Roles In Media

Davis Foulger

Visiting Associate Professor
Oswego State University

February 16, 2003


A first step in using medium as an organizing construct for communication theory is abstracting the fundamental building blocks of media, including the roles people play in the normal functioning of a medium. This paper describes a large number of generic roles that occur, often under differing titles, across a broad range of interactive and mass media. The twenty generic roles are described: creator, consumer, selector/gatekeeper, publisher/producer, director, performer, content editor, advertiser, content integrator, reproducer, distributor/carrier, transcriber/recorder, retailer, representatives/advocate, critic, regulator, investor, financial management, and general production support. Several potential applications of roles in media are discussed. Some possible expansions of existing communication theory perspectives using roles in media are outlined.


Development of a general theory of human communication that integrates the interpersonal, mass media, organizational, small group, intercultural, and other established communication contexts requires a common theoretical language that can be consistently applied across the contexts. Cappella (1991) and Foulger (1990) independently suggest that a generalized concept of medium might provide a substrate in which such a theoretical language might be rooted. This generalized concept of medium would treat an interpersonal medium like face-to-face communication, a small group medium like classroom discussion, or an organizational medium like head-complement interaction as being fundamentally the same as, and describable using the same vocabulary as, a mass medium like radio, newspapers, music recordings, or television. Using the concept of medium in this way allows us to develop a common vocabulary with which media can be described across the communication contexts. This paper will explore one such theoretical vocabulary: the roles that people play in the normal functioning of a medium of communication.

A vocabulary of the generic roles in media should have considerable value, particularly given the continuing emergence of new media. Some of these media are already being taught as professions in much the same way that we have traditionally taught radio, television, journalism, and other fields, but the lines between these specialties are blurring. Understanding the commonalities among the roles with which media are built may then have immediate pedagogical value, providing a path through which we can teach a broad range of media professions from within a common curricullum. Additional pedagogical value may be found in courses like media management and communication ethics, where the range of responsibilities associated with media is an issue.

More important, however, may be the theoretical emphasis such a vocabulary gives to participants in media processes. It is too early to know just how valuable such a vocabulary may be. We may find, in role descriptions of media, similarities in role patterns that emerge in different media. We may find role relationships that recurrently emerge such that we can abstract generic media workflows that speed the development of new media, aid the re-engineering of existing media, and help us to better understand the circumstances when media convergence efforts are, and are not, likely to work. There may, moreover, be other useful theoretical categories that align with, and/or are suggested by, this vocabulary. For the present paper, however, we will stick to the fundamentals, describing a generic set of roles in media that can be applied across a broad range of media contexts.

Roles of media and roles in Media

Introductory texts in mass communication sometimes describe the many and various roles associated with mass media in the course of explicating either the structure of media organizations or the variety of careers that exist in mass media (Dominick, 1987; Heibert; Ungurait and Bohn, 1988, Jeffries, 1994). Invariably, these descriptions focus on specific roles associated with specific media, often within the context of career possibilities or a "typical" organization chart. Little attention is paid to role similarities across different media. (e.g. directors, writers, and camera operators in motion pictures; producers, composers, and recording engineers in music recording; editors, correspondents, and rewrite desks in newspapers; program directors, talent, and engineers in radio).

Role descriptions in introductory texts in interpersonal communication are most often oriented around the social roles that people play while communicating. Variations include references to "role-playing", the conflicting roles we play as we interact with others (Argyle, 1972), and the generalized roles associated with families (mom, dad, brother, sister, etc.). Other references to role in Interpersonal texts recount Westley and McLean's (1957) categorization of roles in groups (initiator/contributor, information seeker, opinion giver, coordinator, energizer, recorder, harmonizer, follower, etc.), Brody's (1991) taxonomy of organizational stakeholders (prospective customers, nearby residents, investors, etc.), and/or the various roles that occur in organizational communication networks (bridge, liaison, isolate, clique, etc.). Again, similaritities between the specific roles associated with interpersonal media (managers, account executives, and secretaries in business correspondence parallel chairpersons, meeting participants, and recording secretaries in committee meetings and judges, witnesses, and court stenographers in judicial proceedings) are ignored.

