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1.1 Intersection of American Media and Culture

Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish between mass communication and mass media.
  2. Define culture.
  3. Pose questions that will be explored in the rest of the text.

Mass Communication, Mass Media, and Culture

We use all kinds of terms to talk about media. It will be useful to clarify them. It will be especially important to distinguish between mass communication and mass media, and to attempt a working definition of culture. You likely are reading this book as part of a class dedicated to mass communication, so let’s start with mass communication first. Note that adjective: mass. Here is a horrible definition of mass from an online dictionary: Of, relating to, characteristic of, directed at, or attended by a large number of people. But the definition gets the point across. Communication can take place just between two people, or among a few people, or maybe even within one person who is talking to himself. Mass communication is communication of, relating to, characteristic of, directed at, or attended by a large number of people. That’s pretty ugly. Let’s try the following: Mass communicationCommunication transmitted to large segments of the population. refers to communication transmitted to large segments of the population.

How does that happen? The transmission of mass communication happens using one or more of many different kinds of mediaMeans of communication and transmission; as the plural of medium, a means of communication and transmission, media refers to a number of such means, such as print, digital, and electronic media. (people sometimes forget that media is the plural of the singular, medium). A medium is simply an instrument or means of transmission. It can be two tin cans connected by a string. It can be television. It can be the Internet. A mass medium is a means of transmission designed to reach a wide audience. It is not tin cans on a string, unless you have a lot of cans, but it can be television or the Internet. Media are more than one medium. So mass mediaThose means of transmission that are designed to reach a wide audience; some examples are radio, newspapers, magazines, books, and video games, as well as Internet media such as blogs, podcasts, and video sharing. refers to those means of transmission that are designed to reach a wide audience. Mass media are commonly considered to include radio, film, newspapers, magazines, books, and video games, as well as Internet blogs, podcasts, and video sharing.

Lastly, let’s define culture a bit more. All this mass communication over mass media takes place among people in a particular time and place. Those people share ideas about reality and the world and themselves. They act out those ideas daily in their lives, work, and creative expressions, and they do so in ways that are different from other people in other places and other times. We can use culture to refer to the acting out of these shared ideas.

One of the great scholars of culture, anthropologist Clifford Geertz, offered this definition. He said, culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” (1973, 89). That’s difficult language, but you can get the idea—culture is historically transmitted knowledge and attitudes toward life expressed in symbolic form. Or perhaps more simply, cultureThe expressed and shared values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices of a social group, organization, or institution. is the expressed and shared values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices of a social group, organization, or institution. It is OK if that still seems broad and fluid. Scholars too wrestle with the term because it must capture so much. Culture should not be easy to define.

What this book will do is bring together media and culture in the context of the American experience. Throughout American history, evolving media technologies have changed the way we relate socially, economically, and politically. Here’s one example from long ago that is still talked about today. In 1960, the first televised presidential debates changed American history forever. The young senator, John F. Kennedy, looked wonderful on television. He appeared energetic, crisp and at ease, while Vice President Richard Nixon looked nervous and uncomfortable. His makeup was caked on. He hunched and slouched. People who listened to the debate on the radio considered it a tie. But most people who watched the debate on television believed that Kennedy crushed Nixon. Kennedy upset Nixon and won the presidency. A few months later, the newly-elected president gave credit to technology for changing public perceptions and enabling his win. He claimed that “it was TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”Louis Menand, “Masters of the Matrix,” The New Yorker, January 5, 2004. Ever since Kennedy, American presidential hopefuls have had to be increasingly television-ready and media savvy. Indeed, evolving technology has helped change what the American public wants out of its leaders.

Figure 1.2

In today’s wired world of smartphones and streaming satellite feeds, our expectations of our leaders, celebrities, teachers, and even ourselves are changing in drastic ways. This book aims to provide you with the context, tools, and theories to understand changes brought about by the commingling of media and culture. Rather than telling you what to think, this book hopes to provide you with a framework to consider some of the crucial issues affecting media and culture in today’s world. The following are some questions to consider now and to keep in mind as you move forward in this book:

  • The second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century saw a huge growth of media forms, including radio, cinema, television, the Internet, and cell phone. Understanding the evolution of media technology can help you understanding not only the media of today but also the media of tomorrow. What then are the roots of media in U.S. history? What were the dominant forms of media present in the United States during the Revolution? The Industrial Revolution? World Wars I and II? How did these forms of media differ from the ones we have today? How did they help shape the way people interacted with and understood the world they lived in?
  • Contemporary Americans have more means of getting information and entertainment than ever before. What are the major media present in the United States today? How do these forms of media interact with one another? How do they overlap? How are they distinct?
  • What is the role of media in American culture today? Some people argue that dramatic and controversial events help fuel the demand for 24-hour news access. In June 2011, people around the world spent hours glued to coverage of the Casey Anthony trial. More recently, in November of 2011, sports coverage moved from football scores to the Penn State football sex-abuse scandal. What are some other ways that culture affects media? Conversely, how do media affect culture? Do violent television shows and video games influence viewers to become more violent? Is the Internet making our culture more open and democratic, or more shallow and distracted?
  • Though we may not (yet) have space-age technology, such as time travel, hover cars, and teleportation, today’s electronic gadgets would probably stun Americans of a century ago. Will we be stunned by future media? How can today’s media landscape help us understand what might await us in years to come? What will the future of American media and culture look like?

Key Takeaways

  • Mass communication refers to a message transmitted to a large audience; the means of transmission is known as mass media. Many different kinds of mass media exist and have existed for centuries. Both have an effect on culture, which is a shared and expressed collection of behaviors, practices, beliefs, and values that are particular to a group, organization, or institution. Culture and media exert influence on each other in subtle, complex ways.
  • The 1960 election is an example of how changes in media technology have had a major impact on culture. But the influence goes both ways, and culture shapes media in important ways, even how media evolve.


Reread the previous questions about media and culture. Write down some of your initial responses or reactions, based on your prior knowledge or intuition. Keep the piece of paper somewhere secure and return to it on the last day of the course. Were your responses on target? How has your understanding of media and culture changed? How might you answer questions differently now?