience perceptions are not limited to media organizations in flow model. A framed issue, idea, or thought is passed on as a message to a subsequent audience will affect the new audience’s perception of the message. Second-level agenda setting suggests that instead of the media simply telling the audience what to think about, the fourth estate tells them how to think about objects and issues as well (Golan & Wanta, 2001). In this sense when the message is passed to a new audience the way in which it is transmitted affects the perception of the message by the receiving audience. Second-level agenda setting is the idea that the frames added to messages via this process also serve the function of attributing distinct traits to messages (Rill & Davis, 2008). In this way messages are irrevocably changed through the process of transmission.

Cybernetics & Systems Theory

Norbert Weiner’s cybernetics theory is a theory of self-regulating systems, which the flow model is, and it rests on the concept of feedback. In this theory feedback is defined as, “the control of the future conduct of a system by information about its past performance,” (Rogers, 1994, p. 386). In the flow model, a message is changed each time it passes through an audience, the future path of the message may be able to be predicted based on how it has flowed and changed in the past.

Cybernetics theory has been applied across many disciplines and meshes well within the flow model concept. Among these have been neurophysiology, factory automation, prostheses, and internal communication (Rogers, 1994). Weiner’s theory is a communication theory, not a mass communication theory such as gatekeeping and agenda-setting. The theory is concerned with how messages are exchanged between two or more units and how that interaction influences all of the units involved (Rogers, 1994). This makes cybernetics a circular theory and the flow model serves to explain how messages travel from source to source. In flow model, this would be the transmission of messages from audience to audience.

Cited in Rogers (1994), Weiner stated, “the whole background of my ideas on cybernetics lies in the record of my earlier work. Because I was interested in the theory of communication, I was forced to consider the theory of information and above all, that partial information which our knowledge of one part of a system gives vs. the rest of it” (p. 399). The flow model is a theory of information and information building. Cybernetics fits within this model because of how information flows from audience to audience. The initial message is sent by the source, which originally was an audience, to a receiver, another audience.

Cybernetics rest upon the concept of feedback which is in this sense is one way a message can be transmitted after it is received. The other path is transmission to an audience that was not the original initiator of the message.

Systems theory is a paradigm into which the flow model falls. As noted by Grunig (1975) “systems theory, however, encourages theorists to use the same concepts to explain the behavior of different types of systems, systems which range from individuals to small groups, organizations, communities, and large social systems” (p.103). In this theory, systems have components that are related to each other, working toward an overall objective as a whole, they have a self contained equilibrium (Yungwook, 2001). The flow model is a system that is continually building information, regardless of whether the message is truthful or not. The flow model, in contrast to systems theory, also allows for the termination of information. The complexity of the flow model requires a holistic approach to message flow and systems theory creates a lens through which to view this model.


Paul Lazarsfeld, “the most important intellectual influence in shaping modern communications research,” (Rogers, 1994, p. 246), contributed to the field of communications by studying the effects that messages had on audiences. According to Rogers, Lazarsfeld was known for three significant contributions to the field. First, he started the media effects research tradition in the United States. Second, Lazarsfeld advanced survey methodology by implementing different methods of gathering data. These methods included: unobtrusive measurement, the focused interview, triangulation, and various data analysis methodologies which were not commonly in use during his time. Finally, he created the model for a research-based institution at a university (Rogers, 1994).

As noted by Singer (2005), Lazarsfeld and his Bureau of Applied Social Research “are credited with legitimizing mass communication research, establishing the media effects tradition, and influencing mass media research and theory for years to come” (p. 45).

In the flow model, effects on the audience will affect how the message passes from audience to audience in the system. Lazarsfeld believed four things about how research should be conducted on effects and in general:

“1. Any phenomenon should be measured with objective observations as well as with introspective reports. 2. Case studies should be combined with statistical information. 3. Data gathering should be combined with information about the history of what is being studied. 4. Data from unobstrusive measures should be combined with questionnaire and other self-reported data” (Rogers, 1994, p. 283).