The best work in identifying generic roles in media is probably found in the basic models of the communication process that we present to students in the earliest chapters of our introductory communication texts (for example, Adler, 1991; Adler, Rosenfeld, and Towne, 1996; Barker and Barker, 1993; Becker and Roberts, 1992; Bittner, 1996; Burgoon, Hunsaker, and Dawson, 1994; DeFleur, Kearney, and Plax, 1993; DeVito, 1994; Gibson and Hanna, 1992; Wood, 2002). These models establish at least two (and arguably as many as three) fundamental communication roles:

Creators and consumers of messages are common to the models in all introductory communication textbooks. Gatekeepers are identified in only a few. None are actually labeled as roles in media, but are treated that way.

The most common invocation of "role" in conjunction with "media" in the the scholarly literature examines the "roles of media" (Dillon, 1990; Donohue, Tichenor, Phillip, and Olien, 1995; McQuail, 1995). These invocations often reference a context like society (Jha, 1992; Morrison and Love, 1996; Tsaliki, 1995), health care (Lander, 1998; Morton and Duck, 2001), government (Wilkins, 2000), or elections (Beng-Huat, 1996; Kosicki, Becker, and Fredin, 1994). Such use of the term role treats media as institutional role players social systems, and can be regarded as a subset of the broader category "effects of media".

There does not appear to be published literature that examines the generic roles that people play in the normal functioning of a medium. This apparent gap in the literature is surprising, especially at a time when the range of communication media is exploding and there is an increasing concern about workflows as a part of the process of message production and distribution in media, but appears to be real. This paper attempts to close this gap by describing a large number of generic roles in media.

A range of roles in media

This roles associated with personal media can be fairly simple. Dyadic face-to-face communication generally only entail participants who act as both creator and consumer of messages. It is easy to complicate the role mix of personal media, however. Mediations add the role of a director that controls the floor and structures interaction. Personal messengers add a intermediary who carries messages from one person to another. Public speaking formalizes the split between message creators and consumers while often adding such roles as director in the guise of a "master of ceremonies", a transcriber/recorder who records or transcribes the speeches, production support that set up chairs, lecterns, microphones, and other scenic elements, and critics who offer evaluations of or commentaries on what was said.

The roles associated with mass media, by contrast, is often more complex. Book publishing generally involves a series of roles including a writer who normally submits a book to a publisher, an acquisitions editor who evaluates it, and, if the decision is made to publish, a series of specialized roles, including editors, proofreaders, artists, contracts, marketing, layout, printers, transportation, wholesalers, retailers, and even critics, all of whom play a role in enabling a consumers acquisition of the published book. Motion pictures, magazines, newspapers, radio, music recording, and television all entail similarly complex participation.

It is possible to abstract many of the tasks that need to be accomplished within different media to a fairly small number of generic roles, each of which perform the same essential task. While these tasks often correspond to jobs in commercial media, they are simply tasks that have to be accomplished in order for the medium to work. There are some media in which no one is ever paid for what they do. There are others in which nearly every participant receives renumeration. The status of a role as a "job" changes neither the necessity nor the essential nature of the task. It simply means that some media support professionals while others do not.

The Varieties of Transcriber/Recorder Role

Similar roles in different media may differ in name, skills, tools, and even in the details of what they accomplish and how they accomplish it. A recording engineer (audio recording) and camera operator (motion pictures and television) obviously use different tools and different skills to accomplish the same task. The only real difference is the modality recorded. A courtroom stenographer uses very different tools to accomplish essentially the same task by translating verbal language into a written transcript that can be reviewed and edited. A recording secretary who takes and types up meeting minutes accomplishes the same task at a lower level of detail. Other transcriber/recorders include the police artist who turns a verbal description into a picture of a suspect, the roommate who writes down a telephone message and tacks it up next to the phone, the secretary who types up and mails out a letter based on dictation from an executive, the rewrite desk that takes an account of an event from a correspondent over the phone and turns it into a newspaper article, the tribal griot who turns a bit of tribal history into a rhythmic rhyme that will be easier to both remember exactly and teach to others, and the answering machine that records a message when a phone can't be answered.

