Gerbner’s longitudinal content analysis of diversity on
television clearly identified who is and is not included in
depictions on television programs. His research shows a preference
for healthy white, middle class, young male perspectives. Though
Gerbner’s study and that of subsequent researchers working from
a political economy theoretical framework assume a capitalist
corporate center-right hegemony, still unstated in the diversity
discussion is the portrayal of diverse belief systems. Individuals do
organize their lives in ways other than materialistic ones, yet
rarely are problems stated and solutions provided in other than
materialistic ways. Whether we perceive these as yet unrepresented
ways of believing and thinking as religious, spiritual, non-Western,
or non-Judeo-Christian, the multitude possibilities for organizing
one’s life and thought patterns have yet to be portrayed in any
serious, nonjudgmental, honest manner in the U.S. media. The U.S.
corporate, advertiser-based television broadcasting model has been
exported throughout the planet and probably will not by itself seek
to change in any way that might disrupt its profit machine, but if
television broadcasting hopes to compete with internet alternatives,
it needs to open itself to these other approaches to constructing
Clark Vance is chair of and assistant professor in the Communication
Department of McDaniel College, Westminster, MD. She has presented
competitive papers and participated on panels each year since 1998 at
one or more of the prestigious ICA, ECA, and NCA conferences. She is
frequently quoted nationally in newspapers on media and cultural
issues, has published articles on free speech and identity topics,
and has authored articles and chapters that appear in several books.
Dr. Vance earned her Ph.D. in Intercultural Communication at Howard
University in 2002. She has taught for more than a dozen years at
Towson University, The College of Notre Dame of Maryland, and has
been at McDaniel College since 2003.
elided in the discussion about diversity is that its importance in
any forum is related to that of the different viewpoints it can bring
to the table. If truth is to emerge from social interaction, then
having a greater number of participating voices equates with a
discussion more closely approximating truth. In order for the
richest, truest dialogue to occur, one should allow for the voicing
of the greatest possible variety of beliefs. After all, the United
States claims to have a form of government which allows all voices to
concept of diversity presumes a standard against which to measure
oneself. Oftentimes U.S. Americans assume that because of the many
racial, ethnic, and religious traditions drawn upon in the United
States, there is no single “American” culture. Yet when
they travel to the lands of their ancestors, they stand out as
distinctly American: Indeed a dominant U. S. culture does exist
against which an “other” is assessed (Samovar and Porter,
allow meaning to be conveyed across a culture and help individuals
interpret their experiences as the culture’s preservation and
continuity are ensured. Dominant cultural values persist throughout
all of a culture’s institutions. Family, friendship, warfare,
sports, law, school, religion, and media comprise institutions where
learned behaviors and values induce individuals to perpetuate
cultural systems, obscuring them from what lies beyond their cultural
walls. Marxist theory holds that media renew, amplify, and extend
values and beliefs that predominate within the culture. Media
legitimize cultural events (Gurevitch, Bennett, Curran &
Woollacott, 1982) by creating and establishing meaning and sense of
reality (Snow, 1983). Television in the United States has been a
prime instrument for creating a national community, including a
national identity and the perpetuating of a worldview.
are endowed with cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral freedoms
unknown in the world of nature. Although material conditions
constrain some activities, human behaviors and thoughts are
restricted primarily by cultural agreements. There is no one correct
way to be human – no right way to dress, eat, build a home, or
believe. This openness provided by the human mind spawns cultural
diversity. Members of any one culture tend to interpret particular
situations and actions differently from members of any other (Bilmes,
begins at birth: individuals
interact with their culture, exchanging perceptions of meanings with
others in order to ensure their survival, make sense of the world and
create a sense of self. We are born or opt into family as well
as cultural, ethnic, religious, and national groups, any or all of
which impact on our individual identity. This sense of self or
identity – shaped by the environment, including the culture
which itself springs from groups of other individuals responding to
their physical world – affects communication (Vance, 2003).
Media also present models with which young people identify (Hampi,
Wharton, Taylor, Winham, Block, & Hall, 2004; Hoffner &
Buchanan, 2005). As individuals learn the cultural standpoint, they
gradually incorporate experiences into a worldview so it appears that
knowable reality is best expressed as presented by the culture and
through its language. Thus the manner in which individuals in any
given culture learn to perceive looks natural and inevitable to them:
Rarely are they aware of their knowledge as contingent and rarely do
they question it. What comes to be regarded as factual in a culture
emerges through a theoretical framework or collective consciousness
(Snow, 1983). A culture contains both material lifestyles and a
spiritual order (Dawson, 1958).
cultural groups may be treated equally under the law, but dominant U.
