Media  
comments_image Comments

We Are a Country Drenched in Bloodshed: Some Hard Truths About Violence in the Media

There are many causes of violence in our culture, but the least understood is the heavy influence of media.
 
 
Share
 
 
 

The horrific massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, has unleashed an unprecedented debate about how to address the problem of mass violence in our country. There is an increasing sense that American society is incapable of protecting its citizens, including young children, the most vulnerable among us.

Yes, it's important to focus attention on the increase in the size and savagery of the murders: Six of the 12 most deadly shootings in our history have occurred within the past five years. The vast majority of the world's worst mass shootings have taken place in the United States. And there have been 65 mass shootings since Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in 2009. Still, despite their horror, mass murders like Newtown are thankfully rare. So we must pay attention to the daily violence, too. Nearly 13,000 homicides were committed in the U.S. in 2010, 8,775 with firearms. So in addition to the most heartbreaking, large-scale killings, the problem is pervasive and the bloodshed overwhelming.

What About Violence in the Media? 

It's revealing, that amidst the millions of written words, TV discussions and proposed solutions, regulating the violence that pervades mass media -- movies, TV, the toy industry, gaming, and the Internet -- is not often seen as a productive avenue for reform of our violent culture. This seems especially true of liberals and progressives. We invest a great deal of energy pushing strongly for gun control, which is more concrete and tangible, with clearly defined targets and enemies. But we stop short of going after purveyors of violence in the media. Traditionally, this has been more of a priority for conservatives. 

But when we looked into the impact of violence in the media, we were shocked at what we found. We, like many people we know, and perhaps you reading this, had a series of wrong-headed notions about the nature of the problem. We found that the issue has been studied for well over 40 years, and has been the subject of over 1,000 studies -- including reports from the Surgeon General's office in 1972, and the National Institute of Mental Health. The studies "point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.  

We were especially surprised to learn that researchers, as summarized by the French Canadian media activist and researcher Jacques Brodeur, claim to have proven that "the effect of media violence is bigger than the effect of exposure to lead on children’s brain activity, bigger than the effect of calcium intake on bone mass, bigger than the effect of homework on academic achievement, bigger than the effect of asbestos exposure on cancer, bigger than the effect of exposure to secondhand smoke on lung cancer." 

Are you surprised? We certainly were. If you are like us, you probably think that the research linking steady exposure to violence in the media to anti-social attitudes and acts has not been proven, which of course, is what the entertainment industry has insisted over and over again.

In line with arguments made by the entertainment industry, you might also have bought into the notion that violence in the media simply reflects the violence in society -- even though that is patently absurd when you look at the numbers. Or, because the First Amendment is sacred, expressions of violence, no matter how unrealistic, inaccurate or gruesome, are protected or should be protected.

But most media violence is a commercial creation, designed to addict people to violence and make billions of dollars. This has almost nothing to do with free speech.

Multitudinous Causes in the Mix

Before we go any further we want to stipulate that there is no one cause, or small number of causes, behind the culture of violence in America. There are many culprits but especially culpable are alcohol abuse, which often leads to violence; the war on drugs, which make drugs hugely valuable, increasing the violence (though much of the worst violence takes place in Mexico); the return of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from two long and brutal wars, many trained killers, many with PTSD; the militarization of police departments, with heavy surveillance technology designed to make even a normal person paranoid; mass incarceration in prisons run frequently by companies trying to make a lot of profit off crime, and where for inmates, prison is often a graduate course in more advanced crime, especially since there are no jobs and almost zero help in integrating ex-cons into productive lives after they leave prison; and high levels of unemployment, especially among the working class and those without college diplomas.

Certainly, the political climate over the past five years, with the emergence of the gun-toting Tea Party, has raised the specter of violence. There has been a marked increase in militia groups and right-wing extremists. Threats upon the president's life have increased, likely stoked by the relentless and aggressive lies about President Obama's birthplace, his roots and his intentions. Attacks on Obama get huge attention in the media, exacerbating divisions and frustrations. There have been powerful propaganda campaigns by the NRA to scare people into stockpiling massive amounts of ammo, based on the completely out-of-touch-with-reality notion that the Obama administration is going to take away their guns and ammo. (Actually, President Obama has increased the rights of gun owners, and articulated an aggressive interpretation of the Second Amendment.) It's hard to measure the levels of paranoia and fear that cloud the judgments of millions of Americans, enhanced by a number of conspiracy theories and the presence of media idiots like Donald Trump to give them exposure. That too must be factored in when it comes to understanding the ingredients of the violence. 

Then there is what is often called the "masculinity crisis." The changing roles of men, inspiring feelings of uselessness; the growing success and prominence of women and the increased maladaptiveness of many masculine traits, which are not so useful in day-to-day life in America in 2013 as they have been in the past. The end result, for whatever combination of reasons, is that virtually all the violence in America is executed by men.  

 What About Mental Illness?