This particular role, which might be referred to as transcriber/recorder, entails the creation of a record of a communication event that can be played back, reviewed, and even edited at a later time. As will be the case with other roles, the fundamental role can be elaborated in a wide variety of ways. Hence the record that is retained may be as limited and summary as "Joe called: 234-5678" or as graphic and detailed as a sound and video recording of a building collapse. The transcription/recording role may require training, as it would for the court stenographer, executive secretary, police artist, and camera operator, or require no training at all, as would be the case for the corresponding secretary. The role may require at least some measure of creativity, as would normally be the case for the rewrite desk, tribal griot, recording engineer, camera operator, and, in at least some cases, executive secretary, or require at least the appearance of a lack of creativity, as would be the case for the courtroom stenographer and answering machine. Indeed, as is the case with the answering machine, the role may not even be filled by a person. As will be seen, the dividing lines between roles in media will not always be clean. The director of a low budget film may also act as the scriptwriter, camera operator, and film editor. A photojournalist will often use their own photographs to illustrate the stories they write.

Precis of Twenty Roles In Media

Transcriber/recorder is just one of a number of generic roles that occur across a variety of media. Other roles that are discussed below include creator, consumer, selector/gatekeeper, publisher/producer, director, performer, content editor, advertiser, content integrator, reproducer, distributor/carrier, retailer, representatives/advocate, critic, regulator, investor, financial management, and general production support. These roles are intended as abstractions of the responsibilities associated with the role name. Each name used is intended to be applied flexibly; more as a statement of function and general responsibility that the name represents than as a statement of specific responsibilities or activities that role represents in any specific medium. Let us, then, consider the range and nature of these roles:


All communication media include some variant of creator of messages. Common names associated with the creator role include writer, composer, artist, designer, journalist, and interactant. There are many media in which content is created by one person and performed by another (more on the performer role below). There are also a wide range of media in which the roles of creator, performer, and consumer are combined such that most or all participants take on all three roles. There are many possible variations in the combination of creator, performer, and consumer of messages, and different media will normally support some one of these combinations in preference to others. All performances entail some level of creation. All creations entail some level of performance. Hence while it may be desirable to separate creator characteristics from performer characteristics, it is also entirely reasonable to view them as a single cluster of related characteristics.


All communication media include some variant of consumer of messages. The consumer may be a reader, viewer, listener, audience, participant, or any one of a dozen other namings of people that describe modes of message consumption.


Many media entail a generic role of content selector or gatekeeper. Specifically, there are buyers, content acquisition specialists, editors, phone screens, reviewers, or other selectors of message content who choose content for publication, performance, or other variant of storage and/or delivery through the medium. Such selection will, in general, reflect the editorial goals, preferences, and guidelines of specific media instances. The issues associated with these goals, guidelines, and preferences will include, in varying degree according to the medium and instance, such things as subject matter, entertainment value, fulfillment of submission requirements, and quality of content. This rooting of selection in instance-specific editorial policy is important in the definition of this generic role, as selection is specifically not about censorship, which seeks to prevent specific kinds of content from being selected for any instance within a medium or set of media. So long as every instance of a medium has a unique editorial policy based on the needs of the specific market niche it addresses, it can be reasonably presumed that all content has a potential home somewhere.


