Death in the mass media
There is always money in violence. People are drawn to it. Fascinated by the unknown element. Consequently their fascination is exploited. We find that seeing death on our TV screen is entertaining, a quite acceptable pass-time. Are we being desensitised by watching senseless blood baths on our screens, or are we simply reverting to a harmless form of entertainment to deal with what we fear? The recent blockbusters like Starship Troopers, Event Horizon and Sphere all play off humanity's desire to see violence and death.
Claims have been made that violence saturated videos can result in real life violence. There have been many murder cases where violent videos have been found within the criminal's possessions. Did this material influence their actions?
Are we exposing the younger generation to a false view of death? We watch a pretend world where superhero figures simply shrug off death. In a world where actual birth and death happen in the closed sanctuary of hospital walls, we should question the way our society tackles death, avoiding the truth, side-stepping the reality to which we all must face.
One of the most difficult aspects of this issue is to define what we mean by violence. Rambo shoots twenty enemies with a submachine gun; in "Hot Shots", a comedy spoof, the Rambo type hero shoots hundreds of enemies, with a tally counter at the bottom of the screen keeping count and supposedly recording a comparison to other action movie head counts. In the first film the audience is expected to go along with the pretence that these are actual deaths, but in the second case no attempt is made to convince us that this is anything but a game, indeed the similarity to a video arcade game is deliberately emphasised. Nor is it simply a case of measuring the body count or the amount of blood spilled. "Silence of the Lambs" was no less disturbing because most of the violence was described or suggested rather than actually shown on the screen.
In the evening news we are shown bodies lying on the streets of Sarajevo or Belfast. Sports telecasts focus on crashes, accidents and injuries. Even cartoons have been criticised for the frequent violent episodes as the Coyote falls off the cliff yet again to the cheerful accompaniment of "meep meep" from the Road Runner.
As well as the number of violent incidents, we must also consider why the violence was included. Where the purpose is to inform or educate, the violence may be evaluated quite differently than where the intention is clearly pure entertainment. A recent event in America where a man killed himself on live TV has evoked strong public outrage at the lack of discretion used by the TV station who broadcast this incident. The grisly suicide was a shock to the normal Saturday moring cartoon watches and poses significant questions about the morals, humanity and overall judgement of the broadcasters. On the other hand if viewers had not seen telecasts of the war in Vietnam first hand, social protest may not have been so strong and that conflict may well have continued for even longer. The media certainly have an important role in keeping the community aware of what is happening in the world around them, yet even the question of purpose is not completely clear cut. When a boxer was killed during a fight in the USA last year, the footage was televised repeatedly on the news. Can this really be justified under the public need to know?
The coverage of the war in Vietnam of course raises the other interesting difficulty with this debate. Witnessing the violence of the war on their TV screens appears not to have resulted in an increase of violence in American society, but rather a strong reaction against it. Some researchers argue that screen violence may actually help people to release their aggression and anger in a harmless way. This is in direct opposition to the view, which sees the audience as passive receivers who simply absorb whatever the media dish up. This is the view on which most calls for increased censorship are based, "If that's what you feed 'em, that's what they'll turn into." Some research indicates that our reaction to the media is more complex than this. We each have different experience, understanding and attitudes, which effect the way we react to media violence.
Some research projects have claimed to show clear links between screen and real life violence, but other studies draw conflicting conclusions. How can this be? There does seem to be some link between a demonstrated interest in violent media materials and some forms of violent activity for some people, but no clear cut causal relationship has, or is likely to be able to be demonstrated. Human motivation and response is so complex, so contradictory that it is virtually impossible to rule out all other variables to simply measure this one factor.
Even when we see an apparent link, for example serial killers who favour violent/erotic materials, how do we know that both behaviours are not the result of some other cause entirely? Factors such as poverty, a history of abuse and feelings of personal helplessness and inadequacy are at least as well documented characteristics of violent offenders. Some murderers have claimed that violent videos were their inspiration, but others have blamed their mothers, society, even God! The need to find a scapegoat is a tempting response to horrific acts and if we can find a scapegoat that is easily dealt with, is it any surprise that a government will clutch at this option? It is much easier to pass laws against pornography than to deal with poverty, ignorance, and the rage of the powerless and disenfranchised within our society.
There will always be those within our society who are more vulnerable than others to the impact of disturbing, violent images. Children in particular do need protection from more extreme material as they are less able than adults to recognise the difference between real and pretended violence. It is therefore more likely that they will try to transfer the actions they see on the screen into real life: the notion of the miniature Superman hurling himself off the garage roof springs to mind. Whatever system we impose, parents must be trusted to monitor and supervise their children's viewing habits.
Of course, death has this nasty habit of popping up when we least expect it. For example, in Los Angeles, California, in the United States, the standard practice of interrupting regular programming to televise police chases took a tragic turn when the person being chased set himself and his dog on fire and then shot himself in the head, during a time on Saturday morning when children were watching cartoons on their favorite networks, arousing great ire. As University of Southern California journalism professor Joe Saltzman explained in Broadcasting & Cable, "It was a legitimate news story. The bad news is they should not have interrupted children's programming with any story like this." He explains later, "But every person in this town knows the guidelines: You don't show somebody blowing their head off on live television." Not addressed is the reason for this tacit rule. Would the results truly be traumatic, or might they lead to a more healthy attitude toward death?
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