Notice that mental illness is not on the above list of the most obvious causes of violence. While people who commit mass murder and suicide are obviously ill, Dr. Richard Friedman, writing in the NY Times, explains that only 4% of the violence in the U.S. can be attributed to mental illness -- and that the lifetime prevalence of violence among people with very serious illnesses is only 16% compared to 7% of people with no mental illness. Friedman adds that people who abuse alcohol and/or drugs were nearly seven times as likely as those without substance abuse problem to commit violent acts. And then, the mass murderers are not predictable: expert and psychiatrist Dr. Michael Stone at Columbia says, "Most of these killers are young men who are not floridly psychotic. They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage."

Add Guns and Media to the Mix

Add to this gnarly mix of causes 300 million handguns in a third of American homes -- and you have a ticking time bomb. Then, you place all of the elements in the context of the pervasive violence in media, so prevalent that it's almost like the air we breathe. It starts with "killer" toys aimed at toddlers, moves to the most violent video games imaginable, then to films and television shows with numerous acts of violence, seen daily by hundreds of millions of people. Many of these depictions glorify brutishness, macho insensitivity, misogyny, racism, and barbaric behavior. According to Sophie Janicke of Florida State University, who references the National Television Study (1998), two out of three TV programs contain violence, amounting to six violent acts an hour. The majority of this content is shown in children's programming (69%). It has been estimated that by the age of 18, the American youth will have seen 16,000 murders, and 200,000 acts of violence only on television."  

The end result is the mess we are in as a society. And there is no easy way out.

Because the problem of violence is so omnipresent, clouding many people's daily lives with fear, real or imagined, distorting relationships and many aspects of human interaction, we must start to seriously look at the prevalence of media violence and try to imagine how we might make it better. We must acknowledge that the media adds to the dangerous brew of violence in our culture.

Gun Control or Gun Safety

The rush for some kind of symbolic or even modestly substantive gun control legislation is understandable. There is no question that reducing the number of guns in the country, especially making them harder to access when someone has the urge to kill, will result in fewer violent deaths. However, gun control is not a quick, easy or comprehensive solution to the problem of perpetual violence. The battle for gun safety -- given the political realities and the pervasiveness of guns -- won't even begin to address the massive, interlocking and mutually reinforcing violent aspects of our culture.

Future generations may benefit from whatever we are able to accomplish now in terms of gun reforms. But there are many other factors to tackle, and solely focusing on gun control is not enough.

A Reflection of Society

You may wonder, as the heads of the Motion Picture Association have told us over and over, doesn't media simply reflect the society we live in?

The notion that media merely holds a mirror to society is easily disproven. Iowa State's Brad J. Bushman and Craig A. Anderson explain

"Even in reality-based TV programs, violence is grossly overemphasized. For example, one study compared the frequency of crimes occurring in the real world with the frequency of crimes occurring in the following reality-based police TV programs: America's Most Wanted, Cops, Top Cops, FBI, The Untold Story, and  American Detective (Oliver, 1994). The real-world crime rates were obtained from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; 1951-1999) Uniform Crime Reports, which divide seven major types of crimes into two categories, violent and nonviolent. About 87% of the crimes occurring in the real world are nonviolent crimes, whereas only 13% of crimes occurring in reality-based TV programs are nonviolent crimes. The largest discrepancy between the real world and the world depicted on television is for murder, the most violent crime of all. Only 0.2% of the crimes reported by the FBI are murders, whereas about 50% of the crimes shown in reality-based TV programs are murders."

What About the First Amendment?

As you might expect, given the huge dollars involved, any attempt to constrain big media, entertainment, video game and toy manufacturers, will result in screaming about "freedom of expression." And it is true that the FCC regulates indecency and offensive speech but not violence, because content regulation can be construed as a First Amendment concern as much as a matter of commerce.

However, the First Amendment, like the Second Amendment, has been substantially altered by powerful forces influencing the courts over time. As Adam Gopnick writes in the New Yorker:

"…..  the blood lobby still blares out its certainties, including the pretense that the Second Amendment—despite the clear grammar of its first sentence—is designed not to protect citizen militias but to make sure that no lunatic goes unarmed. (Jill Lepore wrote about the history of the Second Amendment in the New Yorker recently.) Make sure that guns designed for no reason save to kill people are freely available to anyone who wants one—and that is, and remains, the essential American condition—and then be shocked when children are killed."

To many, the Second Amendment now means the freedom to carry a concealed handgun almost anywhere, including schools.

Over time, the First Amendment -- the right to free speech -- has also been distorted to serve the interests of the corporations that in dominating our media are never at a loss for the right to speak. It's not unlike the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, where the courts have expanded corporations' rights to expression to include investing unlimited money in political campaigns, without even identifying themselves, and at the expense of the individual person's rights.

According to Mary Megee, in the U.S., "most cultural messages are strained through a commercial filter which uses gratuitous violence as an industrial ingredient to keep viewers tuned in, ratings high and profits up."