Many media entail a role of producer or publisher. Where associated with a medium, producers and publishers take organizational responsibility for organizing, managing, and funding the process of producing and/or publishing content. The nature of this production/publishing role can and does vary by medium, as does the name applied. Indeed, some media may use entirely different names to describe people whose role is to find and/or provide the financing and organization required in order to enable the creation, manufacturing, promotion, and/or distribution of content. In some cases the role of publisher/producer is a very limited one in which a person or group decides to publish or produce a specific piece of content (a play or movie, for which this variation is fairly common, or a book). In other cases the role will be an expansive one in which an organization builds a business on its publication or production of many content instances (e.g. a publishing house, a movie studio, a television network, etc.). In this latter case it is not unusual to see a layering of the role of publisher/producer, with the larger organization designating a set of executive producers or series editors who organize a series of related content instances and a more local set of producers or editors that take responsibility for one or a few content instances at a time. Real world namings can be confusing here, especially in publishing, where an editor's role may be akin to executive producer (e.g. managing editor), selector (e.g. acquisitions editor), or content editor depending on the exact nature of their responsibilities. The roles usually associated with real world namings in theatre, film, and broadcasting are, in general, cleaner in their divisions of responsibilities


Many media entail the role of a performance director who takes specific responsibility for guiding and coordinating performers and other production staff in their coordinated effort to interpret content for an audience. Other names that can be associated with the role of director can, depending on the medium, include conductor, choreographer, managing editor, judge, moderator, and chairperson, among many others. Note that the role of director is clearly distinct from that of publisher/producer. Where a publisher/producer is concerned with organizing all of the details of a production, including preproduction issues like content selection and postproduction issues like duplication and distribution, a director is generally only responsible for coordinating the performance to its completion. Completion may take the form of an actual performance, a finished newspaper ready for layout and printing, director's cut film, a successfully completed meeting or proceeding, or other integrated content.


Many media entail a separable role of performer (i.e. a person whose role within a medium is to perform message content that has been created by others). The performer often can and will exercise some level of creativity in interpreting content for an audience and/or in enhancing the performance with planned or improvised additions. The existence of the role generally implies a formal bifurcation of the roles of creator and performer, with the creative role composing all or most of the message and the performer enacting the message for consumption. The role of performer is common in dynamic art media like movies, theatre, and musical performance and broadcast media like television and radio. It is not normally associated with a wide variety of other media, including books, letters, newspapers, talk radio, and face-to face interaction, among others. The name that is most often associated with the role of performer is actor, but such names as musician, dancer, anchor, and news reader may apply.


Many media entail a transcription recording role in which people and/or organizations act as intermediaries in capturing a performance to a recording medium and either transmitted live or stored for later use (e.g. viewing, reference, editing, reproduction, etc.). Names associated with this role include stenographer, court reporter, camera operator, recording engineer, and recording secretary.

Content editors

Some media entail a content editing role in which people take specific responsibility for editing content after it has been created by the author, writer, or other creator or transcribed/recorded by a cameraman, recording engineer or other recording professional. Specific names for this role include copy editor, proofreader, and fact checker. The purposes associated with such editing can be varied, and include such issues as meeting content length objectives, managing content to meet editorial guidelines, correcting errors, and even combining parallel or related messages obtained from multiple sources into a single message. While content editors frequently have little role in the creation, direction, transcription, selection, or performance of content, they do sometmes have veto power, within the scope of a media instances editorial policy, over the final publication/distribution of content.


Many media distribute advertising as part of the overall content of the medium. The advertising space is generally sold to people and/or organizations who provide and pay for advertising content that is presented in the medium. The relationship of advertising to other content within specific media is likely to vary considerably. Indeed, there may be generic differences in the nature of advertising content and presentation between different instances in the same medium. In some cases (public television, programs at school plays) the advertisers may not even be formally identified as advertisers, but as funders, sponsors, or grant sources. To the extent that a person, enterprise, or other organization stands to get business or otherwise achieve organizational goals as a result of exposure of its name and/or messages within the content of the medium, and such exposure is contingent on payments or other services, it can be regarded as an advertiser.

