Violence In Televison Essay, Research Paper
Political Involvement Concerning Violence in Television
Looking back in time, it is evident man has mastered his resources in an effort to increase his technology. This technology has had a measurable effect on society. To a certain extent, we have embraced, as well as feared, the growth of this technology. As far back as 390 BCE when Plato warned about the danger of storytelling (Cooke L19), to the 1930s and 1940s when “studies warned of the harmful effects radio was having on children’s ability to distinguish fantasy from reality” (Cooke L19), the idea of technology affecting our lives has been a frightful one. This age-old dilemma has played itself out over the past three decades in America regarding television violence and its effects on society. A recent census figure estimates that ninety-six percent of American households have one or more televisions (Murray 472). When this many households have a television that people view for more than seven hours a day, program content becomes a powerful influence. Because television influences people’s values, beliefs, and overall perspectives of the world, television programming has been subjected to critical examination by political interests.
Being a time of assassinations, racism, and political unrest, the 1960s were formidable years in researching the topic of violence in television. Due to the violent activity of this particular decade, the National Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, was created (Milavsky 1). Following the commission’s report in March of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson “established the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, headed by Dr. Milton Eisenhower” (Milavsky 1). One volume of the report was dedicated to an extensive examination of the relationship between the media and the public. Because of this report, Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island called for the Surgeon General to investigate the matter of television’s effects on young people. With these activities in motion, the issue of the effect of television on its viewers entered the arena of national debate.
As early as the 1920s, people voiced their social concerns about the effects of the motion picture industry. Awarded $200,000 by the Payne Funds, The National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures created a “special committee on Educational Research to study the effects of film on children” (Rowland 92). This group’s primary objective was “to find the facts and publish them to stimulate discussion from which programs of action . . . [would] eventually crystallize” (Rowland 92). Although primarily interested in the effects of motion pictures, this was the first attempt to study the social impact a medium had on its viewers. Lasting from 1928 to 1933, unfortunately “the Payne Fund studies [appeared] to have had little public policy impact” (Rowland 94).
The next major government undertaking regarding this subject was in 1954 when then Senator Estes Kefauver chaired hearings of a Judiciary Committee panel exploring the role of television in juvenile delinquency. In Robert Liebert’s book, The Early Window, he states, “Network representatives claimed at that time that research on the effects of violence viewing upon children was inconclusive, although they admitted that some risk existed” (48). While the committee did not have the conclusive research they sought, they surmised that “violence materials are anxiety and tension producing and acts of violence may teach techniques of crime and lead the child to imitate these acts in expression of his aggression” (Rowland 104). Although concluding “that televised crime and brutality could be potentially harmful to young children” (Murray 472), neither government nor television responded with change. The consensus was that data was scarce and the congressmen were critical of the industry (Pearl 17). The ensuing results were two-fold: a need for better social and behavioral research, and a need for self-regulation of the television industry.
The true birth of the debate, as mentioned earlier, occurred in the 1960s. This decade began with John F. Kennedy using the medium of television to spread his campaign message to the masses. America was now introduced to the profound effect television played within society (Comstock 57). With television and politics becoming so inter-woven, further investigations dealing with television’s impact on the public increased in number and intensity. This re-energized investigation began with the Dodd Subcommittee.
An extension of the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, the Dodd Subcommittee addressed the effects television had on the youth of America. Headed by Senator Thomas Dodd, the subject of violence in children’s television was specifically targeted. Existing in 1961 through 1964, these hearings were of great importance because they paved the way for hundreds of studies in which the subject matter of television’s impact on children was the primary focus. Testimony at this hearing “revealed that previously promised research had yet to be carried out” (Liebert 48). The subcommittee offered the conclusion that “on the basis of expert testimony and impressive research evidence . . . the subcommittee does not believe that television is either the sole or most significant cause of the juvenile delinquency” (Rowland 110). With these findings, many politician’s (as well as public interest groups) expressed the idea that the networks should be held accountable for their programming, and a push for self-regulation was again encouraged.
Following the Dodd Subcommittee was the National Commission on the Cause and Prevention of Violence in 1968. Based on the existing research at that time, the commission felt “there was sufficient justification to call for a general reduction in the level of televised violence” (Murray 472). In addition to these findings, an air of tolerance was also evident. With self-regulation within the industry not working, Congress felt self-policing would be the most effective way to address this growing problem (Liebert 51). The conclusion of the committee was “violence on television encourages violent forms of behavior, and fosters moral and social values about violence in daily life” (Liebert 51-52). With these findings, however, no funding was appropriated to conduct new research. Not until later that same year did Congress appropriate funds for new studies to be conducted (Liebert 52). These later studies produced the infamous Surgeon General’s Report of 1972.
“The Surgeon General’s committee’s effort stands out because of its official sponsorship, substantial ($1.5 million) budget, and methodological diversity” (Withey 104). Although massive in quantity and content, the committee’s report was questioned from the outset due to the controversial member selection process. With over two hundred names submitted as prospective candidates, forty were selected as possible committee members. The Surgeon General sent these forty names to the National Association Board of Broadcasters and three national commercial broadcast networks (Liebert 68-69). From these names, broadcasters were to choose seven people they felt were not qualified to be on the committee. Much as a defense or prosecuting attorney scrutinizes their prospective jurors, the Surgeon General scrutinized his two hundred candidates to select forty. While not entirely extraordinary in this regard, seeking the approval of the defendant, the National Association Board of Broadcasters and broadcast networks, is extraordinary. This is of great significance because in the years that followed, the validity of the report findings were often brought into question.