The flow model is introspective in nature, but does have the ability to objectively be observed and studied. These studies can be focused on the effects of the message and its transmission on the audience, the message flow, and the buildup of information. It may be onerous to find statistical information when viewing the flow model holistically, but it should be possible to gain some sense of that information. This overview of information can be found by determining the source of the message, whether sent by an individual, a group, or an organization, and finding out how many audiences this message reaches.

The historical background of the flow model is easy to establish, since the flow model is a system in which messages flow from audience to audience. The idea was derived from the fields of communication and mass communications. Glock (1979) clarified what Lazarsfeld meant by unobtrusive data and data from a questionnaire. Unobtrusive data is “natural data,” and questionnaire data is “experimental data,” (p. 34). In the flow model, natural data would be data that is always in existence. A message that is continually bouncing from audience to audience itself is that data. The way in which the message changes also constitutes a form of data. The experimental data would be more along the lines of what effects the message is perceived to have on the audience when it is initially transmitted, and then as it goes through the gatekeeping, agenda-setting, and framing processes.


Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is a study of how the mind works and why a person reacts to a certain stimulus in a certain way. The first ideas of Freud in this area centered on helping one internally recognize these stimuli (Menendez, 2009). Freud’s theory is a study at the individual micro level, but for the flow model, which looks at the audience as an individual unit, some of the psychoanalytic principles may apply when an audience is making a decision.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is based on the assumption that explanations of human behavior occur within the unconscious of the individual (Rogers, 1994, p. 86). Freud’s theory led to many others that were focused on what changed behavior of the individual. Among them are Heider’s balance theory, Festigner’s theory of cognitive dissonance, and Petty and Cacioppo’s elaboration likelihood model. All of these theories have the same thing in common, and if the audience is an individual unit in the flow model, the commonality that an individual’s unbalanced, inconsistent, or dissonant state leads to uncomfortable state of the individual, also applies to the audience (Gay, 1985). Another important part of communication study that psychoanalytic theory had a direct impact on, was Hovland’s persuasion research.

Group Dynamics/Persuasion

Kurt Lewin and his studies of group dynamics are an interesting way to associate an audience when they are composed of more than a single individual. Lewin’s studies of group dynamics were a paradigmatic change in the field of communication research because the focus shifted away from the individual. Lewin “was among the first scientists to explain organizational dynamics” (Gade & Perry, 2003, p. 328). His organizational and group dynamics study was an application of Lewin’s field theory. Field theory is the study of a person in their own field (Rogers, 1994, p. 318). This is important because a person’s surroundings can affect the way they transmit and interpret messages. Studies on group dynamics show how individuals can react when put into a situation where a decision has to be a made, and consequently a message is then passed on to the next audience as a consensus of a group.

Group dynamics are important to the flow model because the audience in the model is an individual unit – whether the audience is an individual, a group, or an organization. So that means the message that is put out by a group, or an organization is a singular message that has been built up from individual messages at the micro level of communication.

Information Theory

Claude Shannon’s information theory is a central concept in the flow model. “Information is defined as a difference in matter-energy that affects uncertainty in a situation where a choice exists among a set of alternatives in a decision-making situation.” (Rogers, 1994, p. 413). According to Shannon & Weaver (1963) “information must not be confused with meaning” (p. 8). In the Shannon model of communication, there is an information source, a transmitter, a receiver, and a destination. While the message is being transmitted, it can also be affected by noise. (Rogers, 1994)

The major differences between Shannon’s model and the flow model are the concepts of feedback and the idea that transmitter of the message is both the audience and the information source. The message is still transmitted to a receiver, but in the flow model the receiver is just another audience. Unintended effects on the message when passing from audience A to audience B are considered noise. In the flow model, a simple stutter by a person could be considered noise. Another major difference is the fact that the flow model is more than a one-step flow like Shannon’s model, and more than even a two-step flow model. The flow model states that information is exponentially shared through a variety of audiences or mediums.


