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Media Violence: Hazardous to Our Health

by William F. Fore

William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 25, 1985, pp. 834-836. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Of all the people in industrialized nations, Americans are the most prone to violence. Between 1963 and 1973, when the war in Vietnam took 46,212 lives, firearms in America killed 4,644 civilians. In the past 50 years the per capita rape rate in the United States has increased by 700 per cent. During the past 30 years our per capita homicide rate has almost doubled. In 1980 there were eight reported handgun murders in England and 10,012 in the United States (Jervis Anderson, "An Extraordinary People," New Yorker, November 12, 1984], p. 128). And the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that between 1974 and 1983, the number of aggravated assaults has increased by 6 per cent, forcible rape by 26 per cent, robbery by 2 per cent and child abuse by 48 per cent (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1985, pp. 166, 172, 183).

For years people have wondered whether the amount of violence portrayed on American movie and TV screens has any correlation with the growing violence in our streets and homes. For 20 years, the evidence has been slowly accumulating. Now the verdict is as clear as the evidence that links smoking to cancer: Violence in media is causing violence in the society.

As early as the 1950s Congress held hearings on the effects of television. When senators expressed concern over televisionís role in increasing juvenile delinquency and crime, industry representatives immediately promised to reduce violence (while denying any evidence of harmful effects). Yet during that same period -- in the mid-50s to mid-60s -- television programming shifted noticeably toward action-adventure formats, and TV violence increased markedly.

As programming became more violent, research became more decisive. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, headed by Milton S. Eisenhower, focused on the relationship between violence and television in 1969 and concluded that "violence on television encourages violent forms of behavior and fosters moral and social values about violence in daily life which are unacceptable in a civilized society."

Noting that advertisers were spending $2 billion each year in the belief that television does influence human behavior, the commission declared, "Television entertainment based on violence may be effective merchandising, but it is an appalling way to serve the Ďpublic interest, convenience and necessity."

Three years later, U.S. Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld testified at a Senate hearing that a study, ordered by Congress, had unearthed "sufficient data" to establish a causal relationship between watching television violence and aggressive behavior. ĎĎBroadcasters should be put on notice," he said. "that television violence, indeed, does have an adverse effect on certain members of our society" (Broadcasting, March 27, 1972, p. 25).

The broadcasting industry, however, resisted the conclusions of both studies, and research by George Gerbner, dean of the University of Pennsylvaniaís Annenberg School of Communication, shows that the level of violence on television during the Ď70s did not change significantly.

The broadcasting industry challenged Gerbnerís violence profile. Writing in the Journal of Broadcasting, David M. Blank contended that Gerbnerís study defined violence too broadly by including cartoons and slapstick violence and that it counted some single acts of violence as multiple (Summer 1977, pp. 273-79). The Annenberg School countered in the same issue of the journal that comic content (such as cartoons) is a highly effective form of conveying serious lessons, and that when a new person or agent enters a scene, a "single" violent episode becomes "multiple" (pp. 280-86).

Broadcasters continued to insist in the face of such evidence that the research was still inconclusive. Gene Mater, a CBS spokesperson, told a congressional hearing that "our figures, our studies, and lots of other studies [show] that there is no unanimity." Mr. Mater cautioned against making television a scapegoat when seeking solutions to the problem of violence. He argued that "with this single focus we ignore many of the root causes of societal ills," thus neglecting elements other than media that influence our lives: the home, school, church and peer groups.

In a memorandum, Research on Television Violence: The Fact of Dissent," prepared for the hearings, CBS quoted Eli Rubenstein, who had been vice-chairman of the original surgeon generalís report, as saying that "opinions are more sharply divided than they were [in 1969]. Paradoxically, the hundreds of studies done in the past decade have apparently served to support diametrically opposing conclusions" (p. 50).

But research continued, and in May 1982 the National Institute for Mental Health released the findings of a ten-year follow-up on the surgeon generalís study, "Television and Behavior," conducted by David Pearl. "After ten more years of research," the report said, "the consensus among most of the research community is that violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior by children and teenagers who watch the programs."

