Impact of Mass Media on Modern Society

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

What types of mass media do you use for entertainment and to gather information? Learn how American media habits have changed and what this has meant for our society and culture.

Shaping How We View the World

Mass media plays a central role in American culture and society. Mass communication affects what is said, how it is said, when it is said, and who says it. Until the 1950's, Americans relied on print and radio to learn about the world around them. The delay between when events happened and when they were reported created a distance and often a disconnect between events and society.

Television changed all that. In the mid-1950s, 66 percent of American households owned a television. By the 1960s that number had jumped to over 90 percent. The broad availability of television began to influence perceptions of and involvement with events. Television in almost every home created an information and cultural revolution.

The face of mass communication continues to evolve with the addition of digital technologies. Compared to the estimated seven hours a day that Americans spent in the 1960s on mass media, today almost 12 hours of every day are spent consuming media in some form!

Up Close and Live: The Nixon-Kennedy Debates

Debates have long been part of American politics, but before 1960, seeing one live was limited to people at the debate itself. The substance of the debates might take weeks to travel through newspaper or radio reports.

On September 26, 1960, the first Nixon-Kennedy debate took place on national television. For the first time, all Americans could see presidential candidates in a live debate. With over 66 million tuning in, the power of the medium became instantly apparent. The younger Kennedy looked tan, healthy, and confident in front of the camera, while the TV cameras showed Nixon at his worst. He was ill, sweating, and looked nervous. Based on the content of the debates, the judgment was that Nixon had won, but television viewers clearly saw Kennedy as the winner. He looked like a winner.

Shared National Experiences: The Kennedy Assassination

On November 22, 1963, just three years after those televised debates, Americans watched in horror as Kennedy's assassination and the national mourning played out in real time. An estimated 175 million viewers watched the funeral live on television. In the coverage of the event, the phenomenon of unfiltered, live, as-it-happens, 24-hour news coverage was born. And for the first time, a nation collectively mourned via mass media, an experience since repeated with tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

War in Real Time: The Vietnam War

War coverage is nothing new. In the past, the news arrived days or weeks after the events. Up through the Korean War, reports were delivered after the fact via radio or newspapers or in newsreels shown in movie theaters. However, a new transparency in reporting started during the Vietnam War, where events could no longer be disguised or covered up. It opened up a new era in reporting that continues to this day. The ubiquity of television combined with new audio and video technologies enabled near same-day coverage of events on the battlefield. The horror of war was now in every living room, every day. As the images became increasingly disturbing, support for the war decreased and the antiwar movement accelerated.

Global Culture Explodes: The New British Invasion

February 9, 1964 brought another British invasion to America in the form of the Beatles on television. Their music had already crossed the Atlantic via radio and records, but their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show had 73 million people tuning in, more than any of the Nixon-Kennedy debates. All Americans were able to see what the hysteria, or the Beatlemania, was about. Teenaged girls cried and screamed while parents watched in shock as the mop-topped quartet from England invaded homes on a Sunday evening.

It would be another 17 years before the first modern music video appeared on MTV, but the Beatles' television appearance demonstrated the power of video showing the artist performing. Just two months after the Sullivan appearance, The Beatles set a Billboard record when their songs held all top five spots on Billboard's top 40. The music video was on its way.

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