I Hate It, But I Love It: Television and Listerine


This article is from a presentation by the author at the April 1977 convention of the National Catholic Education Association in San Francisco.

This article originally appeared in Issue# 1

A teacher-turned communicator explores the challenge of media education in the Catholic Church.

Even though we sometimes hate TV, like Listerine, we also love it. And more importantly we have gotten used to it. It has not only taken over our living rooms, but our lives. We wake up and go to bed by the "Today" show and the late night news. We pattern our habits of eating around it. We count on it as a dependable icebreaker... "Did you happen to see that TV show last night about. In some schools, teachers even assign it for homework.

What is this "thing" which has intruded itself so totally on our society in less than a lifetime? How do we cope with human life in which the common values no longer seem to be established by the Ten Commandments, but by hundreds of thousands of TV commercial?

Within the lifetime of most of us, communications technology has mushroomed, just like the technology in transportation, medicine and energy. Advances in photography, printing. sound motion pictures, audio and video tape recording and miniaturized electronic circuitry (which made possible everything from transistor radios to satellites) have revolutionized our world. David Berlo, a noted communications theorist makes an important point: 'Historically we lived in a deprived communication environment. A premium was paid for the receipt of messages. Today we live in a saturated, even over-saturated communications environment. Will we soon be willing to pay for silence, for communications avoidance?' 1

We need to reflect on what this technology has done to humankind in terms of our constant quest for knowledge, for information, for education. Again David Berlo succinctly summarizes things:

"The explosion in information joins the explosion in population as the two roost significant revolutions of our time. For the first time in history, two related propositions are true. One, it no longer is possible to store within the human brain all of the information that a human needs; i.e. we can no longer rely on ourselves as a memory bank. Second, it no longer is necessary to store within the human brain all of the information that humans need; i.e., we are obsolete as a memory bank. We can buy memories, we can make memory machines, we can store information through technology, and we can avoid the drudgery of memorization of information. We can purchase a recorder instead of training ourselves to be one. We can put data into our store-bought memories, the computer, and can promptly forget what we knew, and, if we are to remain competent and sane, we must promptly forget what we knew.

He then goes on to analyze what implications these ideas will have for our educational system:

'Such propositions are revolutionary. Most of what we have called formal education has been intended to imprint on the human mind all of the information that we might need. Education is geared toward information storage. Today that is neither possible nor necessary. Rather, humankind needs to be taught how to process information that is stored through technology. Education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data. And education knows not how to adapt to that process." 2

"How do we cope with human life in which the common values no longer seem to be established by the Ten Commandments, but by thousands of TV commercials?"

Berlo thinks that education can't adapt. I believe it must, or we can't survive. That is why it is necessary to challenge educators to join with the communicators, in developing ways to help people cope with the information/communications explosion that is profoundly rattling humankind today. If we don't, we might as well close up shop because all of our ministries and services are only band-aids offered to a world that is having a heart attack.

We as Christians and specifically (but not exclusively) we who are sisters, can have a great deal of influence on meeting this problem. Of all the groups in the Church, sisters have perhaps grasped best the dilemma of being a Christian in today's world. They have also used their influence and power to change structures and institutions, to make them more responsive to people's needs. This can be seen in education, health care, welfare services, pastoral care; there is no reason why sisters can't do the same in communications, once the problem is explained and a challenge extended. So, what must we do?

First, we must recognize communications as an issue and area of concern for sisters in every ministry. Every sister is a communicator. Some more than others because of their special gifts. But in every ministry sisters are called on to transmit values, speak out for justice, listen to those in need, share the story of the One who gives life to the world.

Every day sisters use and are affected by the media --not only television, newspapers and films but telephones, satellites and computers. The world is no longer separated by space and time. To minister in such a world means to be a communicator, to know and use communications skills, to be aware of the impact of media on those we serve.

In a follow-up to the communications document for Vatican II, the 1971 Pastoral Instruction on the Media notes, "If religious.. .wish to be part of modern life and also be at all effective in their apostolate they should know how the media work upon the fabric of society... Indeed, without this knowledge, an effective apostolate is impossible in a society which is increasingly conditioned by the media."3

Secondly, sisters who recognize communications as an issue will try to become informed about how it affects their work and those they work with, whether in education, health care, community organizing or almost any other arena.

