We the Media -- Violence
IntroductionThe tragedy and subsequent coverage of Princess Diana's death brought to a head the world's dismay over the cheapening and sensationalism of today's corporate dominated media. The following excerpt from the book, We the Media, are expressions of a growing movement for media democracy, and offers a hard look at media ownership in the global economy. We the Media grew out of the Media & Democracy Congress, an annual gathering of media workers and activists. The second Congress will be held in New York City, Oct. 16-19. For more information visit www.mediademocracy.org.The Fear Yearsby Jon CarrollYOU'VE HEARD IT: "Three people are dead in one Bay Area community, and police fear the killing is not over.""Is there a convicted sex criminal in your neighborhood? We'll have an exclusive report at 11.""How safe are you really? Tonight, we'll have the facts that will allow you to rescue at least some of your internal organs."And so on. The marketing of fear is relentless. We are told every day from every talking box that there are predators on every street corner; poisons in every box; danger in the inner city, on the highways, in our bedrooms, in our very chemistry.Most people get their news from television, and it is television where the fear is most palpable. The teasers are the worst, because they are purposely vague -- "one Bay Area community" -- and thus they generalize the fear. Someone dies in San Jose and people in Sonoma lock their doors.And the news teasers are mixed with other teasers for "entertainment" shows about malign aliens, serial killers, women with psychotic husbands, airplane crashes, plagues, explosions, fires. Your entire future is encapsulated in 60 seconds, and there is no good news.You are surrounded; throw down your arms; ha ha blam blam. Over to you, Pete.This is not actually your reality. In your reality, people are nice, days go by with some order and cheerfulness, children smile and dogs run and flawed people make sincere efforts to overcome obstacles. That's the world you experience.But our environment is saturated with media. It is hard to perceive the knock-on-wood world because we are lost in the fog of powerful, impressionistic electronic sensation. It is hard to perceive the knock-on-wood world because we are scared all the time. When we are scared, we do not seek information; we seek solace.Solace is in advertising. In the electronic world, children smile only when they are using products.IT IS NOT necessarily the fault of TV news people. They are working in a long tradition. The media have always lived on sensational news stories, scandal, double homicides, killer chemicals, police stand by helplessly as terror stalks the city.But in previous eras, the media was understood as a sideshow. It was just a roller coaster; no one confuses a roller coaster with real life. No one is afraid that a roller coaster is stalking their neighborhood.But times changed; the power of the information agencies grew; the people in the media did not. They are still using rationales invented in the 19th century."We're just giving the people what they want," says the news director. "The ratings prove it. Give 'em blood and terror; see the viewers flock."Question: If a man were standing on your street with a bullhorn yelling, "Maniac loose in streets. I'll tell you more if you keep listening," would you keep listening? Yes. Would you say the man with the bullhorn is giving you what you want? Not exactly.IF THE FIRST AMENDMENT were put to a vote today, it would not pass. It's like: We gave it a chance, but it did not work out. The deal was the media would understand that with constitutional protection came a kind of citizenship, a kind of mandate.That mandate has been forgotten. The media are now the tool of tyrants and despots. Tyrants and despots encourage fear, because fearful people will accept extreme political solutions, will demand extreme political solutions.But our mandate has changed too. We have to stop being credulous. We have to stop believing the scare stories. We have to trust the evidence of our senses. Bad things happen, but mostly bad things do not happen.Today you will not be killed by a maniac. Today your biggest challenge will be to understand that you are capable of love. Your biggest challenge will be to ignore the bogus fear. More tomorrow.Jon Carroll is a columnist for the San Francisco ChronicleScary but TrueFrom 1993 through 1996, the homicide rate in the United States dropped by 20 percent. During the same three year period, coverage of slayings on the network evening news broadcasts soared by an average of 721 percent. "We've chaned, and not for the better, in running stories we know in our journalistic heart of hearts don't meet the standard to be on the network news," says CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather. "We run it because we're scared to death our competition is going to run it and beat us. Every network feels it." (Washington Post)Scary Facts*Children's TV shows contain about 26 violent acts each hour. During an average prime-time hour there are five violent acts. MTV has at least one occurrence of violence in more than 50 percent of its videos. (American Medical Association)*According to a U.S. News and World report, 92 percent of Americans believe television contributes to violence.*According to the National Television Violence Study, the context in which violence is portrayed is as important to its impact as the amount of violence. Of the shows with violent content three-quarters demonstrated unpunished violence and when violence occurred 58 percent of the time, victims were not shown experiencing pain (Mediascope)*In 1974, 58 percent of prime time television dramatic programs had overt physical violence. By 1994 that number had risen to 75 percent. (Cultural Indicators)*The typical viewer of prime time television drama sees, every week, an average of 21 criminals arrayed against an army of 41 public and private law enforcers. Crime and violence engage more characters than all other occupations combined. About one out of three speaking parts, and more than half of all major characters, are involved in violence either as victims or as victimizers, or both. (Cultural Indicators)*A 1994 study of local news by the Unviersity of Miami found that time devoted to crime averaged 32 percent while violent crime in the city remained constant, involving less than one-tenth of one percent of the population.