Prime Time Crime: A Look at Television Violence
Cole W. Camplese
Dr. Agnes Reidmann
December 8, 1993
Will the roadrunner get away, or will the coyote have him for dinner? Sounds like a "National Geographic" special on the rigors of the food chain. But for most young children it is a scenario that is played out every Saturday morning on the "Bugs Bunny Show." A cartoon that, in scene after scene, shows people and animals getting blown up, dropped off twenty–story buildings, and numerous other forms of violence. All in all, it is an hour's worth of pure violence. In fact, it was found that "94.3 percent of programs with a cartoon format contained violence in 1967 (Cater and Strickland 32)." How do children react to these images? How do adults react to the same type of violent images they see being splashed across their television sets on a daily basis? There are those who express concern about the possible harmful effects of television. According to Ronald P. Abeles "They raise the specter of its potential for constricting our intellectual and socia l horizons by converting active human beings into passive and highly influenceable 'vidiots'" (1).
But how does this affect the typical American family? Well, according to Linda Gorden, "In the past 25 years, family violence has appeared as a substantial social problem." And in this same time period the media has been giving us increasingly larger doses of violence in all forms. Although it is not possible to generalize about every family, I do believe that television violence plays a damaging role in a vast majority of the households across the country. For example, the young boy who set fire to his home and little sister because Beavis, of Beavis and Butt-head, kept repeating that "Fire is cool." How can this be happening and perhaps more importantly why? Is it really the responsibility of the parents to control what their children see on television or do the networks and censors have to start limiting the number of violent images children see on a daily basis? This paper is goin √g to examine the effect television has on children and attempt to sort out some of these questions. I believe that the portrayal of violence in the media leads to increased violence in both children and adults.
Before anything else, I believe that a working definition of violence should be given. Violence is very hard to define, just as is the word pornography, because of its relative nature. But for the purpose of this paper the following definition will be used: "Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing another person (Morris, 1431)."
Televisions occupy at least 90 percent of American households today and the average viewer watches in the upwards of five hours per day. To many people television is a friend that helps them get through the day (Arons and May 1). This overexposure to television is what tends to pull people into accepting and, more importantly, allowing the violence to take place on the screen and in their homes.
What causes people to watch that much television and act out what they see? One thesis by Mallory Wober and Barrie Gunter called the "Cultivation Theory" tries to answer this question. The cultivation theory explains how people perceive television and its effect on them. It looks at how television has the ability to fool people into accepting what is on the screen as being reality.
The main thrust of their idea is a concept that they call a "reality shift;" that is, people are influenced in their images of the real world by the content of what they see on television (Wober and Gunter 7). For example, a person who watches many hours of programming on the topic of crime may underestimate the complexity of committing crimes and therefore set out to become a professional criminal. Or, a woman who watches "Soap Operas" all day may begin carrying a hand gun, and use it on anyone who looks remotely suspicious, because she now overestimates the possibility of a violent crime towards her.
What occurs is that people learn the content patterns of television shows, draw inferences from them and then generalize this information to their perceptions of the real world. In fact, they reported that:
While 30 percent of all characters and over 64 percent of major characters monitored in prime–time programming over a ten–year span were involved in violence as perpetrators, victims or both. United States census figures during this period indicated that in reality only one–third of one per cent of individuals tend to get involved in violence (Wober and Gunter 11).
The reality is alarming simply because the separation of real events and television events (such as violence) is very large. The gap depicts an on going dilemma that Americans must begin to face.
The group that is seemingly effected the most by media violence is teenagers. According to William A. Belson "The main effect of crime and violence is on the teenagers. They see people get away with these terrible things and they think they can do the same" (160).
In a study done by Edward B. Guy, one hundred young males were observed in relation to television viewing and how it effected social development and violent behavior. All subjects were selected at random and a majority of those studied reported to watching one to six hours of television per day. The shows that most enjoyed watching were war shows, police shows, rock music shows, and boxing. These findings are consistent with a level of interest in violence, crime and the interest in certain types of music (such as hard rock).
In this study a concept known as modeling was the main focus. Modeling takes place when a person sees behavior on television and then repeats it. In some instances modeling is very good, for example when a child watches an educational program and then repeats the lesson as they saw on television. But, most of the time the modeling is negative. If, for example, a child watches a gangster movie in which the hero is wealthy, attractive, and powerful then obviously that child is going to try and model his behavior after the hero's so he to can become wealthy, attractive, and powerful. Sometimes this involves acting out the aggressive behavior in most of today's television shows. Going back to the example of the "Bugs Bunny Show," when a child sees one character shoot another character, that child has a very difficult time separating his reality and that of the cartoon world. So, what does the child do? He gets his fathers gun and in a playful way models his favorite cartoon character and kills his little brother.
In Guy's study he saw that 44 subjects out of 100 either tried to duplicate what they saw or had seriously contemplated trying what they saw. As young children, all of the men reported wanting to have what they saw on television (adventure, travel, excitement, etc.) but as they got older they began to realize the gap be tween television and their own realities. This led some to model the behavior of some on television to get what they had. This type of reaction almost always was associated with negative modeling. That is, the men who wanted what they could not have went about by modeling successful criminals and not successful business men (Guy 96–152).
