View to a Kill: Violence and the Media

New Findings, and Fears, About an Old Concern

NEW YORK, AUG. 3, 2002 ( New fears about levels of violence in the media have surfaced. In France, a 17-year-old was arrested after being named by a dying girl as her attacker, the British Guardian reported June 6. The case was linked to the Wes Craven horror-film trilogy “Scream.”

Reportedly the youth admitted that he was obsessed with the film “Scream,” which features a knife-wielding killer attacking fellow students on a U.S. campus. “He told gendarmes that he viewed the video on the night of the attack and it was after that he decided to kill someone,” the prosecutor’s report stated.

It was France’s third teen-age murder in two years linked to the influence of the “Scream” trilogy, the British Observer noted June 9. And the case brought to nine the number of killings worldwide that were specifically linked to Craven’s movie. The newspaper also reported that last year a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that by the age of 18 the average young person had seen 200,000 acts of violence on television alone.

In Germany, concern over violent films was heightened by the case of a 19-year-old who murdered 16 teachers and students at a school in Erfurt, the London Times reported May 3. Though initial reports did not find a direct link between the youth’s viewing habits and the murders, Germany’s broadcasting chiefs were called for a meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to work out how to reduce the level of TV violence.

The media summit, reported the Times, could lead to greater self-restraint by broadcasters who are worried that the government, in the throes of an election campaign, will try to tighten the rules on viewing.

In England a study showed that television violence has increased sharply during the last four years, the Telegraph reported April 25. The study, by the television regulators and BBC, found that for the first time since monitoring began in 1997, there are now more violent scenes before the 9 p.m. watershed than after. And the violence is increasingly graphic.

There was an average of 5.2 violent scenes per hour of television last year, compared with 4.7 in 1999 and 4.1 in both 1998 and 1997. No monitoring was carried out in 2000. The most marked rise has been in children’s program, where there were 6.4 such scenes per hour last year, against 4.2 in 1999 and 1.3 in 1998.

By contrast, a March report showed that levels of TV violence in the United States have declined. The study, “Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act: Changing Rates of Sex and Violence in Entertainment Media,” was published by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

The report found that from 1999 to 2001, the amount of serious violence in television programs decreased by 17%. The amount of violence in the most popular theater-release movies, however, remained unchanged.

In 2000-2001 prime time, TV series averaged 15 violent scenes per hour, down from the 1998-99 average of 18 scenes per hour. The greatest declines on broadcast networks came at NBC (down 25% from a very low base) and CBS (down 19%).

Do the shows affect behavior?

Lots of studies focus on the effects of violence in the media on viewers, particularly children. One such study shows that teen-agers and young adults who watched more than an hour of television a day were more likely to commit violent crimes and engage in other forms of aggressive behavior later, the New York Times reported March 29.

The study, published in the journal Science, followed children in 707 families in two counties in upstate New York for 17 years. When adjusted for factors like differences in income, the likelihood of violent or aggressive behavior among the viewers was 16% to 116% higher than among their counterparts.

The research differs from other studies in that it found a link between violence and viewing of any TV programming, not just the violent sort. The study, which is continuing, began when the children were 1 to 10 years old.

Details of the study published by Reuters on March 28 showed that 5.7% of the adolescents who watched less than an hour of television committed aggressive acts against other people in later years, compared with 22.5% of those who watched between one and three hours a day.

And 28.8% of those who watched three or more hours of television daily committed aggressive acts. The rate for males was 45%; females, 12.7%. Violent acts by males included assault and fighting, while violent behavior by young women included robbery and threats.

In the New York Times report, Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the new study “is another rock on an already huge pile of evidence documenting the relationship between media violence and real-world violence and aggression.”

But others were more cautious, the newspaper noted. Dr. Steven Goodman, a statistician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said studies that look for associations are beset with formidable obstacles. It can be impossible to know whether there were other factors besides television watching that distinguished the less-violent children from the others, he commented.

Ethical guidelines

In June 2000 the Pontifical Council for Social Communications published a document titled “Ethics in Communications.” In the section concerning the cultural content of the media, No. 16, the council criticized the all-too-frequent recourse to sex and violence. The document called for greater responsibility, observing: “It is no excuse to say the media reflect popular standards; for they also powerfully influence popular standards and so have a serious duty to uplift, not degrade, them.”

Chapter IV of the document offers some ethical principles concerning the media. For openers, the council explained that communication should be used “for the integral development of persons.”

On the question of restricting media content, the council affirms that “the presumption should always be in favor of freedom of expression.” But the document qualifies this right: “Considered from an ethical perspective, this presumption is not an absolute, indefeasible norm.”

Audiences also have responsibilities, the document says: “The first duty of recipients of social communication is to be discerning and selective.” Audiences need to be educated in the use of the media in order to “form standards of good taste and truthful moral judgment.”

Despite the power of the media, the council noted that “the means of communication are, and will remain, only media — that is to say: instruments, tools, available for both good and evil uses. The choice is ours.”

“The media do not call for a new ethic; they call for the application of established principles to new circumstances,” the council observed. If enough people apply ethical principles when choosing what programs they watch, the media will soon get the message about what they should be producing.

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