S. culture still expects all to speak the common tongue. With regard
to intercultural relations within this country, U.S. Americans prefer
assimilationist models, which say that because the country is
predominantly Northern and Western European in culture and
institutions, immigrants should adapt to the dominant Anglo-Saxon
Protestant culture (Janzen, 1994). Recognized power disparities
often exist among groups. In the United States, for example, the
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant way of speaking and emoting has held the
position of prominence and has set the standard for others. Thus, in
group situations that include members of co-cultural (non-White)
groups, there may be subtle messages about the correct way to speak
and interact. Individuals within some groups (which can vary by race
and region) insist when they’re speaking, no one “talk
over” them and find it offensive if others speak during their
turn. Others are comfortable finishing each other’s sentences,
tend to join in when others are talking, and don’t mind if
others speak along with them (Chen & Starosta, 1998). White
churchgoers generally worship quietly compared with Black
churchgoers. Although we acknowledge diversity of belief exists, we
see such diversity as lying within a realm of systems alternative to
makes one’s perception of the real appear to be common sense
(Barthes 1972). Dominant ideas and values disguise themselves in
plain sight, appearing as real and commonsensical by not being named:
That which isn’t named seems to have no alternative whereas
everything else derives from a notion of the other (Fiske, 1997). An
example of this phenomenon is that skin color is usually measured as
other than White in the United States, whereas Whiteness is generally
not regarded by White people as a color (Nakayama & Krizek,
1995). Another example is that non-standard religious beliefs are
other than mainstream Christian.
to structuralist theory, the beliefs of dominant culture are embedded
in cultural forms, including narratives, and communicate cultural
conflicts and resolutions (Levi-Strauss, 1969). Mythic stories
operate as sign systems, indicating cultural meanings that attach to
character types and stories. The language of myth comprises recurrent
patterns that explain that which seems obvious. Every story is told
by someone and every story is being told to someone, and in a
particular way, as the teller makes assumptions about an audience. As
stories or myths are told within a culture, they explain the culture
to its members by conveying its beliefs (Barthes, 1982). Myths
function to explain a cultural dilemma and propose a solution to it
(Brinson, 1995). They contain values, beliefs, and attitudes that
community members generally share; they portray models for behavior,
affirm cultural experience, provide continuity, make contingent
events seem eternal, justify history by making it seem natural,
support and validate the social order, and determine a culture’s
position in the world (Peterson & Horton, 1995; Frentz &
Rushing, 1993). All these functions add to the construction of
political and ideological reality.
(1928/1968) morphology demonstrates how characters in Russian
folktales perform functions that carry cultural lessons. For example,
a hero fulfills functions by reacting to genres of events, not by
responding to an inner voice, ending in triumph and living happily
ever after. Stories that circulate in cultures are charged with
values as characters make choices and strive for goals that are
acceptable, even desirable, to the audience.
provides the template for most television programs, including drama,
news, and reality programs (Allen, 1992). Gerbner (1998) identifies
who is and is not included in depictions on television programs,
saying that power in society lies in the hands of those who tell the
stories and that today corporate conglomerates use television to tell
most of the stories in our culture, and their primary message is
about consumption. His research reveals television prefers healthy
White, middle-class, young male perspectives. Gerbner’s study
and that of subsequent researchers (e.g., McChesney) working from a
political economy theoretical framework assume a capitalist corporate
the religious organizations in a culture gives insight into the
culture’s essence, specifically what the culture regards as
“spiritual norms or ideals of moral excellence” (Dawson,
1958, p. 65). A decline in religious belief has described U. S.
American culture since the mid-twentieth century (Hoggart, 2004). At
the same time, the United States defines itself as a Christian nation
firmly ingrained in politics and behaviors (Carter, 1993). Still,
leaving aside any active involvement in specific churches,
synagogues, or other official religious institution, a dominant
belief system is clearly apparent in the stories the United States
tells itself, specifically on television. By beliefs the author
intends not just official religious systems, but a hegemonic way of
conceptualizing the world that presents itself as the preferred,
commonsense one, with all others regarded as alternatives. Such
unstated beliefs serve as a foundation for cultural actions as
evidenced in Christian rhetoric, which fueled the nineteenth century
belief in manifest destiny and the twentieth century aversion to
communism (Carter, 1993).