According the criteria for evaluating theories as lain out by Chafee & Berger (1987) there are seven criteria against which a theory or model is testable. While for the purpose of this paper I will not be able to prove all of the criteria I will extrapolate where possible and where unable, such as is the case with studies performed thus far, suggestions for possible methods of verifying if the flow model meets the criteria of a valid model or theory will be provided.

At this present time I will only endeavor to show that the flow model is worthy of consideration as a model, not a fully fledged theory, as there is certainly a lack of empirical evidence and studies to prove it as such. Theories tend to be simple, easily understood, and satisfy the criteria of theory, specifically: explanatory power, predictive power, parsimony, falsifiability, internal consistency, heuristic provocativeness, and organizing power (Chafee & Berger, 1987, p. 104).

This discussion will walk the flow model through these various criteria and explain how it fits, does not fit, or simply cannot be judged at this time based on the standards set by these characteristics of theories. While the flow model follows a simple pattern in message transmission through audiences it is best understood in terms of other theories. In essence one could suggest that it is a model made of theories. Flow model synthesizes the aforementioned theories on a macro level to understand the flow of messages through an audience and to other audiences.

The first criterion for a theory or model cited by Chaffee and Berger (1987) is that of explanatory power. To satisfy this standard the concept must “provide plausible explanations for the phenomena it was constructed to explain. Also considered here is the range of phenomena that the theory explains; the greater the range, the more powerful the theory” (p. 104). The flow model is intended to explain the flow of messages within mass communications systems.

The model suggests that once a message is transmitted from its originating point it exponentially grows as it is passed from source to audience to audience and so on (see Figure 1). The only way a messages ends is if it is intentionally or unintentionally discontinued from the flow of transmission by a specific audience. In this sense the model endeavors to explain the flow of message transmission on a grand scale.

The second criterion is that of predictive power, or the ability for the theory to suggest future events or outcomes, according to Chaffee and Berger (1987) “this criterion assesses theoretical adequacy by measuring the theory’s ability to predict future events” however they do add this caveat: “It is, however, possible for theories to predict but not be able to provide plausible explanations” (p. 104). In this way, based on a specific set of circumstances or event, a theory should be able to predict some possible outcome of a given situation. The flow model deals less in the area of predictions and more with analysis of already existing messages, in this way it serves more as a model in that it can be used to explain the flow of messages from and to audiences. Although, this model could be used to trace the route of a message through various audiences and based on audience characteristics, where the message might discontinue transmission or be passed on to another audience.

Parsimony or simplicity is the third of the criteria that a theory must satisfy to be considered as a valid theory. Within this standard there is certainly some breadth of how simple a theory must be. A proposed theory is usually judged in relation to the complexity of the idea or interaction which it seeks to explain. In the case of all theory, “simple theories are preferred to more complex ones, assuming that both predict and explain equally well. The complexity of a theory is directly related to the complexity of the reality it seeks to explain” (Chaffee & Berger, 1987, p. 104).

The flow model follows a simplistic path to explain message transmission between audiences. Once a message is transmitted, whether from the source or a secondary audience, to the next audience the message passes through a process of evaluation and retransmission before reaching another audience. The agenda setting, gatekeeping, and framing processes all take place within the audience between the time the message is received and retransmitted (see Figure 1). Under the fourth criterion of falsifiability, or the ability to be proven false, the flow model makes evident the fact that it is indeed a model, not a theory. It would be near impossible the test the flow model and find it to be false. This criterion alone dictates that the flow model does not meet all standards to be dubbed a theory. Internal consistency is needed if a theory or model is to fulfill Chaffee and Berger’s (1987) standards for evaluation of a theory. This tenet dictates that “the internal logic of a theory can be assessed independently of empirical tests. Theoretical propositions should be consistent with each other” (p. 104). This idea posits that a theory or model must be logically consistent and should not contradict itself.