*On Los Angeles TV news, crime was the focus of the lead story 51 percent of the time and 27 percent of the violent crime coverage concerned murders. But during that very period, murder accounted for only 2 percent of felonies in Los Angeles, so the frequency of murder was exaggerated by 14 to 1. In fact, reported crime fell 9.3 percent overall in the first six months of 1995, although you never would have known watching television. (UCLA)Chicago newspapers carried stories on only one of every three homicides in the city during the winter of 1994. The slayings most likely to be selected were those in which the victims were white rather than black or Latino, contrary to the acutal crime statistics. (Journalism Quarterly)Some Crime Really PaysPeople worry about street crime because they don't want to go into a 7-Eleven and get shot up. In fact, corporate and white collar crime is also violent crime and inflicts far more violence than street crime. For example, since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, 200,000 American workers have died on the job. Compare that to the homicide rate which is about 24,000 a year, that's street crime homicide. Overall, the corporate crime and violence rate is far greater than the street crime rate and yet the public perception is that street crime is the theme we should be more worried about. Now, why is that? That's because the media focuses on that. All the crime shows focus on street crime. Rarely do you get a story about corporate or white collar crime.Russell McKiber, Corporate Crime ReporterShould the coverage fit the crime?by Joe HolleyWhat if a TV news operation refused to cover crime in the same old way? Would crime still make the same noise in the community? Would the station?Since the beginning of 1996, Austin's ABC affiliate, KVUE-TV, a Gannett station, has been trying to find out. KVUE's experiment not only has given Austin viewers something of a choice, but it has forced the station's staff to reassess long-held assumptions about how to cover crime, or even whether to cover it. It has forced reporters, editors and news directors to ask that more basic question: What is news?In breaking the Pavlovian response to the squawking police scanner and the melodramatic visuals, a crime story must meet one or more of KVUE's five criteria to be aired:* Does action need to be taken?* Is there an immediate threat to safety?* Is there a threat to children?* Does the crime have significant community impact?* Does the story lend itself to a crime-prevention effort?A KVUE TEST CASEFollowing is an example of how KVUE shapes the news:The crime: A murder/suicide at an apartment complex for married students at the University of Texas. A graduate student in engineering had shot his wife and four-year-old daughter and then turned the gun on himself.KVUE reporter's dilemma: There was no immediate threat to the community, the crime itself was solved, and there was really nothing to say about prevention. There seemed to be no significant community impact; the family was new to the apartment complex, and the neighbors barely knew them. The guideline about children? In this case, the child was dead.The coverage: The story focused on the immediate community's response to the tragedy. The residents of the apartment complex gathered at sunset on a playground and talked over what had happened, among themselves and with the reporter, who also listened as counselors talked to the residents about signs of domestic abuse, which was an issue in the investigation, and what they could do to prevent it.Endnote:The February 1996 ratings came out in mid-March. They were KVUE's best ever. The station increased its already-solid ratings lead for every newscast, reaching its highest numbers in a decade for it 10 p.m. show. Joe Holley is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review. Soundbite"You live or die by daily ratings. You lead with crime. I always understood the thing about ratings, because I'm a very competitive person, and I love to be first. But being number one revolved around the lowest common denominator, and I got disgusted with it." -- Cathy McFeaters, KVUE's executive producer.Pavlov's TV Dogs: A Snapshot of Local TV News in America by Paul Klite, Rocky Mountain Media WatchThe Pavlov Index is a measure of audience manipulation and conditioning in local television newscasts in the United States.Ivan Pavlov, the astute observer of animal behavior, demonstrated the necessity for repetition (reinforcement) in the conditioning process. Just as rats in a cage become tolerant to the effects of repetitive painful stimuli (such as electric shocks), Americans have become numb to the unbalanced and unhealthy diet of TV news. This conditioning required increasing doses of mayhem and fluff over time to hold audience attention.You will recall that Pavlov was able to associate a variety of stimuli to elicit reactions in dogs:* Present a dog with food. He salivates* Ring a bell with the food. He salivates.* Eventually, just ring the bell. He salivates.For our analogy with local newscasts, substitute news for food, emotion for salivation and dramatic video for the bell. The viewing public, of course, is the dog.The Pavlov Index of TV news combines the Mayhem, Fluff and Sports content in programs, adjusted for Solution Oriented stories, to generate a single measure of emotion-laden conditioning for advertising. Ninety-two stations scored over 50 percent on the Pavlov Index. That indicates that over half the newscast, excluding ads and weather, is based on high emotional arousal.We propose that TV newscasts are masquerading as "news." Their function is not an informed public but an emotionally aroused audience that is susceptible to advertising. Emotion is honey for the advertising bee. If an audience is well primed and conditioned, advertising propaganda will go down like a sugar coated pill. The public doesn't even taste it.Most television stations are, literally, getting away with murder. One-hundred news departments play variations on the theme, but it is mostly the same old song, the same old dog, the same old tricks. In mesmerized obedience, millions of Americans swallow without chewing.Local news is the most profitable programming for television stations. News is cheaper to produce than drama or entertainment shows and stations do not share advertising revenues from local news with the networks. It's a multi-billion dollar industry.Neil Postman has pointed out that the public ends up with emotions about current events, not opinions. Thirty-second clips about Bosnia or an earthquake in California can do little but give us a "feeling" about issues. Marketing experts call it "arousal," an absolutely vital ingredient to successful advertising. But just as sexual arousal is not love, mayhem, fluff or sports arousal is not wisdom.