What we have seen is the power of the media and its effects on us as adults and on young unsuspecting children. Perhaps Gerbner and Gross said it best when they expla ined television as:
The first mass–produced and organically composed symbolic environment into which all children are born and in which they will live from cradle to grave. No other medium or institution since pre industrialized religion has had a comparable influence on what people . . . have learned, thought, or done in common (380).But, what do all of these theories have to do with family life? Well, a look at an article that appeared in Ms. magazine looked at the connection between men, sports, and woman bashing. During the 1988 Super Bowel match-up between the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins calls of domestic violence dropped way below normal, "'but the number of calls soared in the first four or five hours' after Denver's Defeat." Do people get that involved in what is going on with their team that they can act out and begin beating their wives if they begin to loose? As stupid as it sounds, unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes. The article goes on to say th at "About 25% of the men referred by courts to the Domestic Abuse Center ... tell of at least one incident of battering involving sports ... (Ruffini 93)." This is just another example of how the media begins to socialize individuals to violence so they will use sports as an excuse for acting out.
Beyond the Super Bowl, almost anything will create tension between family members and can ultimately lead to violence. Just as Murray Straus and Associates suggest in "The Marriage License as a Hitting License" men don't need much of an excuse other than their house, their rules. The article goes on to say that, "aside from war and riots, physical violence occurs between family members more often than it occurs between any other individuals (204)." This leads to one question: Do we need any of these violent images being splashed across our t.v. screens like some pre-historic snap-count that jump-starts our violent urges? No, I don't think so.
Another effect violence in the media has on people is its tendency to be recreated in the home. The effect this has on children has been well documented and is, for the most part, accepted. If you listen to Richard Gelles, Murray Staus, and Suzanne Steinmetz you begin to understand the impact it has on children. "Across the board, children from violent homes are more likely to have personal troubles -- temper tantrums ... and aggressive and violent flare-ups with family members and people outside the home (330)."
The other side of the television spectrum that can be almost as harmful is the candy-coated side. It is the aspect of television that has led family life to drastically change its the idea of the "perfect" family. There we sit, each and every dysfunctional one of us watching our favorite television families routinely create, attack, and solve problems of monstrous size all in 22 minutes night in and night out. As Elayne Rapping wrote, "To watch American sitcoms ... is to enter an America in which adults spend virtually all of their time ... worrying over and solving their children's problems ... It is a world in which violence, drugs, racism and sexism barely exist (36)." This led children to believe that there really is something seriously wrong with us and our families. That we were somehow not quite as good as the Clevers or the Tanners. This shows that television can also lead to other types of damaging effects. Many young people grow up thinking that maybe it is their fault that things could never be resolved -- especially in 22 minutes.
And then there are the Simpsons and the Bundies, of Married With Children fame, -- the anti-Clevers. In these sitcoms, the life that is depicted on screen is said Ä to be realistic in every way (never mind that the Simpsons is animated). Do we need a half our of blue-printed domestic brutality? I don't think so, and I also believe it sends the wrong type of message. This time, that it is okay to routinely hit, pinch, verbally blast, and downright disrespect every person in your respective households. This would lead you to ask "Are people buying?" Yes, and in a big way. As Richard Zoglin writes, "Still, ratings keep going up, and ... merchandise, from T-shirts to key chains, is flying off the shelves (86)." Is this due to the comedy or is it a way for people to justify what they have become in their own lives -- "Oh Mom, Bart gets to pick his little sister up by her hair and swing her around." I believe it has more to do with the latter.
What about the new and never ending video rental world? What can 12 year old Timmy get his hands on at the local video store? Well, according to an article in US News & World Report, just about anything. They sent a dozen kids age 11 to 14 into video rental stores to test the Motion Picture Association of America's claim to congress during a hearing on media violence that reads: "Video retailers are careful to ensure children do not have access to R, NC-17 or unrated products that contain patently adult depictions of sex or violence." Guess what? Ten out of those twelve rented just what the Motion Picture Association of America said they weren't able to rent. Is this what we really want? In world where the average murder rate during prime time is two per night? I would think that video would be more of an escape from the bombardment of violent images. What can be done when a child can just turn on the t.v. at any hour and catch sex, lies, and now, videotape? (Silver 65-67)
Of all of the questions in world, can anyone really fully give an accurate answer? Of course not, but they can rely on research and case studies done by people who have the aspirations to come as close as they can to the answers. Does media violence lead to increased violence in society? Well, it appears as though it does. Would violence exist without the mass media? Of course it would. There were wars before television, people fought before radio, and even before language was established there were squabbles over some things. So, to say that television is responsible for increased violence all–together is a very poor statement to make. However, the evidence is hard to ignore and it would also be a poor statement to say that television does not have anything to with the increa sed violence in society.
So, what do we do and where do we start? We must first come up with a way to bridge the gap between reality and perceived reality. The only way to do that is through education and an increased awareness between fiction and fact. The second thing would be to obviously tone the violence down on television. But, I do not see that happening simply because television has become an incredibly successful marketing device in which advertisers use to sell products. Thus, no one will sponsor programs that no one will watch and violence sells in prime time. Another direction that could be taken includes just simply forbiding children from watching certain shows in which violence is depicted. But, according to Erica Austin, "The program that alarms the parent and is, therefore, forbidden may become far more interesting to the child (359)." This would serve as a drive for the child to watch and maybe even create some feelings of hostility towards the parent.
There are no easy answers, but the issue of media violence and its effects on children and people in general has been debated since the arrival of television with little proof on either sides. I do believe that this violence has had ill-affects on the family and will continue to do so until it is curbed in some way.
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