For corporations, the law of commerce and the market is the ultimate rule. In their highly sophisticated propaganda efforts, media corporations try to obscure the fact that they operate on the public airwaves, with licenses. The government intervenes if a swear word is uttered on air, or when Janet Jackson's nipple was exposed for a brief moment during a Super Bowl show. But the most gratuitous, destructive, dehumanizing violence is not considered worthy of focus, because of the power of the media to shape reality, as well as significantly affect the careers of elected officials and the "fear" associated with tangling with the First Amendment.

It's ironic that parents who push for less violence on TV are labeled "pro-censorship," when in fact the omnipresence of programming filled with violence often displaces more constructive material from the air. "The preference for violence, is made by somebody, elected by nobody, prisoner of a toxic culture," who knows that whomever is in charge expects them "to give priority to cruelty, aggression and hatred," writes Jacques Brodeur. 

The tobacco industry offers a relevant analogy. Tobacco companies (along with the ACLU), in the face of overwhelming negative health data about tar in cigarettes, insisted that the regulation of cigarettes, and the advertising for them, interfered with free expression. It took many years to marginalize the cigarette industry. Twenty percent of the population still smokes, falling by half from 1965 when 42% of adults smoked.  

Changing behavior and fighting corporate power is a long and arduous process, but it's possible.

Isn't Violence Going Down?

We do face a paradox in society where the hugely visible mass murders are increasing, while violence as a whole, as measured by crime statistics, has gone down -- great news. For example, violent crime in Los Angeles is four times lower than it was in 1992. The interesting thing is that no one can explain exactly why. Of course, there is no end of politicians and police officials who take credit for it. The high number of people in jail may be a contributing factor, although many are in jail for non-violent crimes, mostly drug offenses. The high number of police in some cities like New York may contribute to less crime. On the other hand, in Chicago, where the high ratio of police to citizens is second only to New York, crime appears to be out of control.

Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind how the U.S., despite drops in crime, still dwarfs all developed countries in the number of guns, level of violence, number of mass murders, and number of people in jail and under supervision by the criminal justice system. The fact that violent crime has dropped is certainly good news. But we made the bar so high that we still have epidemics of violence, bloodshed and murder in our society. 

It's worth noting that in the wake of the Newtown massacre in Connecticut, TV and film executives purposefully avoided broadcasting violent programming. The New York Times noted that USA Today stopped broadcasting violent police and detective shows; Quentin Tarantino's gory new film had its red carpet event scaled back; previews of Tom Cruise's new film were canceled; and "Hollywood’s power lunches have been filled in recent days with conversations about hypocrisy."

History tells us that this momentary moral pang will dissipate and the hunt for profit through violence will continue. If we want to get serious and confront this issue, we will have to establish a framework for regulating media violence made by businesses seeking to sell tickets, ads and products to the American public. 

Time to Put TV Under Scrutiny

The ultimate trouble we face as a society is the powerlessness of most people in the face of corporate dominance. We lack responsive democratic institutions to leverage change in policy to make us less vulnerable to domination by corporate interests. The pervasive and accurate feelings that the political system is bought and sold, that most elected officials belong primarily to the "money party" or their "future million-dollar job" party in whatever industry they choose to specialize, leave many people in despair, and in some cases angry and violent. 

In a political system as out-of-whack as ours, where billionaires pour untold millions into elections to seal their outcomes, where corporations spend billions on lobbyists who promote their interests, building on citizen outrage and turning it into change is a difficult challenge. 

As Brodeur writes, over the past 40 years there were industries polluting our air, water and food, while the entertainment industry "increasingly poisoned children's cultural environment with violence carried by TV programs, movies and video games. While society agreed to regulate the pollution of air, water, food, governments have been unable to regulate use of violence in entertainment products for children."

The executives of a handful of big media conglomerates think they own the freedom of the press and it's their right to decide what will be aired to children (and adults) in the global market. Of course, not all TV is toxic; some of it's often inspiring, but a lot of it is the opposite. 

Still we have to face the music. We need to challenge our assumptions about why our society is so violent. Yes, there are many reasons, and it's often next to impossible to separate them, as they do feed on each other. But that is no excuse for not trying to address all of the causes and not spend all our political capital on gun control and fighting the NRA. There is no avoiding that violence in the media, for children and adults, which along with the absurdly easy availability of guns, is central to our society being drenched in violence.

Television, quintessentially American, may very well be our biggest culprit. Brandon Centerwall argues that research demonstrates "that crime rates more than double within 10 to 15 years of the introduction of television to any society." He points out that homicide doubled in the US after the introduction of TV in the 1950s and that the relationship is causal

It's time to take a closer look at the dark side of the ubiquitous and beloved television, and ask what television programming contributes to a very imperfect society. Is your TV making you less safe? 

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's editor-at-large and associate publisher. 

 
See more stories tagged with: