Interview with Teresa Tomeo
Teresa Tomeo is a Catholic talk show host and media consultant with more than 20 years of experience as a print and broadcast journalist. TCA asked her to talk about the subject of her recent book "Noise: How Our Media-Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families" (Ascension, 2007).
TCA:The cover of your new book, "Noise," features this quote from Pope Benedict XVI: "We are no longer able to hear God -- there are too many different frequencies filling our ears."What "frequencies" do you think he's talking about, and what kind of "noise" is filling them?
Teresa Tomeo: I think the Holy Father is very concerned about the culture today that is leading to people accepting moral relativism -- anything goes. The notion that whatever you believe is fine, but whatever I believe is fine as well.
This message, as he has pointed out on numerous occasions, is coming from the mass media, the entertainment industry, culture and society in general.
There are no moral absolutes because we have drowned out God by filling ourselves with television, the Internet, video games and other outlets that leave little time for prayer and reflection, and open us up to all sorts of negative influences.
TCA:What are the effects of this noise on our everyday lives, especially our moral and spiritual lives?
Tomeo: I began to research this topic about 10 years ago, when I first considered leaving the secular media. I was overwhelmed at the amount of evidence by professional groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, just to name a few.
These groups have done countless studies on the connection be-tween violence in the media and aggressive behavior in children, the connection between advertising and body image and self-esteem among women and young girls, the connection between media messages and eating disorders among women, and more.
There are also a number of studies conducted on media influence, in general, concerning media exposure and the decline in morality, plus media influence and the acceptance of abortion, premarital sex and so-called same-sex relationships. There is no denying that the media can and does impact the way we think, believe and act.
TCA:In what ways is family life especially at risk from media saturation?
Tomeo: There are many risks here, but two top the list.
First, we can point to the issue of family values. Values that Catholics and other committed Christians hold near and dear to their hearts are rarely exhibited positively on TV, in films, in music and in the news media.
So, right away, those families trying to follow God face a challenge. Their values are mocked regularly in the media, and they are portrayed as extreme.
Second, although certain aspects of the media can be helpful and educational, they nevertheless tend to take a lot away from family time and communication between parents and their children. Young people spend at least four to six hours a day in front of the TV and computer screens, meaning they are being influenced a lot more by media outlets than by their moms and dads.
TCA:What new challenges are presented by the more recent media technologies (such as MP3 players) that parents may not be aware of?
Tomeo: MP3 players are only one part of a very big media saturation problem: cell phones, text messaging, Internet chat rooms, social gathering sites, violent video games, and the list goes on.
I think parents need to have at least a general idea of how much media their child is exposed to on a daily basis, instead of worrying about getting them all the latest gadgets.
Too many parents just want to please their children. They don't understand how the technology works and just what their children have access to.
One study by the Barna Research Group that came out right before Christmas showed that even Chris-tian parents who have doubts about purchasing the latest media item for their kids will give in and buy them anyway because they don't want to disappoint their children. The survey showed that parents went against their own instincts and best judgments to give in to their children's demands.
TCA:Give us an insider's perspective from your career in broadcasting. What specific aspects of the media as an industry contribute to the problem?
Tomeo: I believe there are two main agendas with today's media, and I'm referring to all the mass media, including news outlets: They want our money, and they want our souls and the souls of today's young people.
Sound extreme? Well, people wouldn't see it as extreme if they took some time really to think about the messages the media are sending our way 24/7, the majority of which focus on consumerism, appearance and -- last but certainly not least -- an "anything goes" approach when it comes to morality.
I truly wish that media consumers, especially families, had a better understanding of just how much the money factor impacts the media business. It is just that -- a big business, and the bottom line is the bottom line.
The original founder of MTV once stated that he "owned teenagers," meaning that he could get them to buy or buy into just about anything. Each year there are conferences held by and for marketing and advertising executives to help companies zero in on grabbing a teen's attention and disposable cash.
The same goes for the TV industry in its effort to capture the younger TV viewers and moviegoers. They have it down to an art form, a science. I think if parents took some time actually to think about the media's motives, it could be a motivator for positive change in the home.
Money is also one of the reasons why we see so much violent news and violent content in entertainment. It doesn't exactly take a Pulit-zer Prize winner to cover another murder, accident or fire. This type of news is cheap and easy to produce.
It doesn't take an Oscar-winning screenwriter or director to produce films loaded with blood and gore. These types of media provide the easiest and the cheapest way to make more money.
Pope Benedict XVI pointed this out in his 2008 World Communica-tions Day statement:
"In order to attract listeners and increase the size of the audiences, [the media] does not hesitate at times to have recourse to violence and to overstep the mark."
TCA:You've devoted a chapter in your book to media bias. What's the nature of that bias, and how does it impact us?
Tomeo: This is one of the most frustrating and disappointing areas of media influence for me, as I spent most of my professional years as a secular journalist. Here again the studies by many top secular think tanks and research groups show that the media definitely lean to the left when it comes to key moral issues, most especially sexuality, birth control and abortion.
We just returned from covering the March for Life. It was the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that paved the way for legalized abortion on demand in this country. At least 200,000 people attended the march, and there was little or no media coverage!
This is an election year, and the abortion issue is still a top issue -- yet no coverage? There is just about a media blackout on this event each year and also on the numerous medical studies that continue to be released about complications from abortion and emergency contraception. The media can and do say a great deal by what they choose to cover and not cover.
TCA:Another chapter in your book focuses on advertising. What role does advertising play in media noise?
Tomeo: Well, we can take a look, for example, at the millions and millions of dollars spent on Super Bowl ads. Why would companies dedicate so much money to 30- and 60-second TV spots if advertising doesn't have an impact?
Advertising works, and advertising also impacts the way we think about ourselves and others. One study that came out in November of last year says there's a relationship between materialism and low self-esteem in teens. And where are they getting the messages from? Targeted advertising or marketing campaigns, combined with bad or weak parenting, are to blame.
TCA:How can we become media savvy so that we protect ourselves and our families from the corrosive effects of media noise?
Tomeo: I suggest that families do a "media reality check." They need to do an honest assessment of the number of media outlets in their home and the amount of time all family members spend with them, especially young children.
Families also need to see what the Church has to say about this topic. I would like to see more people read the actual Church documents that are so readily available today and very readable and understandable. The Church does not say to throw out all the media, but it does say that parents must be responsible and take media usage and media activism seriously.
I would start with the 2004 World Communications Day statement of Pope John Paul II, "The Media and the Family: A Risk and a Richness." There is so much wisdom in this document.
Also, parents need to set guidelines and stick with them. The American Academy of Pediatrics says no more than two hours of TV a day for children and no TV for those younger than 2 years old. The TV and the computer should be in a central area of the home so activity can be monitored.
Parents should also make use of TV ratings and good computer filters, updating the protection devices on a regular basis. This has to be not just a onetime activity, but a regular effort incorporated in the life of the family.
TCA:How can Catholic media avoid being part of the "noise" problem and serve instead as part of the solution?
Tomeo: By doing what we do best: upholding, explaining and affirming the teachings of the Church and helping families stay faithful in a world that has become so morally corrupt. TCA