Violence: Media’s Desperate Remedy
by James A. Taylor
Mr. Taylor is managing editor of the United Church Observer, published in Toronto. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 5, 1977, p.877. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Rapes, muggings and murders assault us from newspaper headlines. Earthquakes, landslides, floods and fires reel off TV film clips. On the sports pages, photos freeze the impact of crunching tackles and knockout punches. Cartoon and comic-strip characters trade bangs and pows and oofs; “family” TV programs get laughs from verbal combat instead of physical assault.
Violence has become endemic, an indispensable element in media fare. In Canada, the provincial government of Ontario appointed a royal commission to study (among other things) “the increasing exhibition of violence in the communications industry; to determine if there is any . . . relationship between this phenomenon and the incidence of violent crime in society . . .” Two of the commission’s research studies found that 24 per cent of the news items on television and in newspapers dealt directly with violence and 40 per cent were violence-related, while radio news was concerned with violence and conflict almost 60 per cent of the time!
“If that is the case,” responded Borden Spears, a senior editor at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, “the news media are seriously distorting reality; the proportion of violence in human experience, which the press claims to reflect, is not that high.”
Most of us will spend most of our lives without ever seeing or being involved in the kind of violence portrayed daily in the mass media. No one I know has ever been victimized by the Mafia, raped or murdered -- yet my family’s favorite television programs imply that these are everyday occurrences.
The media, says the royal commission’s report, purport to be “a mirror to life through which citizens may see themselves, and a window through which the public may see the world. What they choose for their mirror-window is characteristically more violent than the true real-life mix . . As a consequence, “heavy television viewers often have an unrealistically fearful and suspicious outlook on the world” and “tend to overestimate the incidence of violent crime, the danger of public places, the incidence of people being attacked by strangers, and the indifference of their fellow citizens.”
Translated into the context of Christ’s teachings, these comments imply that mass media are brain-washing all of us into being priests and Levites on the Jericho road, not Good Samaritans. Instead of love and compassion, they teach us distrust and fear.
Why should this be? The writers and broadcasters I know may not be pro-Christian, but neither are they monsters bent on destroying whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report. The royal commission, noting that no one seriously defended violence or denied its presence, offered 87 recommendations for control and regulation of the media, but without including any explanation of the phenomenon of increasing violence -- other than passing references to economic pressures and competitive necessities.
Frankly, I believe that the resort to violence-saturated material is an admission by the media of their own failures. They exploit violence, as a means of attracting their audiences, to make up for a lack of time, skill, money or insight.
I know -- because I have done this myself.
Engaging the Audience
Let’s start at the beginning with the most basic principle of print journalism: If no one reads, it, there’s no point in printing it.
Since readers (or listeners or viewers) have only so much time available, all of us in the media compete for their time and attention. We use color, action, typography, design, words, sounds -- to surprise, cajole, titillate, bribe or bludgeon our audience into getting involved with us.
We also attract with emotional appeals. You’ll see the most blatant appeals in television commercials, where the entire process of grabbing attention, presenting a message, substantiating it, and pursuing a response maybe compressed into ten seconds or less. Greed or generosity, love or hate, bigotry or tolerance, fear of change or a sense of adventure -- all these and more make powerful appeals to capture an audience.
But the most foolproof and most frequently used technique is conflict. It always has been. It always will be. Other approaches may leave the reader skeptical or unengaged. But conflict presents the reader, the audience, with a choice between two sides. Without realizing what he’s doing, the reader gets himself involved as he lines up his sympathies.
Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean violence. Logically speaking, all violence is conflict, but not all conflict is violence. There are nonviolent conflicts -- like contrast between old and new, youth and maturity, evangelical and liberal. Look in your newspapers -- almost every story exploits contrasts or conflicts to persuade you to read. Even my own magazine, the United Church of Canada Observer, has made use of readers’ antiestablishment hostilities to force them to notice some otherwise dull report on Sunday schools, salaries or organizational restructuring.
These lesser conflicts differ from what we usually call “violence” only in degree. Almost all storytelling depends on conflict of some kind. Novels, TV programs, movies, magazine articles and news items usually focus on a person, a group or an institution (the protagonist, in literary terms) facing a challenge or a crisis from an opposing force (the antagonist), with the struggle resulting in some kind of change.
Obviously, the more direct and physical that struggle is, the more quickly readers and viewers can identify with one side or another. Every newspaper editor knows that a hostage drama or a plane crash attracts more readers than a good-citizen award or a church mortgage-burning. On television, where networks constantly battle for ratings, murder becomes the basis of cop shows, and insults the basis of comedy; both offer instant conflict.
Choosing Up Sides
However, just to complicate things more, I will define four levels of conflict.
The simplest level of conflict pits human beings against nature. It’s the classic adventure story, like Robinson Crusoe or the climbing of Mount Everest. In news, it might be famine in Bangladesh, earthquake in Turkey, or hurricane damage in Mexico. Whatever it is, it pits human strengths against natural forces.
And anyone -- except possibly an illiterate idiot or a professional sociologist -- can write that story successfully. Anyone with a pocket Instamatic can snap heartrending pictures of starving children. This level of conflict always works because it gives the reader no choice -- he or she can’t help identifying with the humans rather than with the rampaging river, the volcano or the burning building.
The second level of conflict sets human beings against each other. It includes everything from nuclear war to arguments in church committees -- any occasion when one person or group opposes another person or group. Politics, sports, race riots, crime and labor disputes all belong to this level of conflict.
It’s not as simple as the first level. Now the reader can choose between two human sides. In “objective” journalism, the writer apparently leaves choices entirely to the reader. In “advocacy” journalism, the writer openly takes one side. Either way, the writer selects the descriptions, the incidents, the quotations that give the reader a basis for choosing.
