Violence is a weed in society that affects many Americans directly and all of us emotionally. The one-year anniversary of the tragic killings in Newtown, Conn., reminded the nation of the extent to which violence harms our nation. The roots of violence in America are many and complex, but there is no doubt the primary dispenser of cultural violence into society is the media industry.
Prime-time dramas, on both broadcast and cable, are saturated with violence of the most graphic and sordid kind. Even the so-called good guys are often depraved and seriously flawed characters who employ violence to solve any problem. Blood-soaked plots fail to put violence in context. In the early 1960s, a program called “The Untouchables” was criticized for its shoot-’em-up portrayal of FBI agents chasing Prohibition-era mobsters. That show looks like a church picnic compared to the mediated violence on screen today.
After the Newtown horror, Vice President Joe Biden met with media industry “leaders” to discuss the role of media in fueling a society filled with violence. Biden refused to hold his entertainment corporate pals accountable. After a lot of backslapping, entertainment mouthpieces expressed “concern,” and the White House asked for more study of media violence. In short, nothing happened.
Countless studies demonstrate the link between consuming mediated violence and aggression. Media consumption, of course, is not the only factor creating a violent society, but it clearly is a key factor. A report to Congress by the Federal Communications Commission in 2007 clearly stated exposure to media violence increases aggression in kids. In typical FCC fashion, however, the commission dropped the matter.
The media industry has done nothing to diminish the amount of violence in entertainment, and it misleads the public with regard to the amount of violence contained in its programming. Two recent studies demonstrate the ratings system designed to warn viewers about violent content is basically dishonest.
A recent study by the Parents Television Council found over-the-air dramas are as violent as dramas on cable. So much for the idea that broadcast shows provide a safer environment than cable, where envelope-pushing is expected. The PTC found broadcast shows are inaccurately rated for violence. It also found that viewers of prime-time dramas are exposed to a gun or bladed weapon every three minutes. Scenes of blood splattering, dismemberment, torture and burning flesh are common.
Another study by researchers at The Ohio State University and the Annenberg Policy Center showed PG-13 movies portray more violence than R-rated films, and the amount of violence in movies is growing rapidly. The study, published in the respected journal Pediatrics, discusses the “weapons effect,” which asserts the mere presence of a weapon can make viewers have aggressive thoughts and behaviors.
Ultimately, parents are responsible for what their kids watch, but parents should at least be able to rely on industry ratings that are fair.
None of this discussion is designed to push for censorship of the media. Programmers have full First Amendment rights to push whatever garbage they want. This discussion also does not assert that every person who watches mediated violence will become an ax murderer. This discussion, however, is about the cultural responsibility of the media industry to provide leadership. It is about how big media corporations, which make big dollars selling eyeballs to advertisers, diminish society by desensitizing and shocking us with a dim worldview filled with violence.
NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt told reporters last January his network was concerned about the content of its programming: “Most people at this network have children and really care about the shows that we’re putting out there. It’s always in our mind.”
Greenblatt must not be watching his own network. If he did, he would see the NBC show “Revolution” contains 91 violent acts per episode. He would see the graphic torture scenes in his network’s show “Dracula.” NBC also programs bloody shows such as “Hannibal” and “The Blacklist.” As chairman, Greenblatt could single-handedly reduce violent content on NBC, but that would take cultural leadership.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.