Individuals organize their lives in other than materialistic ways;
however, materialistic problems and solutions predominate in the
United States, using the term materialistic to pertain to physical
pleasure and survival. Examples exist in stories that instruct the
best will win via competition in sports, elections, low costs, and
even ideas. Unexamined values related to competition also underlie
the stories told within U. S. culture. A way of thinking in which one
imagines an opponent and views oneself as engaging in a contest has
been termed the adversary paradigm and has been internalized
previously stated, certain values and beliefs dominate in a given
culture and are conveyed through all institutions. When the meaning
system is used to “naturalize and legitimize” social
hierarchies, that’s ideology; “…when a discourse
that represents the interests of one group is so widely accepted that
it seems to be universal, unquestionable and inevitable, it’s
been naturalized as ideology” (Budd, Craig, & Steinman,
1999, p. 106). The system of assumptions, meanings, and values that
constrain society – its ideology – is impressed on
cultural members by an elite, without force, by becoming produced and
reproduced in group practices. In a constant struggle to shape and
interpret reality, ideas, values, and beliefs are negotiated, not
imposed (Fiske, 1997).
ideology includes such tenets as “belief in the merits of free
enterprise, the threat of state ownership and intervention, the
benevolent role of the government in international affairs, and
anticommunism” (Herman, 1999, p. 16). The ideologies of
corporate advertisers support the status quo and “marginalize
dissent” (Herman, p. 15). A foundational belief of the U. S.
media system is contained in the marketplace of ideas model, that the
ideas contained in programming are controlled by market forces.
Conventions of television production portray and construct a point of
view that in the United States is that of the group closest to power,
that is, the White European, Christian, middle-class. Examples abound
of programs that idealize and reinforce a normative construction of
family, love, and happiness. Core beliefs and assumptions underlying
U. S. American culture
include that the United States is a nation particularly blessed by
God, that its system of democratic capitalism operates according to
natural law, that it is founded on Christian tenets, that part of its
mission is to spread its system to other countries, and that it is
innocent of any evil doing (Hughes, 2004).
itself – at least the forms practiced in the United States –
has been infused with materialism. Pastors compete for parishioners.
In many Protestant churches, a special hymn, the Doxology, is sung as
the plate is passed to raise money for the church’s operating
expenses. Christmas has reached potlatch proportions, with families
impoverishing themselves as they start buying gifts the day after
Thanksgiving. Indeed, the success of the economy is measured by sales
starting on Black Friday, the first official Christmas shopping day.
History shows that the vital collaboration of religion and culture
has been the normal condition of human society from the beginning,
and that even the religions which seek to escape from life to the
eternal cessation of Nirvana are driven in spite of themselves to
clothe themselves in cultural forms (Dawson, 1958, p. 208).
Given this hegemonic religious climate, an inclusion of diverse
belief systems remains largely unexamined in discussions about media
diversity. Belief systems encompass more than church denominations or
specific religions, though they often derive from and are based on
specific religious tenets: Religions themselves are often forged with
political and cultural ideas and practices. Besides containing
different theologies, diverse belief systems can include different
worldviews, priorities, and values. Their stories will feature heroes
of a different sort.
of the twentieth century accelerated an awareness of the vast array
of human variety, as people from the farthest flung corners of the
globe have entered into interactions unknown in past ages and
centuries. Despite such profound variation, discussions of it in
media, specifically U.S. American television, tend to focus on
obvious differences – those of sex, race, age, and class.
However, these superficial characteristics are merely indicators that
those who possess them are likely to also possess belief systems that
deviate from the interests of an ideology that has dominated U.S.
television since its inception. Whether the lesser represented ways
of believing and thinking are religious or spiritual, non-Western or
non-Judeo-Christian, a myriad of other possibilities for organizing
one’s life and thought patterns have yet to be portrayed in a
serious, nonjudgmental, honest manner in U.S. media.
reasons previously stated, merely noting when and where discussions
of God appear in the media only goes so far in a discussion about the
lack of diversity of beliefs. Recent studies on religion and
television have dealt with depictions of faith (Gildemeister, 2006),
the use of ridicule as a hegemonic tool regarding depictions of
Mormonism on “South Park” (Cowan, 2005), and views of
religion on “Law and Order” (Clanton, 2003). While these
studies reveal the narrow range of acceptance by television
gatekeepers for religious discussions, they only scratch the surface
in a discussion about beliefs.
political economy theory of the media concerns itself with how media
ownership and the gatekeeping functions it spawns limits the range of
available messages. Gatekeepers,
including producers, broadcasting networks and corporate advertisers
make decisions about what gets aired and what gets canceled.
