Violence In The Media

By Rose Dyson

Celebrate it if you will: We are moving from an industrial era to an information age. However, our "new age" seems hardly more likely than earlier eras to put social good ahead of economic gain. Witness, for example, the aggressive marketing of cultural commodities directed toward children, adolescents and young adults. The results are predictable.

In the Toronto Sun an article, "Playgrounds of fear take over U.S. schools" described children as young as five bringing loaded hand guns to school and twelve year olds stabbing their teachers. Strategies were proposed to ensure safer schools. Conspicuously absent from the list was any reference to improving the content of television and films watched by children.

The mass media now offer young people an ever-increasing variety of "action filled" entertainment, ranging from cop shows like "Miami Vice" to interactive television programming such as Mattel Toys' "Captain Power Series," in which a child a child can participate, with the use of a toy machine gun that costs about forty dollars. Some experts call these marketing trends "ideological child abuse," and indicate that between thirty-five and fifty percent of violence in society is fostered by the media in this context.

An example of combining political objectives and movie entertainment is an "action-filled," low-grade movie entitled "Red Scorpion," which could be seen recently in Cineplex theatres. Canadian public affairs consultant Gerald Caplan describes it as part of an aggressive, world-wide, disinformation campaign which is well-funded and well-established. The film is about, "brutal, sadistic, commie oppressors crushing freedom-loving patriots in a fictional African country." According to Ontario Film Review Board Vice-chair Elizabeth Gomes, about half of the films and videos now distributed in Ontario are of a similar nature, violent, sexually explicit, and simplistic. The largest consumers are adolescents and young adults.

Violence in entertainment is not new; it predates modern mass media. However, it has been dramatically accelerated in recent years by mass media technology. According to the National Coalition on Television Violence, "Never in the history of mankind has there been such a massive promotion of intense war violence to a nation's youngest children." Their studies show that suicide portrayals on prime-time television average approximately one every 28 hours of programming, with the average teen seeing about 800 suicides by the age of eighteen. Murder is 11 times more common and attempted murder is 56 times more common. Soviets describe U.S. movies as teaching hate and one leading poet has called them "warnography."

An encouraging step to the contrary was demonstrated by the Supreme Court of Canada in a decision on April 27, 1989 to ban television advertising for children under the age of thirteen on the basis of harmful effects. The incidence of sales in military toys increased 600 percent between 1982 and 1986 in Canada, and in the United States, 800 percent. This was due largely to the deregulation of children's television programming by the Reagan administration in 1982. The result: Many program advertisements, often with violent imagery, are paid by toy manufacturers.

Public concern over the effects of violent entertainment rises and falls in cycles, spawning committees that investigate the effects and propose changes. These include the 1977 Ontario Government Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry (the La Marsh Report), the 1984 Federal Government Badgley Report on Child Abuse and the 1985 Federal Government Fraser Report on Pornography and Prostitution. The NCTV research centre indicates that, since 1933, there have been over 1000 research projects on the subject of television violence alone and over 3000 on all genres of mass media entertainment which includes violence. The research methodology is still problematic, but as it becomes more sophisticated, it yields increasing evidence of harmful effects.

Legislative proposals are always counteracted by massive campaigns from the media industry. Their strategies include discrediting research findings as inconclusive and labelling regulatory proposals as draconian threats to freedom of expression.

Recent debate over controls in this country centred around Bill C-54, the Federal Government's proposed amendments to the Criminal Code on pornography. It died on the order paper when the federal election was called in the fall of 1988. A leaked memo from the Toronto affiliate of a Washington, D.C. public relations firm, outlined the campaign then being launched. The purpose was:

To find a way of discrediting the organizations and individuals who have begun to disrupt the legitimate business activities of publishers... This can be accomplished by creation of a broad coalition of individuals and organizations opposed to the Commission's findings and recommendations.

This refers to the Meese Commission Report on Pornography that came out in the U.S. in 1986, soon after our own Fraser Report on the subject was released. This explanation follows:

This new group...would include academics, civil libertarians, religious leaders, civic and community leaders, politicians, columnists, commentators and entertainers. It might be called "Americans for the right to read" or "The First Amendment Coalition."

The message is being bought, that last decade's upsurge of sadistic and obscene literature and entertainment constitutes an advance on our liberties. According to Mary Brown, former chair of the Ontario Film Review Board, in the early sixties pornography included a kind of voyeurism, with various depictions of nudity. Gradual shifts in these throughout the decade, went from explicit sexual poses to scenes of forced sex, torture, and a general eroticizing of man's inhumanity to man. Some of these are now available for home viewing through film and video departments of public libraries. Meanwhile evidence accumulates that, as with any habit, the addicted consumer needs depictions of increasingly bizarre sexual behavior for stimulation.

Bill C-54 has been successfully discredited, with the argument that to imprison those who deal in child and other forms of pornography is to risk our basic freedoms. Opponents of this and previous bills have consistently argued against the entire bill, calling it a terrifying idea and insisting on a total re-draft. Its supporters say that, while these bills have not been perfect, they could be revised after second reading in the house - a normal parliamentary process in this country.

New copyright laws, on the other hand, have sailed ahead with few obstacles. A crackdown by movie distributors has forced many video pirates to give up the illegal business. As a society we deem it criminal to pirate pornographic and other forms of video material but not to produce, distribute, sell and use pornography. This example also serves to show how capable the mass media are of self-regulation when it is in their economic interest.

The economics of mass communications have curtailed the competitive, informational marketplace to which anyone can contribute. The question is not whether censorship should exist but what kind and by whom. Media content is already subjected to elaborate selection and censorship by the media industries themselves, but any form of government involvement is characterized as unacceptable.

Having reviewed all major research up until and during the inquiry, the La Marsh Commission found that most of the research indicated potential harm from exposure to violence. Also, whereas increased exploitation and depiction of violence in the media is only one of many social factors contributing to crime, it is the largest cause amenable to correction. News updates on research since that time up until the present substantiate these findings.

The mass media play a key role in neutralizing social criticism and deflecting reform in order to preserve established traditions. Our duty is to call attention to this process and disclose the cultural effects, both for adults and children.

International Coalition Against Violent Entertainment

A 1988 study of films reports that films over the past 40 years have become more violent and psychologically harmful to normal viewers of all ages. The study, covering 1500 films from 61 countries, was completed by the "International Coalition Against Violent Entertainment." Of the one thousand 1987 films in the study, 72% contained some harmfully violent elements. Of the 20 countries in the 1987 sample, Hong Kong, the U.S., and Mexico had the highest percentage of violent films. These were followed by Britain, Italy, Yugoslavia, and France. Least violent were Japan, West Germany, and the USSR.

Martial arts combat distinguished the Hong Kong fare, while sexual violence was present in many Mexican films. The U.S. film companies were by far the leading producers of horror and satanic horror. The U.S. turned out over 80% of the world production of such films.

Dr. Thomas Radecki, a psychiatrist and the Research Director for ICAVE, said, "Studies of television and theater violence have documented harmful effects on both normal children and adult viewers from material far less violent than we found in our study. It is virtually certain that the extreme violence of modern film entertainment is having a harmful effect on hundreds of millions of people around the world."

Peace Magazine Dec 1989-Jan 1990

Peace Magazine Dec 1989-Jan 1990, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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