Under this test flow model holds up to evaluation. The idea that audiences are receivers of messages has been well documented and is not a source of contention among scholars of mass communications. The idea that audiences repurpose and transmit content is also a proven and well known idea. But the insertion and theoretical application of the aforementioned theories into the middle of this equation is a logical next step and results in the creation of the flow model. The flow model is based in the idea that the audience is the medium for all messages and that everyone is an audience. Whether taking into consideration news media, news viewers, social groups, or any division of persons imaginable, all are audiences in their own right who receive messages from other audiences.

Heuristic provocativeness, the sixth criterion states simply that “good theories generate new hypothesis, which expand the range of potential knowledge” (Chaffee & Berger, 1987, p. 104). Theories and models in this case, need to serve a function within the area they address. A theory which exists in a silo is a worthless theory. When a theory does not possesses the characteristics that allow it to be applied to a situation or question, the value of a theory is called into question.

Flow model has myriad possible applications within the field of communication and mass communication studies. It can be utilized as a model for understanding the flow of messages throughout audiences or groups, as well as on an individual level. Much of mass communications research deals with effects based research, the flow model lends itself to facilitating this brand of study. It is a tool for understanding message dispersion and can be utilized to trace and pinpoint audiences which certain messages reach and bring researchers into contact with the subjects of effects research.

It also serves a function to analyze the reach or dispersion of messages and the changes they undergo as they are interpreted, undergo the flow model process, and are retransmitted in an undeniably changed state. Strategic mass communications studies could benefit from the utilization of the flow model to understand their audience through an analysis of the changes messages undergo as well as to which receiving audiences messages are being retransmitted.

The final test under the Chaffee & Berger (1987) criteria for evaluation is that of organizing power. In this respect flow model proves the extent of its usefulness. This criterion states that “useful theories not only generate new knowledge, [but]…are able to organize extant knowledge” (Chaffee & Berger, 1987, p. 105). Under this tenet a theory or model must be able to function as a framework for understanding and organizing already discovered knowledge.

The organization of knowledge is a central function of flow model. Through the understanding of the flow of messages through audiences, the subsequent change of the message, and their movement to new audiences one can understand the process by which many type of information move through a given population. This understanding facilitates the organization of knowledge gained from empirical studies with respect to all forms of message transmission.

Flow model places emphasis on the understanding of the route messages follow through their lifetime. Many messages are short lived but others can continue over the course of hundreds of years. A better understanding of this pathway can enhance the level of knowledge and organization of thinking regarding formation of salient messages.

When placed against these seven criteria for the evaluation of a theory the flow model falls short of validation. Hence it has been dubbed a model, not a theory. It possesses far too general a focus and lacks a narrow focal point to fulfill the requirements which make it deserve the title of “theory.” Nonetheless it can serve as a valuable tool to understand message flow and enhance future studies of message transmission and effects research.

This model can be applied to all forms of communication, not simply mass communication; it is applicable to verbal, non-verbal, interpersonal, and group communication. While this extrapolation only touches the surface of its application in these areas and delves deeper into its mass communications application, its framework could be theoretically applied to communication research.

The flow model makes the assumption that there is an original message from the beginning of communication in the universe. An easy way to conceptualize the expansion of knowledge is that of the big bang. There is a single originating point for a message, as it is transmitted outward from this point it exponentially grows and changes, creating new messages along the way. After this original message, information and knowledge has been sent through the medium of the audience throughout the course of time and has been constantly and exponentially growing and evolving.

The understanding of the flow model is that this information contained in messages continues to expand and grow throughout time. There is a small drop off of messages due to gatekeeping and message termination but far more knowledge is created and passed on than the amount which falls off.


Based on the aforementioned ideas I believe I’ve shown that the flow model is a valid process for examining and understanding messages and information. It serves as a model to organize knowledge about message movement through audiences. It attempts to grant an understanding about the processes messages undergo as a function of their movement and transmission through audiences.

According to the model, all but the originator of the message is an audience. But this originator goes through the same processes as an audience when understanding, and deciding whether to transmit the new knowledge gained, and then deciding the way in which the message is transmitted. When applied to audience research the flow model provides a framework for observing message passage and dissemination from the source to the audience, and then understanding the processes it undergoes within the audience before retransmission to the next audience.


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