Corporate gatekeepers have close ties to federal legislators and
regulators and use their influence to perpetuate a value system that
Dominant ideologies reflect the interests of the powerful. Thus,
policies imposed by proprietors often incorporate dominant ideologies
as suitable premises and frames of reference. Reporters who treat
these uncritically are hired and rewarded; those that do not are
either not hired, adapt, or fall by the wayside (Herman, 1999, p.
(2000) began to warn in the 1970s that the U.S. was headed to a time
when a handful of corporations would dominate production of media
messages. His prediction has come to fruition. About 100 people in
Hollywood produce 95 percent of all programs and determine what is
presented to U.S. American viewers.
comprise today’s public sphere, serving as an arena where
people meet to discuss affairs of self-governance (Habermas, 2006).
Although viewers share in the responsibility for what exists on
television, this responsibility is limited by nearly a century of
laws favoring a commercial media. Throughout the history of
electronic media, regulators and government have colluded with
corporate owners by fashioning laws and regulation friendly to them.
The U.S. corporate, advertiser-based television broadcasting model
has been exported throughout the planet and probably will not by
itself seek to change in any way that might disrupt its profit
machine. Codes and symbols supporting assumptions about the
commercial relationship between viewer and broadcaster underlie
television programs (Gray, 2000). Television supplies what viewers
want only insofar as what they want will generate profits for the
media (McChesney, 2005). Favoring commercial interests over other
possible program characteristics has made it all but impossible to
portray other values and interests (Barnouw, 1985).
(1993/1998) data reveals U.S. television programs contain a
preponderance of messages that reinforce viewers’ self-identity
as consumers. His content analyses show an absence of depictions of
poor people and a plethora of wealthy ones. Goldthwaite (2003) also
found a high correlation between television viewing and materialism,
defined as “the importance of goods or aesthetics to one’s
identity.” Gitlin (2000) points out how the very structure of
television supports consumerist attitudes. McChesney (2005) notes how
news media favor money interests, even going so far as to prefer
wealthier candidates and their points of view. Even journalists, who
are supposed to be interested in presenting as close as possible an
objective truth, tend to self-censor so as not to violate policies
set by media owners (McChesney, 2005).
analyzing television messages and locating a system of dominant
cultural beliefs current in the United States today, one can find
that we see ourselves as a people who above all turn to material
goods to solve daily problems – not just what and where to eat,
drink and dress, but how to appease unhappy family members, attain
friends, and alleviate depression. “The maturing of commercial
broadcasting…brings a decline in variety of viewpoints and an
increased protection of establishment interests” (Herman, 1999,
p. 34). Situation comedy, news, cartoons, serials, sports, home and
garden shows, and made-for-television movies all tell us that
consumerism is the answer to everything. After the World Trade Center
attacks on September 11, 2001, an increase in treatments of
spirituality visited television (Goodale, 2005), including
discussions about Islam, though how much such discussions veered away
from dominant cultural values is questionable.
exploring whether diverse beliefs exist on U. S. television, the
following are some questions that guided this probe: Rather than a
consumerist urge to purchase and portray new fashions and gadgets,
how often are social actors depicted re-using products or recycling?
Do they wear old clothes? In their interpersonal relations, do they
serve each other for free or is there always an angle? On a cognitive
level, how profound is the moral reasoning? How complex are the
solutions to problems? How often is spirituality discussed or even
surfing to search for evidence of diverse beliefs uncovers precious
little. An episode of ABC’s “ Brothers and Sisters”
(2006) features the eight-year-old granddaughter wishing to resurrect
the family’s Jewish traditions at Christmastime. The ensuing
discussion deals with family rituals, presents, and parties rather
than core theological or spiritual beliefs. The HBO series “Six
Feet Under” (2001-2005), whose protagonists live in and operate
a funeral home, often portrays the departed as ghosts interacting
with the living. Such portrayals are not uncommon on television and
go back at least as far as “Topper” (1953-1955), a sitcom
where the well-to-do Cosmo Topper lives in a house haunted by a
ghostly young couple and their St. Bernard dog. Numerous episodes of
“The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964) also contain examples of
ghosts. Although television ghosts evidence a belief in an afterlife,
it is an afterlife depicted as a place consistent with the world of
consumer goods. In “Six Feet Under,” for example, the
family patriarch smokes, drinks, and plays poker, as he did in life.
