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Television & Violence

Throughout the history of television, violent programs of all genres have consumed television sets, impacting society and affecting people of all ages. For most people living in the United States, visions of blood, injuries, weapons and even death are commonly seen throughout the half-hour to hour-long television programs. According to the American Psychiatric Association, by the time a person is 18, they will have seen over 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence on television. While television violence is apparent throughout most genres of programs, most can be classified as either fictional programs or reality programs. Cartoons and sitcoms, which are types of fictional programs, and reality programs including documentaries, police shows, entertainment shows, talk shows and the news incorporate violence into their widely viewed programs on television, accessible to millions of people of all ages.

Violence in children’s cartoons has an affect on the way the viewers perceive violence in reality. Since children start watching television earlier than ever, they are constantly hounded with images of violence. Studies and evidence show that this causes aggression in children.

Like all experiences, television shapes the mind of a child. Cartoons started out as “simple animations for entertainment”, and have progressively grown to be more and more violent over the years. A report from children’s research center Child Trends shows that “prime time programs for adults are far less violent than commercial television for children.” There are an estimated 20 to 25 violent acts per hour on any given cartoon show, as opposed to 3 to 5 violent acts during an hour of adult prime time television. The violence in these shows can cause children to become more aggressive, and the images full of fighting, weapons, and explosions can be traumatizing. Professor Iain Gulin says, “Cartoon violence permeates through children’s programming. It has become so commonplace that we hardly even realize that our children are exposed to it so regularly.” Researcher George Gerbner studied the way violence in the media affects the viewers. His study showed that watching violent cartoons leads to higher aggression in children. He says that children who “watch cartoon violence see the world as a more violent and dangerous place.” These children can become desensitized and violent towards others.

There are several reasons that children are more susceptible to television violence. Before age seven, children do not make the connections needed to fully understand a story from beginning to end, and also cannot understand a plot. Instead, they see individual scenes. If the “bad guy” gets punished only at the end of a cartoon show, the child may not make the connection. Children also remember physical action more than emotional scenes or conversation, so the violence makes more of an impression on them. Before age five, children cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality, and may lead them to not understand that violence has real-life consequences. Children who are naturally more aggressive sometimes turn to television because they are outcast by their peers, which leads to even more violence. Programs such as The Simpsons and South Park, although they are intended for adult viewers, attract children simply because they are animated. These shows are full of person-to-person and casual violence. In The Simpsons, Nelson beats up Bart daily. The character Kenny on South Park dies every episode. In the mind of a child, the fact that Kenny miraculously comes back to life every episode makes the consequences of violence seem petty. Cartoon violence is different from real violence because no one is ever seen in pain or anguish. The only parts of the violent act portrayed are the initial act, and the outcome; therefore, children do not see the pain and suffering that violence causes.

The effects of television violence were studied by Dr. Leonard D. Eron, who came to the definite conclusion that “there were some long-term effects of television viewing on later aggressive behavior.” Because of violent cartoons, children grow up to be more aggressive, leading to violent behavior later in life. Caroline de Leon says, “By the time an average American child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed at least 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other assorted acts of violence on television.” This is seen as a “global epidemic” by the government. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 helped set standards for children’s programming, which gives hope to this “epidemic.” With less violence in cartoons, children would grow up to be less violent, which is the ultimate goal for society.

Violence on television is also an issue in sitcoms. While violence may not be as widespread in sitcoms, it has a great impact, especially on children, because many sitcoms are based around normal family and life behavior. The problem is sitcoms lies in the fact that while portraying real life they conveniently leave out key details of the real world. “Family based TV programming since the 1950s has been based on a view of human nature that is sunny, benevolent, and, apparently, effortlessly self regulating.” (McGukin 107) This is causing the guiding rules of family order and discipline to become excessively permissive. On these shows there is almost nothing that the families and kids don’t have or can easily get. “Needs are filled easily – without resorting to crime – because money it seems grows on trees.”(McGukin 107) Also the kids seem to need little to no parental guidance and they often, albeit “cutely”, disrespect their parents and contradict them. When children watch these shows constantly it distorts their view of reality. Once this happens and they are forced to deal with situations that are not always happy and easily resolved, then they can have violent and aggression reactions due to frustration. Because they cannot understand why they do not have a “TV life,” they are confused develop anger.

Another big issue is the acts of violence seen in sitcoms. Since these TV families are related to real life family many acts of violence shown in them people, especially children, consider acceptable behavior. In 1985 the psychological association board of social and ethical responsibility showed that “children’s TV programs contain about 20 violent acts each hour.”(Wober 18). Also youngsters who watch a lot of television are more likely to feel that the world is a mean and dangerous place. By accompanying this feeling against the world with the aforementioned frustrations with the real world, TV has created a formula for violent and aggressive behavior. In 1992, TV Guide conducted a study of a typical 18-hour TV broadcast day to determine levels of violence on TV. They “monitored shows for purposeful, overt, deliberate behavior involving physical force or weapons against other individuals."(www.cybercollege.com/violence) They found 1,846 acts of violence of which 52 were from sitcoms. All this violence in everyday shows affect more than just kids. “Teenagers and young adults who watch even as little as an hour of television a day are more likely to get into fights, commit assaults or engage in other types of violence later in life, according to a new study.” (http://www.fradical.com/March_2002_tv_violence_study.htm) Clearly this intake of violence coupled with the family and real life feel of sitcoms shows connections between TV violence in sitcoms and violent behavior in general, especially among kids and teens.