Of the seven individuals excluded, three were “prominent social scientists” (Liebert 69) who were considered experts in the field of television’s social impact. After years of studies conducted by numerous individuals and groups, the committee concluded that there was a causal relationship between violence and aggressive behavior and these behaviors exist in some environment contexts (Kenney 176). Without concrete evidence supporting either argument for or against the effects of televised violence, the report did offer some insight to the subject. “Such tentative and limited conclusions are not very satisfying [yet] they represent substantially more knowledge than we had two years ago” (”Television” 23).
The apparent cloudy results were in part due to conflicting results in many of the studies administered. Tests results, for the most part, either supported or conflicted with the hypothesis that television violence adversely affected the children watching. Analysis of television viewing has produced two basic groups of theories regarding its effect. The groups attribute the results produced by television viewing as being either pro-social or anti-social behavior.
In Dr. Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll study, children were shown a film with a child playing with a Bobo doll in an aggressive manner. Scenes viewed by the children were that of other children punching, throwing, or kicking the doll. Although the dolls were intended for children to play with in this manner, scientists seemed surprised at the outcome of the test. The study does not address this apparent bias. After viewing these scenes, the children were placed in a room with a Bobo doll as well as other toys. The children’s actions tended to duplicate those seen previously in the viewing room (Whitey 125). This demonstrates that when children view violent activity on television, “they become more likely to behave aggressively” (Liebert 60). Although Dr. Bandura’s findings are comprehensive, extensive, and extend beyond the scope of this paper, they give a prime example of anti-social behavior learned through television. John Murray states that, “watching violence on television sensitizes the viewer to perceive more violence in the world . . . . [This] increases the likelihood that the viewer will use violence as a means of resolving conflict” (476). In this context, a correlation between television violence and anti-social behavior is displayed.
Contradicting these results is a hypothesis known as the Catharsis Theory. This theory is based on the supposition that viewing overt behavior on television diminishes people’s aggressions in life and their needs to act them out. This theory “is proposed for aggressive feelings specifically, not for a wide variety of behavioral dispositions” (Comstock 429). Simply stated, by watching violence on television, the viewer vicariously acts out his aggressions peacefully by watching television.
If these two results are possible, then is it also possible to surmise that “any stirring exposure to various media heightens the likelihood of whatever behavior is subsequently appropriate” (Comstock 92)? If viewing violent behavior promotes violent activity, then viewing pro-social activity on television would also promote pro-social behavior. Government studies have encountered many conflicting results, which have become obstacles in the attempt to resolve this dilemma.
In 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) conducted a follow-up report to the Surgeon General report. The NIMH report “is essentially a review of existing research which has already appeared” (Wurtzel 22). This review is just that, a review of previous information with no new input. Although the information was not new, the NIMH concluded that the “findings support the conclusion of a causal relationship between television violence and aggressive behavior” (Wurtzel 23). The American Broadcasting Company, ABC, rebutted that “The research does not support the conclusion of a causal relationship” (Wurtzel 24).
The underlying difficulty for Congress to regulate violence directly on television is that such regulation would violate the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, an item known as the V-chip has been introduced to the public. The V-chip is “an electronic device that allows parents to block television programming which they feel is inappropriate for their children” (Bernstein 1). These computer chips will determine if the programming being viewed is allowed by the settings of the chip. “Appropriate levels can be set, modified, or turned off by parents or viewers using a remote device” (”V-chip” 2). This chip will work in conjunction with a rating system designed to rate television shows according to “violent content, sex, nudity and coarse language, and is then assigned a classification level” (”V-chip” 2). These chips were originally scheduled to be available through cable distributors or to be available through “V-chip-equipped set-top boxes . . . [for] those consumers who don’t rent converters by the fall of 1997″ (”V-chip” 2). Beginning October 1, 1997, “cable and broadcast networks, with the exception of NBC, . . . [added] five new symbols to the current television content ratings” (Farhi 1).
Regarding the new rating system, Vice President Al Gore called it “a major step forward to give parents the tools they need to protect their children from offensive programming” (”Networks” 1). With the first amendment being such an obstacle, this measure of self-regulation and policing is just what earlier studies said was needed. Control of viewing is now given to the families who choose to monitor what their children watch on television.
Through hearings and studies spanning a sixty-seven year period, the solution now appears to be in the hands of the parents. As mastery of resources continues, thereby increasing technology, society is enabled to do what earlier research suggested: to regulate viewing to meet individual needs. With the advent of the V-chip, a tentative solution to an age-old problem appears to be on the horizon. Without infringing upon the rights set forth in the first amendment, Congress put control of television viewing in the hands of parents.
As technology increases, problems with the evolving technology also increase. As the problem of violence in television is seemingly solved, a more interactive violence has now emerged. Spending decades of time and countless tax dollars pursuing a national dilemma, society has allowed a new technological problem to sneak in. While national concern concentrated on the violence portrayed on television, children began “surfing” a wave of potentially devastating consequences on the World Wide Web. While the public worries about the social ramifications of television viewing, predators of a much different nature may be influencing children throughout the world. Although limited to a certain number of channels on a television, chat rooms and web site connections seem endless. With this in mind, the world may now be embarking on another fifty-plus year quest to control yet another means of mass communication that contributes to the shaping of values, beliefs, and perspectives of the world.
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