Is TV Really the New American Religion? A Cultivation Analysis of Nine Social Issues

By Scott H. Clarke.

Published by The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Communication

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George Gerbner (1977, 1980, 1981) theorized that TV and organized religion compete for cultural dominance. Television programming acts like religion, subtly teaching its viewers about the nature of social reality. He concluded that television is beginning to “displace, if not replace” (Gerbner, et al. 1984, 10) the importance of religion in heavy viewers’ lives. But surprisingly little research has ever been conducted on this topic.
This study analyzes television and religion data collected over 35 years to test Gerbner’s thesis. The data indicate that religion is a much more potent influence on viewers’ opinions than television use. Respondents’ TV viewing demonstrated small main effects on attitudes toward seven of nine controversial social issues studied. Individuals’ religious traditions showed small to medium main effects on attitudes toward all nine issues, however. Persons’ religious service attendance also evidenced small to medium main effects on attitudes toward eight issues.
In addition, no evidence of mainstreaming (Gerbner et. al. 1980, 1982) was found for over half the issues studied, and all but two of the observed interactions actually contradicted the concept. The weak evidence found for cultivation may indicate that television is not that powerful at shaping social attitudes or that TV is only beginning to make cultural inroads against organized religion.

Keywords: Television, Media, Religion, RELTRAD, Communication, Cultivation Hypothesis, Religious Traditions, Subcultures, Social Issues, Premarital Sex, Extramarital Sex, Homosexuality, Pornography, Divorce, Abortion, Marijuana, Gun Control, Capital Punishment

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Communication, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp.33-57. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 754.050KB).

Dr. Scott H. Clarke

Assistant Professor of Telecommunication, School of Arts and Humanities, College of Liberal Arts, Black Hills State University, Spearfish, South Dakota, USA

Dr. Scott H. Clarke received his Ph.D. in Mass Media from Michigan State University. His areas of expertise are media, religion and public opinion. He has over 20 years’ professional experience in television, radio and newspapers. He has also served as an adviser to several campus media outlets. His current research agenda includes studies in how the mass media depict religion, how religious persons use the mass media, and how religious media function as alternative communication channels. His work has been presented at several national and international conferences and has previously been published in the Journal of Media and Religion.