Reality programs make up an ample part of the violent shows seen on television. Consisting of seven major genres, reality programs include documentaries, police shows, talk shows, entertainment shows,and the news. (Hamilton 165). Although each of these genre’s is quite different from the next, they all contain the same criteria, making them “non-fictional programs in which the portrayal is presumed to present current or historical events or circumstances” (Hamilton 163). Programs that are considered reality programs are very different from fictional programs on TV. “Unlike fictional programs, which generally share a single theme, reality programs are often segmented. A segment is a coherent part of a broadcast, a partitioned narrative within a program that exhibits unity within itself and separation, by topic and central focal character, from other segments within a program” (Hamilton 167).

Documentaries represent a large part of reality programming. Described as “re-creations of historical events…they only include factual information”(Hamilton 165). Examples of documentaries include stories about wars and those who were involved. Clearly, war stories contain large amounts of violence and are a part the “realistic violence” category. Realistic violence is used within documentaries to cover “actual reality and re-creation of reality (Hamilton 167).”

The next genre of reality programs is the police show, which films street police on duty. Shows such as “Cops”, and “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” are examples of police shows that contain realistic violence and punished violence (Hamilton 168). Punished violence is seen on police shows when those committing the crimes are faced with charges or punishments.

“Defined as programs consisting of a host and guests who converse with each other and a studio audience consisting of members of the general public”, talk shows range from “Oprah” to “Jerry Springer” and contain violence (Hamilton 165). While talk shows like Oprah may not have unruly guest, her segments often include subjects relating to violent issues. “Jerry Springer”, “Rikki Lake” and “Jenny Jones” on the other hand, are all shows that tend to have guests that partake in violent acts through out the episodes. Television programs like “Jerry Springer” tend to contain “harm and painful consequences” where guest take part in vocal and physical violence. “The Oprah Show” tends to consist of “realistic violence” which represents actual truth about a particular issue or event that has previously taken place.

Reality programs also include “entertainment programs”, another large genre consisting of “ television dramas” (Hamilton 165). Dramas, which heavily populate prime time every night, rely on violence to captivate the viewers. Drama’s including Law and Order and NYPD Blue are examples of programs with “extreme and graphic violence.” “Law and Order” and “NYPD Blue” qualify as shows with this type of violence due to use of “bullet and stab wounds, broken bones” and other forms of violent acts that can result in death, which does frequently happen amongst these shows. At the time of it’s debut, “NYPD Blue” was thought to have too much violence by viewers and the American Family Association. In fact, “the program’s producer, Steve Bocho, announced that his goal for the program was to bring "R” rated programming to television. (Channeling Violence 195).” Although the initial reaction of viewers was negative, it soon became extremely popular and successful.

Violence on Television, one of the most controversial topics in current society, is a specific reason for concern. Children, who are impressionable and susceptible to violence, spend a majority of their time watching television each day. One specific subject area that is increasingly violent is the news. Why is the news a cause for concern? News is on during all time frames of the day: morning, afternoon, primetime (night), and late night; children watch television during three-out-of-four of those time frames. Crime is the major focus for news and this section investigates how crime is portrayed and how crime influences viewer response.

It is said by Gunter, Harrison, and Wykes that, “viewers are known to respond more profoundly, emotionally, and behaviorally to scenes of real-life violence” (Gunter, Harrison, Wykes 207), a clear example of why so much violence is on television today. This is especially useful to the news media because viewer response is what the news media is searching for; empathy is a response elicited when victims of crimes are displayed on the news. Viewers who are empathetic to victims of crime are more likely to respond to the news and watch it more frequently; a major reason why the news reports on crime. In Crime and Media, a book studying how crime is displayed through the media, Richard Osborne states, “crime was conceived as outside the moral limits of the ordinary, which meant that crime reporting was unproblematic” (Osborne 25). This means the media is able to freely broadcast and report on crime because crime is unproblematic; the audience is emotionally involved and therefore incapable of disagreeing with what they are being shown. In the book, News, Crime and Culture, Maggie Wykes states, “News is a selection of history made by journalists” (Wykes 22), that means that journalists choose to broadcast crime because it is more memorable. News stations broadcast violence because of the emotional effects it elicits from viewers; however, viewers also have negative reactions to violence. In the book Violence on Television, Gunter, Harrison, and Wykes write, “repeated viewing of violence on television may desensitize the viewer to real-life violence,” when people are exposed to repetitive violent images, violence has a lesser impact on them. Gunter, Harrison, and Wykes further explain that viewers are, “encouraged to make an aggressive response to violent images shown on television,” this means that viewers are not only engaged emotionally but physically. Viewers are enraged by the violence they are shown and this creates an urge to react aggressively. Viewers who respond aggressively are more likely to be violent themselves. Protests over the death penalty, for example, can either be positively or negatively influenced by the news. When the news reports on a past criminal who is set to die, peaceful protests and visuals ensue. However, a story about a violent criminal on trial who is facing the possibility of the death penalty is more likely to create a violent protest due to the aggressive reaction of viewers. A third and final concern over violence in the media is, “those who watch a lot of television develop a distorted view of the world” (Gunter, Harrison, Wykes 210), children fall into this category. Children watch a large amount of television each day and when consistently exposed to violent images and situations, they are more likely to develop a distorted view of the world—that it is a violent and dangerous place. As impressionable as children are, consistent images of violence distort their view of the world, and when the future adults of the world are growing up with a distorted view that the world is a violent and scary place, it creates quite a problem. Violence in the news media, although effective and useful for news station and ratings, has far too many negative effects on viewers—namely children.

Violence in the news is a problem for society; it is good for news stations, but it is severely damaging to young children and adults alike. A distorted view of the world creates an inescapable situation, people trapped within their own technology and stuck with the belief that the world is a violent and dangerous place. People who are stuck with the belief that they must stay indoors or else they will become a victim of violence. There is only one remedy to the situation and that is to decrease the amount of violence on television, specifically on the news.

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