The report noted that "not all children become aggressive, of course," but that "the correlations between violence and aggression are positive," indeed as strong as "any other variable behavior that has been measured." Conversely, the study found that "children can learn to be altruistic, friendly and self-controlled by looking at television programs depicting such behavior patterns."

Earlier this year Pearl released another report in which he maintained that the NIMH report demonstrated that television has four effects on violent behavior: direct imitation of observed violence "triggering" of violence that otherwise might be inhibited; desensitization to the occurrence of violence; and viewer fearfulness. "Consider the situation if even only one out of a thousand children or youth were effected (there may well be a higher rate)," Dr Pearl wrote. "Consider also the cumulative effects for viewers who watch such programs throughout the year. Even if only a small number of antisocial incidents were precipitated in any community, these often may be sufficient to be disruptive and to impair the quality of life for citizens of that community" (p. 6).

After completing the most thorough and most conclusive overview of research on television violence to date, George Comstock -- who, only four years earlier, was quoted by the broadcasting industry as saying that the evidence was not yet conclusive -- declared that "a very large majority of studies report a positive association between exposure to media violence and aggressiveness" ("Media Influences on Aggression," in A. Goldstein (editor), Prevention and Control of Aggression [Pergamon, 1983]).

Despite these decisive conclusions, the level of violence does not appear to be diminishing. Dean Gerbnerís Violence Profile, which has traced televisionís performance annually since 1966, indicated that in the 1982-83 season, violence on television had not diminished but was approximately at its 17-year average. However, violence in childrenís weekend programs reached a record high, with a rate of 30.3 violent incidents per hour against a 17-year average of 20. In a paper prepared for the National Council of Churches of Christ, Gerbner said:

For thc past 17 years. at least, our children grew up and we all lived with a steady diet of about 16 entertaining acts of violence (2 of them lethal) in prime time alone every night, and probably dozens if not hundreds more for our children every weekend. We have been immersed in a tide of violent representations that is historically unprecedented and shows no real sign of receding ["Gratuitous Violence and Exploitative Sex: What Are the Lessons?," pp. 2~3].

Dr. Gerbner went on to explain televisionís role in creating a "mean and violent world" in the minds of many viewers, particularly heavy viewers:

Symbolic violence . . . is a show of force and demonstration of power. It is the quickest and most dramatic demonstration of who can get away with what against whom. . .

Violence as a scenario of social relation-ships reflects the structure of power in society and tends to cultivate acceptance of that structure. . . , It is clear that women, young and old people, and some minorities rank as the most vulnerable to victimization on television. . . .

Most heavy viewers in every education, age, income, sex, newspaper reading and neighborhood category express a greater sense of insecurity and apprehension than do light viewers. . . . Fearful people are most dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled. . . . They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television [pp. 5-6].

Violence on television -- as well as on cable, in movies and on videocassettes -- is lowering our quality of life. Whether or not we personally watch the excessive amounts of TV violence, enough people do see the violence, which, in the end, causes more crime, more abuse, more injuries and more deaths in our society.

Of course, television can -- and never should -- be "sanitized" to the point that it contains no violence at all. Such a depiction of life would be dishonest in a different way. The problem is gratuitous and excessive violence -- an identifiable phenomenon that we created and that, if we wish, we can correct.

Some observers have said that we are faced with pollution of our mental environment that is just as dangerous as pollution of our physical environment. But how does a free society combat mental pollution? The First Amendment guarantees each of us the freedom to speak whatever we wish, since one personís truth is another personís heresy. The media industries hide behind this freedom, to the injury of us all. On the other end of the spectrum lurk those True Believers who, knowing the truth, are anxious to impose it on us by censoring all other perspectives. Somewhere between these two poles there must be a middle way which enables society to curb harmful violence without curbing freedom of speech.

Before we can do anything to confront the problem of violence in the media. I suspect that we must first decide what kind of society we really want. At that point the solution will become more apparent. In the meantime, at least we now know the facts about the effects of violence in the media, and our ignorance can no longer be blissful -- or even a valid excuse for inaction.


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