But each reader has his own biases. He’s unpredictable. He may, perversely, choose to identify with what the writer considers the enemy. That’s a constant risk.
If the second level is external conflict, the third level is internal -- the human being against himself. (I prefer the Scylia of sexist language to the Charybdis of unreadable constructions such as “him-or-herself.”) At this level, conflict may be caused by external events, but the story focuses on the individual’s internal struggle with personality or with social and cultural heritage. A sales executive struggles against alcoholism, a cancer victim against despair, a redneck against racism.
The mass media tend to call these “human interest stories.” Audiences like them. But constructing them demands skill, perceptivity and time. That’s why you’ll find these stories more often in magazines than in newspapers; in books and movies more than on radio or television. The “immediate” media lack the time needed to hone and polish characterizations.
This form of conflict has given us some of our finest literature. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Chekhov’s short stories draw their power and pathos from internal struggles. That consummate novelist, Jane Austen, leads readers into a heroine’s emotional turmoil until they come to know her better than she knows herself. Neville Shute peopled his novels with characters so realistically shaded that he hardly ever had to create a villain.
The Clash of Personalities
That can’t be said of journalists in general. Most of them find it hard to recognize -- let alone write -- a story that has neither heroes nor villains. They need clearly defined issues. When issues become complex and interrelated (and these days, what isn’t?), journalists either evade the stories or grab small aspects of them. Me too -- mea culpa -- more than once.
Consider how government works. Politicians often agonize over issues in which both sides have merit. But for reporters, such ambiguity is hard to understand, and harder to present to an apathetic audience. So they frequently write about the processes of governing as personality clashes between politicians.
But perhaps the clearest example took place in May 1976 at Vancouver, British Columbia. The United Nations Habitat Conference brought 9,000 representatives from around the world together in cordiality and cooperation. The 1500 or so reporters had trouble writing about it. Even the conferees most basic disagreements seemed to get smothered by genuine good intentions. From reading Canadian newspapers, you’d hardly have known Habitat existed -- until a group of pro-Palestinian voting delegates forced a vote on their concerns. Suddenly, Canadian reporters saw “our” cabinet minister -- Barney Danson, a Jew, who was confronted by “their” Arab terrorist organizations -- pleading with his opponents, reduced almost to tears. At last, a clearly defined conflict! The story hit front pages all over the country.
And yet, according to those who actually participated in Habitat, the Danson-versus-Palestinians skirmish was almost irrelevant. The real news was the sharing of ideas, the opening of eyes, the new commitment to an improved world.
If journalists have trouble with a third level of conflict, no wonder a fourth level rarely appears at all. I call it the human being against God. Some may prefer a name other than God; others may deny the category altogether. At this level, the protagonist finds himself forced to act against his better judgment, ambitions, social values, and/or common sense; paradoxically, the protagonist wins only when he loses.
The Bible abounds in stories of this kind, with those of Moses, Jonah and Paul possibly the best known. Occasionally, writers deal with modern examples -- people such as Albert Schweitzer, Jean Vanier, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, or Martin Luther King, Jr. -- who found themselves compelled and impelled by what someone has called “a hand pushing in the middle of your back.”
Why is there so little in the mass media dealing with this level of conflict? Apologists will say that there are too few examples to write about. I disagree. I think that wrestling with God and losing is a far more universal experience than, say, rape or murder. But very few reporters are capable of recognizing that experience, let alone writing about it.
When White House press secretary Jody Powell was asked how well the media handled the religious dimension of Jimmy Carter, he replied: “The American people, as a whole, are probably better equipped to understand that aspect of Jimmy Carter’s life than are the people who are trying to explain it to them. There have been stories that have been superficial and slipshod and biased to the extreme, not necessarily against him, but based on what I take to be a general distaste for religious faith.”
Peter Trueman, a United Church layman, and until recently anchorman for the Canadian Global TV network’s two nightly news programs, offers an explanation as to why so many reporters become cynical about institutionalized religion. “I thing it’s more an impatience with all organizations,” he says. “When you start out, you’re always assigned to meetings where there’s a lot of talk, but nothing seems to happen. So you develop a sense of futility about all voluntary groups.”
Grabbing an Audience
In an article for the Church Herald, the magazine of the Reformed Church in America, Wes Pippert of United Press International has written: “For the Christian, it may be too much to expect reporters with little knowledge of biblical morality to report incisively or insightfully [about religious concerns]. . . . We need reporters with a Christian perspective, not to proselytize subtly through their writing, but simply to do a better job of getting at the whole truth.”
Violence, like the poor, we shall always have with us. Violence has been part of our communications since the Norse sagas of Beowulf, the British ballads of “Lord Randall” and “Sir Patrick Spens.” Violence lives on in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, in Shakespeare’s plays and Verdi’s operas and, of course, in the Bible.
Yet it seems to me that our literary history has shown progress in the way we deal with violence and conflict. The blood-and-guts tales told by the ancestors of today’s journalists gradually evolved into more civilized literary forms, to provide more complex characterizations, to describe more universal human experiences, to explore more sophisticated levels of conflict.
Today, our mass media face incredible competitive pressures to grab the most dollars and the largest audiences. The demands of topicality and of instant journalism make reflective insights almost impossible. Collective cynicism among media people sees nobler impulses only as an aberration -- if it perceives them at all.
Almost inevitably, then, today’s mass media seek temporary gains in the more basic, more violent levels of conflict. Like medieval flag-bearers rallying followers to their banners, our various media flaunt their episodes of violence to attract us into their ranks.
And they don’t seem to realize that they’re leading us back toward the Dark Ages.