For example, sisters in health care should find it interesting to note that the fictional Doctor Marcus Welby was played so convincingly by actor Robert Young, that he received over a quarter of a million letters asking for medical advice during the first five years the show ran on network television.4 What does this say about viewers' ability to separate reality from fantasy? How many people are conditioned to expect medical care in real hospitals like that offered by Marcus Welby or the team on "Medical Center" or "The Doctors?" And how has the increase in over-the-counter drug advertising affected the use of drugs by people who don't need them? Sisters who work in the health care field might think about these questions, and perhaps even develop "drug education" programs, not so much for the teenagers, but for older adults. Many, including sisters, are "hooked" on Sleepeze or Geritol, or Anacin whose claim to be 50% stronger only means it's equivalent to three ordinary aspirin, rather than the common dosage of two.

"Education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data."
- David Berlo

Sisters in any area of counseling might reflect on whether television is now as significant in family problems as drug or alcohol addiction. In a healthy family, television can be useful entertainment; but in some families, even in some convents and rectories, television is used as a wedge against others, a wall to keep others out, a scapegoat for anger and disappointment. In such situations, counselors must not only deal with the problems of interpersonal relationships, but the problem of television as an all-too-convenient escape.

Sisters in pastoral ministry should be preparing for the day in the not-too-distant future when two-way cable television will replace many of the common transactions in a local neighborhood -- banking, shopping, newspaper and mail delivery. In the Christian tradition, religion is based on the concept of "community" and worship requires a coming together of common believers. In an increasingly individualized and computerized society, how will the Church continue its task of sharing the good news and serving others?

"It is time we looked around us to see how media influences... the men, women and children we minister to."

Ironically, we might learn something about this problem from NBC, which ran six hours of the Zeffirelli film "Jesus of Nazareth" last Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday nights. A look at the ratings, which claimed an audience of 90 million, suggests that there were more people who were deeply touched by the life, passion and resurrection of Jesus on television than during all of the Holy Week services combined.

Sisters in education could help remedy some of the problems mentioned. We teach children how to read books, but we don't teach them how to watch television or how to process advertising. We know that kids learn from television. "It is a massive educational system operating practically 24 hours a day. It is for all ages, there are no holidays, little truancy and very little curriculum planning or supervision. 98% of American households own a working set and the average home has it on over 6 hours a day, more than 2200 hours a year."5 Further, "it is estimated that the average American youth, at the time of high school graduation, will have spent 50% more time watching TV than physically being in a classroom"6

When students leave our schools at 18, have they been prepared for the onslaught of programming and consumer advertising aimed at the 18-34 year old audience? We complain that advertising is turning us into a consumer society, but are we doing anything to educate young people to understand how media seduces them into believing that happiness comes from brushing with Ultrabrite, keeping spots from their glasses and joining the Pepsi generation?

Take note of two facts:

  1. Catholic schools proclaim, every year, they are "different where it counts."
  2. A majority of American Catholic sisters and their congregations are still committed to education.

That's a lot of teacher-power and a lot of opportunity to mobilize effective media education, not just for elementary and secondary students; but through the parish adult religious education programs, a chance to reach parents and adults. They, like anyone over 35 who can still remember when there wasn't television, are still reeling from the information and communications explosion that has shattered forever the smaller, quieter world into which they were born.

Given these facts, it seems obvious to ask if anyone anywhere is doing media education in the Catholic system. Is the NCEA deve1oping a national media curriculum? Is the USCC Department of Communications prioritizing media education or working with the NCEA on an effective program for dioceses to use? Is UNDA/USA, the national Catholic organization for communications, organizing its members for such an effort on the national level? Is CAVE, the Catholic Audio-Visual Educators, tackling the project? In each instance, the answer seems to be no.

"We teach children how to read books, but we don't teach them how to watch television..."

The only other group in the Church who could address itself to the problem would be the teachers themselves, particularly the sisters who seem to be the continuing link in all of Catholic education. Through in-service education of members of religious congregations and then a cooperative sharing of resources, ideas and personnel with lay teachers and others, the sisters who staff school all over the country could begin doing media education at the grassroots level, just as they initiated political education and peace education and education for justice in recent years. Media education is another part of that same process, a process which says schools should prepare students to make life decisions, not just to pass tests and examinations.

Accepting the challenge of media education is not just an option for us today. It is a responsibility. Let us first become aware of the implications -- both in our lives and in the lives of those we serve. And then we need to act.


  1. David Berlo, "The Context for Communication" in Communication and Behavior by Hannemann & McEwen, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, Mass. 1975, p. 8.
  2. Ibid. Rewritten to avoid sexist construction.
  3. Pontifical Commission for the Means of Social Communication, USCC Publications Office. 1971, p. 33.
  4. Logan, Ben et al. Television Awareness Training, Media Action Research Center Publication, New York. 1977, p. 6.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 5.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).