“Touched by an Angel” (1994-2003) is often touted as a
religiously-based program because it contains supernatural beings as
protagonists. The angels are departed humans who possess superhuman
qualities but exhibit human flaws, such as bearing grudges toward the
living. They also enjoy material things, like drinking coffee and
even accepting a Cadillac from the living in episode one. By way of
contrast, a Hindu treatment of an afterlife might show reincarnation;
a Bahá’í treatment might depict enlightened
beings at the next stage of human evolution, as might some Christian
denominations. Clearly, the depictions of afterlife on television
have less to do with religious belief than with advancing the plot
and rounding out characters consistent with overarching materialistic
shows like “American Idol,” “The Apprentice,”
and “Survivor” all deal with some facet of the American
Dream – the cultural myth that the United States is the land
of opportunity, where anyone can become wealthy; a theme shared among
them is the best will win. Each has some form of voting for the
“best” and all contain some degree of politics. In
“Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” the politics
emerge as contestants try to sink each other and complain on camera
about their companions’ annoying traits. On “Idol”,
mastermind Simon Cowell and his panel of supposedly equal judges make
comments that undoubtedly influence the audiences’ voting. The
programs’ storylines are aided by the goals of the production
team as well, who look for Proppian storylines when editing down
their many weeks of footage. In all three the best is determined by
cultural values. Again, the storylines are ones that resonate with
cultural values of the audience.
its program “Extreme Makeover – Home Edition,” the
ABC network performs charity work each week by building new houses
for hard-luck cases. Recipients tearfully express their gratitude on
camera, and ABC may consider its generosity a tax write-off.
“Southpark” episode on Mormonism explored the religion in
depth and then ridiculed it (Cowan, 2005). For a program that
satirically scathes mainstream culture, “Southpark” often
serves to put down belief systems that are outside the mainstream,
like Scientology and the evangelical beliefs embodied in Mel Gibson’s
film “The Passion of the Christ.”
fiction may be the genre where mainstream beliefs are most often
challenged. Often set in the future or on a distant planet, sci-fi
steps outside its culture to explore its foibles. The long-running
“Star Trek” (originally 1966-69, then resurrected for an
animated series for the 1973-1974 season, and three other live action
series from 1987-2005) inspired a fan following who revere creator
Gene Roddenberry’s Utopian vision. “Farscape” (the
Sci Fi channel, 1999-2003) predicts that provincialism and
materialism lead to the downfall of civilization.
mass broadcasting bias of concentration and unification rather than
diversity or autonomy prevails around the world. With few exceptions,
television continues to perform as a conduit for reaffirming
hegemonic beliefs. Religious impulses are constrained within dominant
cultural values and actions and non-mainstream beliefs are presented
as alternative to the dominant.
can a viewer-citizen respond to pressure towards standardization and
homogenization of contemporary culture? Unfunded, unauthorized,
noncommercial, illegal broadcasts containing live storytelling and
community announcements can provide unofficial discourses to balance
out the official ones (Michaels, 2000). As the U.S. private
commercial television model is exported to more and more countries,
this is not likely to happen on U.S. television any time soon, but
may still be found on the Internet.
order for diverse beliefs and worldviews to appear on U.S.
television, media gatekeepers would have to perceive such portrayals
as being in their best interest. The issue goes back to the earliest
years of television and hasn’t changed: Corporate sponsors want
viewers to be in a frame of mind that leaves them amenable to buying
products. Without serious consideration of the public service
clause (section 315) of the Communications Act of 1934, corporate
gatekeepers will continue to serve themselves rather than
increased awareness of one’s cultural assumptions is needed.
Starting with awareness of one’s own culture is basic to
communication competence. Such awareness allows individuals to
consciously decide whether to keep or discard elements that are parts
of their own and of the other culture, thus building a repertoire of
strategies. In this way individuals can examine their values and
beliefs and determine what in their make-up is essential and what is
relative. If media gatekeepers were to serve the public interest,
they could allow that this process is necessary for citizens to grow
into competent intercultural beings, a state of consciousness
necessary for getting along in a diverse world, and then to be aware
of the important role they play in facilitating such growth.
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