Television and the Distortion of Reality
One in four households has at least three television sets. Crime and disaster accounts for more than half of local-TV evening news coverage nationwide."We are born into a culture which cultivates our acceptance of violent programming," says George Gerbner, referred to by The Atlantic Monthly magazine recently as the "man who counts the killings." Philadelphia-based Gerbner, founding dean of the University of Pennsylvania's famed Annenberg School of Communications, is also known as the Rachel Carson of the Cultural Enviroment Movement (CEM). Founded by him, CEM is best known for its estimate that US children see 8,000 murders on television by the age of 12. Similarly, a 1992 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that by age 18 a typical American kid would have watched 27-hours of TV weekly and witnessed 40,000 murders and 200,000 other violent acts.Why do viewers stay glued to their sets? "Television is like polluted air. Even with the dirt, we can't stop breathing," the calm, 78-year-old Gerbner says from his modest office stacked with research reprints and decorated with media-related art. Startling as his findings are to some, he refers to his gems on television's nature as sometimes "counter-intuitive." "Contrary to popular thought, TV doesn't necessarily stifle reading. One segment on a major talk show can sell 30,000 books in the following three days," he points out. Gerbner says that TV is not a substitute for anything except boredom. "Let's improve programming, not turn it off," he implores.But before rushing in to fix television, Gerbner is eager to first define what he thinks is wrong with the picture. "We keep focusing on violence in media, a focus which reinforces the message. In turn, we debate the law-and-order aspects of violence. By the end of our discussion, we are more fearful than ever - which is the purpose of violence to begin with. We have created this circular reinforcement. Like dirty air we can't stop breathing, we can't stop watching," he explains. He describes our obsession with violence as the "Mean World Syndrome," by which we view the community as more violent that it really is. As a result of this inaccurate picture, we are all robbed of our ability to respond with compassion to challenging situations. Quick and easy - and violent - solutions are more easily considered. "Vindictive and punitive actions against what we perceive as dark forces become attractive and more easily carried out," he warns. In fact, even with a doubling of violent crime in the last 30 years, prime-time television depicts crime as much worse.The immensity of and damage caused by television's exaggerations pushes Gerbner to use the "F" word in making his point. "Fascism is built on fears portrayed with the smoke and mirrors of deception and grotesque exaggerations of reality," Gerbner says. He is referring to his own escape from dismal conditions in his Hungarian homeland during World War Two. His historical parallels are compelling.Part of television's warped image is reflected in denying who constitutes real viewer demographics. For example, although the US Census classifies 13 percent of population as "poor," prime-time characters make up only 1.3 percent of the characters. Like her or not, Roseanne butched her network into more realistic portrayals of a large segment of the population routinely overlooked. Prime-time programming distorts reality in other ways. For every white male victim of violence there are 17 white female victims. For every white male victim there are 22 minority female victims. Villains are disproportionately male, lower-class, young, Latino or foreign. The results of this distortion are both alarming and predictable. Heavy viewers, whose view of the world is based on distorted character portrayals rather than reality, favor the building of more jails, the death sentence, stiffer sentences. In other words, they are eager to carry out punitive measures based on erroneous assumptions about who is doing what to whom on television, not in the real world.For example, during the 1995-96 television season, disabled people comprised 19.4 percent of the population, yet CBS, FOX, and NBC had 4, 1.9, and 1.2 disabled characters respectively. ABC had none.People 65 and older are 12.7 percent of the population yet none of the big four networks had more than 4 such characters in prime time hours. This year's Ellen phenomena not withstanding, gay and lesbian folks comprise about 7 percent of the total population, yet ABC and CBS had no gay characters while NBC has 1.2 and FOX has 0.9 (whatever that could be, think about it). "If the airwaves were truly handled as a public resource and license holders were accountable for more demographically diverse, less violent shows, then I think we'd eventually see change," Gerbner says. Slowly shaking his head, he describes the rating system recently unveiled by television industry hacks as a 'disaster". In his view the new ratings simply label programming that many already know is inferior. "The industry is saying, "We know this show is violent, so OK, we'll put a big 'V' on it. But the content remains the same," he laments.Over time, Gerbner is most concerned with the repetition involved in the 24-hour transmission of inferior programming. "Whoever tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time has effectively assumed the cultural role of parent and school," he says, "teaching us most of what we know in common about life and society." With television sets on about 7.5 hours daily in most households, there is a fictitious glut hazing America's view - distorting the real world.