TV violence versus the real thing

December 21, 1993

Calls from the administration and Congress for Hollywood to repent of its sins regarding TV violence are not going unheard. Industry executives take seriously the government's implicit threat to step in with new regulations if TV doesn't clean up its act. But first the critics and Hollywood have to agree what all the shouting is about. It's one thing to say TV is saturated with violence, quite another to define precisely what is meant by that term. The idea that images of sexual acts can be damaging to society is so deeply held that we have a language for it -- words like smut, obscenity and pornography. But there are no equivalent terms for images of violence.

Are the shenanigans of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote equivalent to graphic fare like "I Spit on Your Grave," a movie in which a woman is gang raped? One activist group, the Illinois-based National Coalition Against Television Violence, rated the lighthearted "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" as the most violent show on TV last season -- over bloodier shows like "Top Cops" -- apparently because its rating system was based on a strict count of violent acts, irrespective of tone.

Making such distinctions has long been a difficulty for researchers into TV violence. Though there is general agreement that television and movie violence has an influence on society, it's much harder to state how that influence makes itself felt. Some critics claim that the lighthearted tone of action shows like "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which seemingly portrays mayhem without its real-life consequences, makes people believe violence is unreal. Others argue that the most detrimental violence is that which appears realistic, but fails to show real consequences in terms of the suffering of victims and their families.

Still, most researchers do agree on some highly suggestive basics: Violent imagery reinforces and encourages aggressive behavior in children already inclined to aggression; TV violence desensitizes the population as a whole to real-life violence, and TV and movie violence play a role in criminal behavior. Yet poverty, drugs, gangs, child abuse and the availability of guns are far more direct causes.

That last caveat leaves the government's role in curbing TV violence somewhat murky at best. It also lends weight to the cynical view that Congress is focusing on TV violence because its efforts to combat the real thing have proven so ineffectual -- as if lawmakers believed that if TV could be cleaned up, life would suddenly imitate art.

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