Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Mass Media and Cultural Literacy

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Quiz time!

What do the following have in common?

Archie Bunker. Woodstock. M*A*S*H. Roots. Sitcom. Software. Telephoto. The Beatles. Mickey Mouse. The media.

Give up? They're all part of what literate Americans should know according to the national bestseller "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know." In it, Professor E.D. Hirsch discusses the basic knowledge that enables us to function in a contemporary society. They are included with terms like UNESCO, seven deadly sins, and freedom of the press. Are you surprised that so many terms come from popular media?

Me neither.

One of the benefits of the mass media is its massiveness, its huge size, scope, impact and influence. It touches not only our daily lives, but our entire society, culture, civilization, and vocabulary as well. It does this with its size, popularity, repetition, and audience.

The numbers are mind-boggling. The Broadway show "A Chorus Line" broke all records by running over 6,000 performances. It was seen by a total of 6.5 million people during its fifteen-year run.

Compare that to the audience of a single "Cheers" episode -- forty million viewers.

Think for a moment about the words and expressions and images from the media which have become quite literally a part of us. "Na-noo, na-noo," "Don't have a cow, man," "You deserve a break today," "You look mah-velous," "Sorry about that, chief" "It's the real thing." There are dozens more. Is it any wonder that the media has quite literally become a part of our culture?

Increasingly, media literacy is tied to cultural literacy. One simply cannot be a literate and aware citizen of our culture without knowing these things -- at least without knowing what they refer to. They work as a kind of shorthand for us. Someone says, "Oh, it was a real soap opera!" and we all know what they mean. "It was a pretty Mickey Mouse operation" means something to all of us; there is no need to explain more fully or to translate.

The media provides us with a common set of experiences. When we have a common set of experiences (a common set of reference points), we become a more unified society. When we refer to images from popular media, we know what each other is talking about. Experts call TV an "electronic hearth," and point out that when a society shares common stories, it re-tribalizes us and turns us into a "global village."

And that, of course, is one of the problems with any "mass media." While it can give us a common set of experiences and a common vocabulary, it does so from only one vantage point. It tends to diminish creativity and originality. If TV is the fire in the hearth of the global village, we (its audience) become listeners instead of story-tellers ourselves.

The media has influenced and shaped our culture. It is now as much a part of us as the language we hear and the images we see -- the expressions we use and the background we expect our listeners to have. We cannot escape the all-pervasive effects of our mass media. We would become a poorer and less cohesive society if we tried.

What we do need to do is to recognize media's effects and to let them serve our purposes. Instead of the other way around.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.