Content integrators

Many media entail a content integration role in which people and/or organizations function as intermediaries in combining diverse content into a cohesive whole. Names for people who play this role in various media include layout, paste-up, film editor, and others. Note that the role of content integrator differs from that of content editor even where the editors role is creating a single message out of multiple parallel message (see the description of content editor). The content integrator's role is to turn a content from a variety of sources into a finished composite performance (e.g. a publishable edition of a newspaper or a duplicable cut of a film) after the performance has been completed. The role of the content editor would normally precede this role. In some cases the finished product of an editors effort will be a performance that can be content integrated into a final integrated edition. In other cases, the role of the content editor will occur between initial creation and performance.


Many media entail some form of formal content manufacturing in which people and/or organizations play an intermediate role in manufacturing copies of a stored performance. A name normally associated with this role, in publishing media, is printer. The name duplicator is more normally associated with film. Other names probably apply in other media.


Almost all media involve some level of message transmission. For many media, however, this transmission is formalized through a maintained message distribution system. Specifically, there are people and/or organizations who take responsibility for transmitting, transporting, sorting, storing, distributing, and/or delivering messages without, in general, regard for the specific content carried. These distributors/carriers exist in a variety of forms, ranging from individual messengers and independent truck drivers through long distance telephone companies, Internet network service providers, overnight shipping companies, wholesale distributors, and postal systems, among others.


Many media involve the direct sale, via retailers, of access to the medium or to specific media content. Specifically, there are people and/or organizations who sell access to the medium and/or its content directly to participants in the medium, whether those participants act as net receivers of messages or as interactants within the medium. A variety of forms of retailing fall within this generic role, including those associated with ticket sales, equipment sales, subscription sales, network access charges, advertising sales, and direct sales of publications, copies of performances, and other manufactured content representations.


There are a variety of media for which people collect messages. The most obvious of these are individuals who collect messages from art media such as oil paintings or sculpture. Less obvious are collectors of publication messages like books, records, or comic books, dynamic art messages like movies, correspondence messages like letters, or broadcast messages like recorded radio or television shows. Many collectors maintain personal collections at their home or office, but at least some collectors make collections available for general viewing at museums, libraries, and web sites. Collection generally suggests a higher level of selectivity than would the role of consumer, a lower level of involvement in presentation than might normally be associated with a content editor or content integrator. Labels associated with formal variants of the collector role include archivist, librarian, and curator.


Many media involve the participation of representatives or other advocates who, independent of a performance role, act in the interests of one or another of the various participants in the medium. This includes, in many cases, the production itself. Specifically, are there people associated with the medium whose job is to advocate and act as a representative for an individual or production associated with the medium. Names associated with the role of representative/advocate in different media when an individual is being represented include manager, agent, lawyer, publicist, receptionist, and promoter. Names associated with this role when a production is being represented include advertising, marketing, publicity, public relations, media relations, community relations, and merchandising. The job of the representative/advocate, in general, is to translate the performance of an individual or production in one medium into a favorable viewing in another. The marketing representatives for a motion picture, for instance, will seek to place advertising in newspapers and on television. The publicity function for the same picture will work to book the movie's stars on talk shows and in interviews. The movie star's agent, in seeking to limit the number of such appearances while maximizing the star's salary, will almost certainly employ a lawyer to ensure that there are no surprises in the contract. If, in fact, there is a problem that requires litigation to resolve, a lawyer will represent the star, and perhaps the agent, in court. Note, in particular, the myriad media crossovers associated with this example.


Some media entail a regulative role in which people, agencies, or organizations act in a regulatory capacity relative to the medium. The nature of such agencies can vary, but would certainly include agencies like:


The critic or critical role acts specifically to critique and evaluate content within the medium. While there can be several variations on the critical role, including that of consultant, futurist, and (in theatre, at least) "fixer", the prototypic role of critic is to act as a independent public witness to media content who will, after viewing a performance, offer a considered evaluation of what they saw as a guide to other potential consumers of that performance or production. While critics sometimes create content for use within the medium they critique and evaluate, it will often be the case that the critiques and other evaluations they make of content within the medium will be distributed within another medium. Note that critics generally serve their critical role in one medium as a function of playing a creator role in another.


