Rocky Mountain Media Watch Texts #6

  Statement: 5/24/99 

TV News and the Culture of Violence

by Paul Klite

In the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado, a broad national debate has developed to intervene in the American "culture of violence." Many fingerprints are on the proverbial trigger -- inadequate parenting; the availability of guns; alienation of youth; mental illness, school security, manipulative violence in film, video games, television, the internet and pop music.

Let us also include the contribution of television news to this toxic stew. More than society's messenger, more than a mirror of reality, the electronic communication media collect and concentrate the planet's woes and deliver them into our living rooms each night. The seventy- five percent of Americans who watch TV news regularly are subjected to a substantial nightly dose of catastrophe. And, in the news, the blood is real.

Journalists by now know that their broadcast images have enormous power and must be handled with sensitivity. Yet, the news industry has no ethical guidelines for airing violent images.

Events portrayed on television news have generated copycat crimes, including mass murder, terrorism, hijackings, workplace violence, product tampering, hate crimes and suicide. Following the Littleton terrorism, hundreds of acts of mimicry have been reported across the U.S. The succession of school killings are themselves examples of copycat events. The widespread publicity that followed similar crimes in other locales provides a relentless supply of examples of how to conduct assault operations on schools. The notoriety perpetrators receive can itself be a motivator for others to imitate violent acts.

Numerous research studies over the last three decades have reported that viewing violent video teaches violent resolution of conflict, encourages aggressive behavior and diminishes empathy for victims. With the average weekly dose of TV in the U.S. at 20 to 30 hours, these effects are reinforced through repetition. The Surgeon General, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychoanalytical Association and the National PTA have all warned about these phenomena.

Analysis of local TV newscasts across the country over the last five years by Rocky Mountain Media Watch document that violent topics consistently comprise 40 to 50 percent of all the air-time devoted to news. Crime rates are down across the U.S., but not on local TV news, Murder, one of the least common crimes committed, is the number one topic on newscasts.

TV sells what it shows, be it hair-raising medicine or hair-raising mayhem. By repetition, gruesome images have been burned into our brains just like images of heavily advertised products. Television's power to influence behavior and belief attracts billions of advertising dollars yearly. Cultural habits and values are also susceptible to television's influence and TV news images can drag us into wars, out of wars and elect our leaders.

Long term, we get "used to it." Numbness and cynicism replace fear, terror and revulsion. The effects are cumulative, producing what George Gerbner calls the "Mean World Syndrome," where viewers perceive the world as a more fearful place than it actually is. Each exposure to media violence becomes a one part-per-billion dose of more alienation. Millions are afraid to go out at night, do not trust their neighbors and feel estranged from society in proportion to their media exposure.

Some insist that media violence is harmless entertainment, escapist fare or cathartic diversion, or that people have a "taste for violence." Others, desensitized by hundreds of thousands of acts of violence they have seen on TV, deny the problem. Industry moguls bristle at any talk of regulating their bread-and-butter fare of mayhem, and reject the evidence of its harmful effects. Their views are self-serving and must be challenged.

A word rarely mentioned in this debate is sadism, broadly defined as the enjoyment of others' pain. Is that not what we are doing when we relish watching violent news, entertainment and sports? That violent media attracts mass audiences suggests we may be nurturing a culture of sadism.

Violence attracts people's attention and produces a strong emotional reaction that advertisers covet. Marketeers call it arousal. Paraphrasing McLuhan, arousal helps move merchandise. Violence, talk of violence and threat of violence are the most effective tools formanipulating people -- propagandists from Machiavelli to Mao have knownthis. Like an addictive drug, we have been subjected to ever increasing doses of more and more graphic violence over the last few decades.

What can be done? One, lower the dose of news violence and, as Max Frankel suggests, explain the cruelty, don't just film it. In real life, violence has consequences. Balanced news includes a balance of topics. Two, educate broadcasters about their power for harm and have the industry develop ethical standards for dealing with potentially hazardous material. Three, require warning labels directly on television broadcasts in the form of prime-time public service announcements that explain and alert viewers to harmful TV effects. The cycle of exploitive violence on the news must be broken.


Paul Klite is Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch