Chapter Eight: Media Violence is Hazardous to Your Health
What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.
Plato, 4th c. B.C.
What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.
Plato, 4th c. B.C.
Violence and Television
The problem of violence on television and its effects in the society is a revealing example of the complex relationship between media and culture. Violence in the society is one of our nation`s most serious problems. We will look at the violence issue as a kind of case study, examining it in some detail. If we can find acceptable ways to deal with media violence, then solutions to other, less complex, problems in the media will become evident.
First, we will look at violence in general and ask how television has been related to the growth of violence over the past three decades. Second, we will examine the research, inquiring about the effect TV violence has on real life-violence. Then, in the next chapter, we will look at the television industry more closely and ask, Who are the players and what are the factors in determining how much violence there is on TV? Finally, we will consider some "middle axioms" as the basis for action and ask, What specific action can citizens take to deal with the situation?
It is a fact that Americans are more prone to violence than are any other people of the industrialized nations of the world. Between l963 and l973, while the war in Vietnam was taking 46,212 lives, firearms in America killed 84,644 civilians. If the United States had the same homicide rate as Japan, our l966 death toll from guns would have been 32 instead of 6,855. In the last 50 years the rape rate in the United States has increased 700%, on a per capita basis. In l980 there were eight handgun murders in England and l0,012 in the United States.1. During the last 30 years our homicide rate per capita has increased almost 100%. Between l974 and l983, the number per capita of aggravated assaults increased 6%, forcible rape 26%, robbery 2%, and child abuse 48%.2.
For years people have asked whether the amount of violence portrayed on American movie and TV screens has anything to do with the growing violence on our streets and in our homes. As early as the l950s Congress held hearings on the possible negative effects of television. When Senators Dodd and Kefauver expressed concern over the role of TV shows in the increasing rates of juvenile delinquency and crime, industry representatives immediately promised to reduce violence while simultaneously denying any evidence of harmful effects. Yet from the mid-50s to mid-60s, television violence increased steadily.
In the summer of l967 Americans discovered themselves to be in the grip of unprecedented violence. Troops and bombs were being shipped at an accelerating rate to a bloody undeclared war in Vietnam. Racial disorders were rocking the cities. During a two-week period in July whole sections of Detroit and Newark were bombed, burned, and vandalized. Martial law was enforced and curfews were established. National Guardsmen and heavily armed police patrolled the streets. Citizens looted liquor and appliance stores, bringing their booty home in liberated shopping carts. In some 75 disorders that summer, 83 were reported. The overwhelming majority of persons killed or injured were blacks.
On July 26, l967, President Johnson established a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. He gave it substantial staff and budget, and charged it with finding out what had happened, why, and what could be done to prevent similar violence in the future.
In March l968, the Commission issued a 608-page report to the president. 3. The Commission laid much of the blame for the crisis on the mass media. It found that although the media tried to give a balanced and factual account of the events of the summer of l967, they tended overall to exaggerate "both good and bad events." Television, in particular, was found to have presented violence in simplistic terms -- depicting "a visual three-way alignment of Negroes, white bystanders, and public officials or enforcement agents," which tended to create the impression that the riots were predominantly racial confrontations between blacks and whites, while other factors such as economic and political frustration were pushed into the background. The Commission found that television, more than any other medium, failed to present and analyze in sufficient extent and depth the basic reasons for the disorders.
But the Commission did not find a causal relationship between television coverage and the disorders. With the exception of the live helicopter coverage of the Watts riots in California, no evidence was found that the media actually caused riots.
The national unrest persisted. In early l968 Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, then Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. On June 10, l968, President Johnson established a new National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, headed by Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of the former president and president-emeritus of Johns Hopkins University. It was charged "to undertake a penetrating search . . . into our national life, our past as well as our present, our traditions as well as our institutions, our culture, our customs and our laws."
A major focus of the Eisenhower Commission was the relationship between violence and the mass media. Its report revealed that in network drama:
-- 8 out of every 10 plays contain violence;
-- violence occurs at the rate of 7 times an hour;
-- there are 600 separate acts of TV violence per week;
-- half of the leading characters act violently; and
-- one out of every 10 leading characters kills somebody.
The report said that the amount of on-the-air violence in l968 had actually increased slightly over l967, despite growing concern in the Congress and the nation. It Commissioned studies which described the characteristics of TV violence:
-- Physical pain is not a visible result of most violent acts.
-- Witnesses to violence are usually passive spectators.
-- Young adults are most likely to kill; middle-aged persons are most likely to get killed.
-- Foreigners and nonwhites are more likely to commit violence than are white Americans.
-- In committing violent acts, the question of legality or illegality seldom arises.
"On the whole," the study said, "it is safe to conclude that violence is rarely shown as unacceptable."
On September 23, 1969 the final media report was issued. It noted that advertisers were spending $2.5 billion each year in the belief that television does influence human behavior. With regard to children, the report pointed out that while they turn to TV for mere entertainment, actually a process of "observational learning" takes place. It found that the younger the child the more he or she identified with the program and learned more from it. Also, the less well-integrated adolescents are, the more they bring what they see on TV into their real-life world.
The report completely rejected the "cathartic" argument, that is, the idea that TV violence merely drains off the aggressive tendencies of persons. Instead, it found the reverse to be true: "the vast majority of experimental studies on this question have found that observed violence stimulates aggressive behavior, rather than the opposite."
In its summary, the Commission stated: "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."
The Commission then specifically proposed to broadcasters that
1. there be an over-all reduction in programs that require or contain violence;
2. all violence from children`s cartoons -- except for the fanciful "Popeye" kinds of violence -- be eliminated;
3. crime, Western and adventure stories containing serious violence be scheduled only after 9 p.m. (as was done in England and elsewhere in Europe);
4. provision be made for adequate funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting so it can develop educational, cultural, and dramatic programming not provided by commercial broadcasting.
It made two recommendations to parents: that they
1. supervise their children`s viewing; and
2. express public approval and disapproval of programs to their local stations and national networks.
The report concluded: "Television entertainment based on violence may be effective merchandising, but it is an appalling way to serve the `public interest, convenience and necessity.`"4.
One would have thought that, given the Commission`s thoroughness and unambiguous findings, major changes would have taken place at the networks and stations. But this was not to be.
The Eisenhower Commission had no power to enforce its recommenda and the broadcasting industry resisted the conclusions of the Commission and attacked its findings as based on insufficient evidence. At the same time, network presidents solemnly proclaimed that violence was being reduced and that children`s programming was being improved.
In l964, the U.S. Surgeon General, acting as chief U.S. Public Health Officer, had issued a finding that cigarette smoking was a dangerous health hazard. In response to this official finding, John Banzaf, a young Washington lawyer, instituted a private-citizen suit in l967, which, in 1971, forced cigarette advertising off the air, at a cost to the broadcasters of $150 million in advertising revenues.
Senator John O. Pastore, chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, decided to try a similar tactic with TV violence. In l969 he requested the Surgeon General, Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, to appoint a committee to conduct a study "which will establish scientifically insofar as possible what harmful effects, if any, these [televised crime and violence] programs have on children." Congress provided a $1 million budget.
The explosive implications of such a study did not escape the broadcasting industry. When the study began, the Surgeon General`s office was pressured into giving the three commercial networks veto power of approval over all 12 members of the committee, a prerogative which CBS declined, but which both NBC and ABC used to veto seven prospective members. Later there was considerable disagreement within the Commission as to the exact wording of certain key passages in the report, and a number of professors who had conducted the basic studies publicly complained that the committee`s final report understated the cause-and-effect relationships they had found between media violence and aggressive behavior.
Nevertheless, Dr. Steinfeld testified in l972 at a Senate hearing that the study had unearthed "sufficient data" to establish a causal relationship between watching television violence and aggressive behavior. Said Dr. Steinfeld: "My professional response . . . is that the broadcasters should be put on notice. The overwhelming consensus and the unanimous Scientific Advisory committee`s report indicate that television violence, indeed, does have an adverse effect on certain members of our society." 6.
Dean Burch, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, indicated at the Senate hearing that the broadcasting industry`s response should be "immediate and decisive," and that their response should include sharp reductions in "all gratuitous and needless violence" in the programs children watch, and "the creation of substantial amounts of new diversified programming, not just the usual diet of cartoons, to open the eyes and expand the minds of young viewers." However, according to the "Violence Profile" conducted annually by Dr. George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania`s Annenberg School of Communication, there was no significant change in the level of violence in television throughout the l970s.
Instead, the industry responded by challenging Gerbner`s Violence Profile. Writing in the Journal of Broadcasting in l977, David M. Blank, head of research at CBS, contended that Gerbner`s study defined violence too broadly by including cartoons and slapstick violence and that it counted some single acts of violence as multiple. Sampling only one week a year is inadequate, said Blank, who also claimed that Gerbner`s "risk ratio" measures relative rather than absolute victimization.7. Annenberg countered that comic content (such as cartoons) is indeed a highly effective form of conveying serious lessons; that when a new person or agent enters a scene a "single" violent episode becomes "multiple"; that a six-week analysis made by the researchers revealed the same general results as the one-week sample; and that the risk ratio validly takes into account the fear that potential victims (such as young women) have when viewing violent television.8.
But broadcasters continued to insist that the research on the behavioral effects of TV violence was inconclusive. Gene Mater, a CBS spokesperson, told a Congressional hearing in l981: "I think our figures, our studies, and lots of other studies [show] that there is no unanimity. . . . In other words, [today] there are more defined issues, and more people who definitely believe, more social scientists who believe, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between televised violence and social behavior."9.
Mater cautioned against making television the only object of concern when seeking solutions to the problem of violence, arguing that "with this single focus we ignore many of the root causes of societal ills," and neglect elements other than media which influence our lives -- the home, school, church and peer groups.
CBS prepared a memorandum entitled "Research on Television Violence: The Fact of Dissent," for the 1981 congressional hearings. It quoted Dr. Eli Rubenstein, the former vice-chairman of the original Surgeon General`s report, regarding the lack of unanimity among the researchers: ". . . the views today . . . are more sharply divided than they were then. Paradoxically, the hundreds of studies done in the past decade have apparently served to support diametrically opposing conclusions."10.
But research continued, and in May of 1982, the National Institute for Mental Health released the findings of a 10-year follow up on the Surgeon General`s 1972 Study entitled Television and Behavior: "After ten more years of research, 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."11.
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 "children can learn to be altruistic, friendly and self-controlled by looking at television programs depicting such behavior patterns."11.
A group of social scientists who analyzed the NIMH study for the Public Opinion Quarterly stated: "We are convinced, in general, that the NIMH report presents a reasonable summary of current knowledge about television, its effects and its potential. . . . The report convincingly takes us beyond the `no effects` era of Klapper (1960). . . Evidence of negative effects is apparent. What is missing in the NIMH reports, as in nearly all television research, are mechanisms for going from the evidence produced by television researchers to changes in television practice"12.
Thus by l982 the overwhelming weight of research had demonstrated various degrees of relationship between violence in the media and violent behavior in the society. But while governmental and university groups were tightening the noose of research findings, the industry was still insisting that the case was not yet proved. The public, meanwhile, felt something was terribly wrong, but they lacked the organizational structure to do anything about the degree of violence, which continued to mount even while the controversy raged. Also, some vigilante groups, tired of promises and no action by the broadcasting industry, began to take matters into their own hands by initiating boycotts and urging the passage of censorship laws in communities and states.
The National Council of Churches decided the time had come to do something about both the increase of violence and the increasing threats of censorship. But to take action, it first needed the facts. In l983 it established a special study committee "to examine the problems of exploitative sex and gratuitous violence in the media." The purpose was to discover the extent and nature of violent and sexually violent material in the media, and what effects it is having on people in our society. One aim was to help church people and the public to identify the issues. A second was to identify solutions that would not place constraints on the rights of citizens to express themselves freely in a democracy.
The 10-member committee began with the assumption that the amount and the vicious character of violence coming into the home was steadily increasing. Whereas for many years, people who wished to see violent movies had to pay an entrance fee and enter a theatre, television sets now were making such material easily accessible in the home to children below the age of discretion. And with cable TV in almost half of American homes, and video-cassettes expected to be in more than that number by l987, violent programming was far more available than ever before.
The committee recognized that sexuality and violent action is found in all of life, and that the mass media would be dishonest if it were to attempt to "sanitize" this dimension of the human condition. For these reasons, the Commission focused on "exploitative sex" and "gratuitous violence."
Also, the group noted that the relationships between viewing violence and violent behavior do not operate in a social vacuum, and that many factors contribute to personal attitude and action, including a lack of parental supervision, inadequacies in our educational system, lack of adequate jobs for teenagers, lack of adequate social services, and the negative influences of peers. They assumed that the media are only one of many forces that shape our cultural environment, and that violence in the media is both a cause and an effect which reflects much that is wrong in society while at the same time amplifying some of its problems. As they stated in their final report: "The messages media carry help create our world, at the same moment that they reflect it. The choices made by writers, directors, producers, distributors and sponsors all contribute to what our world shall become."13.
The study committee met eight times from mid-1983 to mid-1985. It held three public hearings, one focused on the research findings (in New York City), a second on the views of the communications industry (in Los Angeles), and a third on policy proposals and alternatives (in Washington, D.C.). It heard testimony from 31 persons, including researchers, producers, directors, writers, actors, corporate executives, legislators, and leaders of national educational and public interest organizations.
To get at the most recent facts about violence and the media, the committee consulted seven eminent researchers in the field. Dr. Edward Donnerstein of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin told the hearing that his study of films which combine erotic material with violence indicates that exposure of young men to violent sexual scenes, especially rape, tends to desensitize them to aggression toward women. He emphasized that the negative influence is the element of aggression, not the sexual component. He and his coresearcher, Dr. Neil Malamuth, Chair of the Department of Communications at UCLA, believe that the increase in "slasher" films and R-rated violence movies in general ("I Was a Teenage Werewolf," "I Spit on Your Grave," " Maniac," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and "The Toolbox Murders") are creating a serious problem in homes where such films are now readily available via cable television and home video.
Dr. David Pearl, Chief of Behavioral Science, Department of Health and Human Services at the National Institute for Mental Health, had just conducted a 10-year followup study on behalf of the Surgeon General`s office. Dr. Pearl said his study demonstrated that television has four effects on violent behavior:
l. direct imitation of observed violence;
2. "triggering" of violence which otherwise might be inhibited;
3. desensitization to the occurrence of violence; and
4. viewer fearfulness.
Regarding the overall social effect, Dr. Pearl warned:
Consider the situation if even only one out of a thousand viewing children or youth were affected (there may well be a higher rate). A given prime time national program whose audience includes millions of children and adolescents would generate a group of thousands of youngsters who were influenced in some way. 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.14.
Dr. George Gerbner, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, released his 17th Violence Profile at the study committee`s hearing on September 21, l984. It indicated that the overall Violence Index in l982-1983 once again had not diminished but was approximately at its 17-year average. However, violence in children`s weekend programs reached a record high, with a rate of 30.3 violent incidents per hour against a 17-year average of 20. Dr. Gerbner summarized his findings:
For the 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.15.
Dr. Gerbner explained to the committee the role of television in creating a "mean and violent world" in the minds of many viewers -- particularly heavy viewers:
Humans threaten to hurt or kill, and actually do so, mostly to scare, terrorize, and impose their will upon others. Symbolic violence carries the same message. It 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 relationships 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.16.
Gerbner also charged that violence and sexual violence tend to vindicate existing inequities in the social order, especially to force "integration of the many into the prevailing hierarchy of powers." He called for mobilization of parents, educators, and religious and political leaders, not just to combat violence in the media, "but the larger structure of inequity and injustice behind it."17.
He told the committee that he sees the structure of the industry and tax exempt advertising -- not censorship -- as the barrier to a free market in television programming. "A handful of production companies create the bulk of the programs and sell them to broadcasters, not to viewers. The cheapest and least offensive programming is the most profitable," he says. Costs of such programming, like taxation, are borne by all, whether or not they use the products advertised, he points out, adding that the television "tax levy" on an average family in l980 ranged from $80 in Atlanta to $29 in Wilkes-Barre - Scranton, Pa. "You pay when you wash, not when you watch," he told the committee.18.
Dr. George Comstock, Professor of Communication at the Newhouse School of Communication, Syracuse University, had spent several years reviewing and analyzing all of the research having to do with violence and television from l962 to 1984. His statement to the NCC committee differed significantly from his statement four years previously and quoted by CBS. Now, he testified: "A very large majority of studies report a positive association between exposure to media violence and aggressiveness."19.
Dr. Comstock said that those surveys which reported statistically significant correlations typically associate "slightly less than 10% of the measured variance in aggression with exposure to television violence." He added that "given the presumably strong role of situational, long-term, environmental, social and personal factors that figure in behaving aggressively, it would be implausible to expect more than this clearly modest relationship."20.
All but one of the other researchers substantiated the findings of Dr. Comstock. Dr. J. Ronald Milavsky, Director of Research for the National Broadcasting Company, concluded that the effects of viewing televised violence are too clouded by other factors to provide an unambiguous relationship to violent behavior:
It has been my experience in studying mass communications effects that the more carefully done and the more realistic the study, the less likely one is to find effects. NBC has conducted several careful investigations of anti-social behavior which had such an outcome.21.
With regard to his own research at NBC, Dr. Milavsky reported that "the study did not find evidence that television was causally implicated in the development of aggressive behavior patterns. In other words, watching programs with violence did not lead to increases in aggressive behavior either in the sample as a whole or in subgroups predisposed toward acting aggressively."22.
Music video is a recent development which has become very popular with many children and teenagers. The committee heard testimony from Dr. Patricia Greenfield of UCLA that heavy viewing of music video may significantly increase violence in our society because it closely links erotic relationships with violence performed not by villains but by teenage idols. She pointed out that these programs, which combine the attraction of music, dancing, and exotic and creative backgrounds, become a powerful "selling" of violence. The repetition of music videos, most of which are only 5 to 10 minutes in length, makes it possible for a teenager to see them dozens of times each week on cable. They also can be purchased as videocassettes. Repetitive viewing has an especially strong educative power, according to Dr. Greenfield.
The study committee concluded that violence in the media does lead to aggressive behavior by children, teenagers, and adults who watch the programs. The conclusion was based on the finding of both laboratory experiments and field studies. The committee stressed that not all viewers become aggressive, of course, but the correlation between violence and aggressive behavior by some is undeniable. In the words of the committee: "Media violence is as strongly related to aggressive behavior as any other behavioral variable that has been measured. Further, certain types of media violence are increasing. Thus the research question has shifted from asking whether there is an effect from viewing violence to seeking explanations for the effects now demonstrated, and to identifying remedial actions."23.
To help the public understand the basic findings of the research, the study committee listed the following seven points:
1. Laboratory studies have shown conclusively that there is a causal relationship between viewing violence on television and subsequent aggressive behavior.
2. Although it is technically impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relationship in most field studies, the vast majority of such studies demonstrates a positive association between exposure to media violence and aggressiveness. ( The committee believes that in the light of the evidence that does exist, for the media industry to demand absolute proof of such a relationship before action is taken is self-serving and unprincipled.)
3. The positive association between viewing TV violence and aggressiveness is on the order of a 10% variance in behavior. Looked at across the entire population and over a period of time, this modest statistical relationship implies a substantial negative social effect.
4. The conclusion that media violence encourages antisocial and aggressive behavior is consistent with accepted theories about the nature of social learning.
5. Violent sexual material stimulates aggression toward women and children. Also, violence stimulates sexual violence.
6. Because music video combines erotic material, teen idols, and violence in a repetitive context, this new format requires careful research and monitoring. Existing research on media violence in general implies a serious negative effect of violent and sexually violent music video on children and young people.
7. Most children and adults who are heavy viewers of television express a greater sense of insecurity and apprehension about their world -- the "mean world" syndrome -- than do light viewers, and the generation of insecurity, vulnerability, and dependence creates the overall condition in which violence is facilitated in society.
It is clear from the research that violence on television, as well as in the other media, is lowering our quality of life. Whether or not we personally watch the excessive amounts of TV violence, enough people do see the violence so that there is more crime, more abuse, more injuries, and more deaths in our society than if we did not have the TV violence. People are suffering in the real world because we allow violence to persist in the world of television.
Of course, television can never be "sanitized" to the point that it contains no violence at all, nor should it. Such a depiction of life would be dishonest in a different way. The problem is gratuitous and excessive violence, which is sufficiently identifiable that society could correct the problem, if it had the will.
To repeat, television certainly is not the cause of violence in American society. Many other factors are involved, including individuals, the home, schools and churches, the work and recreation environments, and the society as a whole. But television has been identified, clearly and unambiguously, as a cause of violence, and television is something over which society has much more control than many of the other causes of violence. Television uses a public license which the Congress has said must be used for the public welfare. It comes into the home as a guest, rather than as a right of the broadcaster. It depends on public support, not only in our choosing to view but also in our choosing to buy the products which fund it. It is accorded special privilege in our society, and it must accept the special responsibilities which go with that privilege.
Some observers say we are faced with a mental pollution that is as dangerous as our physical pollution. But how does a free society combat mental pollution? There are those in the media industries who hide behind the First Amendment, insisting that government must never, under any circumstances, affect the information processes in our society. At the other end of the spectrum there are those true believers who are anxious to impose on the rest of us whatever version of morality is theirs. Somewhere in between there must be a middle ground which enables society to curb harmful violence without curbing freedom of speech.
The next question we face, therefore, is, Who is in charge of the media? Who has the power to change the situation? And how does a free society make its will known about the fact that media violence is dangerous to our health?
1. Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper, l956), p. 26.
2. Tillich, Paul. The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago, l948).
3. Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation (South Hadley, MA:: Bergin and Gervey, l985).
4. Tillich, The Protestant Era, p. 204.
5. Ibid., p. 219.
6. Reed, Russ. "The Church and the Media: A Strategy for Outreach," in Church Growth: America, March-April, l978.
7. Fred Friendly, in a speech delivered to the International Radio and Television Society, New York, NY, 1967.