Some media involve an explicit and separable role of investor. Investors are people or organizations whose sole or primary relationship to a medium is to provide the capital necessarily to produce content and/or distribute or enable the distribution of content. Investors may influence productions and performances through their interaction and agreements with producers, but they have no direct relationship to production, performance, or its management beyond their potential return on investment if the production is successful.

Financial management

As productions become more complex and/or grow in number, the publisher/producer will inevitably need help in managing and tracking the financials associated with production. Management of the enterprise may entail such namings as company or studio president, vice president, director, manager, personnel, office manager, business manager, and account services. Tracking of financials will entail such namings as treasurer, controller, accountant, finance, payroll, and collections. None of these people will usually be directly associated with the production of messages within the medium they support, but all play key roles in coordinating the efforts of others and ensuring the ongoing financial stability of the production, studio, publisher, or other media enterprise.

Production support

A wide range of other people act to support the production of content in media in various ways. Some production roles are fairly common in the production of messages. A number of such roles are broken out separately above. Others roles are more difficult to classify as a generic role in production, or occur in only one or a few media. These roles include such namings as set designer, set dresser, makeup, wardrobe, electrician, painter, plumber, carpenter, property masters, act development, artist development, touring department, engineering, maintenance, crane operator, caterer, first-aid, copyboy, news assistant, telephone operators, help desk, librarian, information retrieval specialist, polling, and research. The production support role is a critical one, but it is very much in the background. The efforts of production support may be visible in the set that the performance occurs on, the positioning of the camera, and the performers makeup, wardrobe and accessories. They may also be as invisible as the food the cast and crew ate between takes or the electricity that the lights, camera, and other equipment consumed during takes. Many media do not entail any level of formal production support. Others could not function without efforts of people in a wide variety of support roles.

Additional Roles?

The twenty roles documented above should not be regarded as a comprehensive list of the generic roles in media. This is a voyage of discovery for the author and, one hopes, the reader. Indeed, it is already possible to identify roles that one might want to add to this list. There is, for instance, an engineering role in media that may or may not already be covered to some extent in the generic role of distributor/carrier. For the moment, the engineering role is identified with production support, but it may warrant a distinct listing. It remains to be considered how important it may be to distinguish the engineering, monitoring, and maintenance function from the distribution/carrier function it supports within the normal operation of media. It should be possible to identify other generic roles, and the interested reader is invited to suggest additions that are necessary to the operation of a variety of media and distinct from those outlined here


This paper evolved from term paper assignment given in a Communication Ethics class: "Pick a medium. What are the ethical responsibilities of the different participants in that medium?" The idea, given the limited literature, was to provide a baseline of generic roles which could be applied to any medium of communication. Creators of message content in almost any medium have a different set of rights, responsibilities, and ethical obligations than do consumers of messages. Investors have different rights and responsibilities than do publishers and producersand so on. Every participant in a medium makes decisions that have ethical implications. The initial description of roles proved useful in helping students to understand the range of generic roles associated with media participants. The author has since partially organized the course around these generic roles, and discovered that the role characteristics of media may be useful for other purposes:

Perhaps the most important application comes in the media independent approach they illustrate as we attempt to use "medium" as a substrate for building unifying theories of communication:

Similar transformations may prove valuable in extending a range of context-specific theories to handle a wider range of media and contexts. The next step in this work is to assess the distribution of these characteristic roles across a wide range of specific media such that that role patterns can emerge. This work is already underway.


The author would like to make special note of the insights provided by Joan Dyer as this paper approached completion. It would not be the same paper without her helpful suggestions.