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TITLENot Just for Consumers: An Argument for Depicting Diverse Beliefs on U.S. Television
AUTHOR 1Deborah Clark Vance
VOLUMEed. Amber Reetz Narro and Alice C. Ferguson
TITLE_PARENTDiversity and Mass Communication: Evidence of Impact
PAGE_RANGE67-81 (Chapter 4)
PUB_THISFountainhead Press
CITY_THISSouthlake, TX
ABSTRACTGlobally, with few exceptions, television is a conduit for reaffirming hegemonic beliefs. How can we respond to the pressure towards standardization and homogenization? An increased awareness of one’s own cultural assumptions is needed. 
TAGS- Interfaith dialogue; Cultural diversity; Internet; Materialism; Media; United States (documents)

George 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 realities.

Deborah 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.

Often 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 be heard.


The 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, 2004).

Institutions 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.

Humans 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, 1976).

Acculturation 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).

Heterogeneous 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 a norm.


Discourse 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.

According 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.

Propp’s (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.

Storytelling 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 center-right hegemony.


Examining 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 (Karlberg, 2004).

As 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).

Dominant 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).

Christianity 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.


Telecommunications 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.

For 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.

The 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 benefits them.

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. 60).

Bagdikian (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.

Media 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).

Gerbner’s (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).

In 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.

When 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 mentioned?

Channel 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.

CBS’s “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 themes.

Reality 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.

In 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.

A “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.”

Science 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.


The 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.

How 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.

In 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 citizen-viewers.

An 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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