TV faces its own facts on violence 'Mean world': It's been reported for years. Now the industry finds out for itself that programming causes real harm. It can no longer ignore the data.

February 07, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The majority of programs on television contain violence that is "psychologically harmful," according to a year-long study sponsored by the cable industry and released yesterday.

While those findings are not new, an industry-funded study has never condemned television violence in such strong terms. And they come on the eve of a new initiative in Washington to limit the exposure of children to television violence through the use of blocking devices called v-chips.

The study "simply confirm(s) what we have been finding for almost 30 years," said George Gerbner, professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The news is that, because of public concern, the television industry felt obliged to do such a study, and now they can't just sweep the negative findings under the carpet."

The $1.5 million study, which was conducted by researchers at four universities who reviewed 2,500 hours of programming, found that 57 percent of all programs contained violence.

Watching violence on TV teaches people to behave violently, to gloss over the harmful consequences of violence and to become more fearful of being attacked, the report found.

Dr. Gerbner, a pioneer in the field of TV violence research, coined the term "mean world syndrome" in 1983 to describe those same effects. For the past 12 years, the television industry has dismissed his findings as "one man's opinion."

"They can no longer say, "Oh, well that's just one opinion among many -- the experts disagree,' " Dr. Gerbner said. "Here you find that the so-called experts don't disagree. In fact, they are remarkably consistent about the harmful effects as a result of the way violence is presented without consequences and so forth."

The study was sponsored by the National Cable Television Association in response to hearings on Capitol Hill about television violence and the looming of threat of federal regulation. The study, first published in yesterday's Washington Post, was done by the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of Texas, Austin; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The study found:

* That perpetrators of violent acts on television went unpunished 73 percent of the time.

* That 58 percent of the violent incidents failed to depict any sense of pain among the victims.

* That 86 percent of violent acts on TV failed to show any long-term damage, either physical or psychological, to victims.

* That 25 percent of the depictions of violence on TV involved handguns, which the researchers said, "can trigger aggressive thoughts and behavior."

"The images television feeds to people affect them," said Shirley Peroutka, an associate professor at Goucher College who teaches courses in television.

"Study after study over the years has confirmed the harmful effects of television violence, and the industry has denied it. The question is, now that their own study finds the same result, what is the television industry going to do about it?" Dr. Peroutka added.

If history is any guide, the television industry will not take any action as a result.

Last fall, for example, a University of California, Los Angeles study funded by the broadcast networks, found what it called dangerous levels of "sinister violence" in children's television shows.

But, rather than address that problem, the industry spent its energy emphasizing what it termed "encouraging results" in the reduction of violence in weekly network series. No action has been taken to reduce violence in children's programs.

The real impact of the cable industry's report, though, might be in its timing.

Congress passed the v-chip legislation last week, which President Clinton is expected to sign into law, perhaps, as soon as Friday.

The v-chip is a computer chip inserted in television sets, which allows parents to block out violent programming. For the chip to work, though, the industry will have to adopt a ratings system for violence. The act passed by Congress as part of the telecommunications bill gives the television industry a year to come up with such a system on its own or face government ratings. The industry has vowed to fight any such system.

Findings like the ones released yesterday are going to make such a fight far more difficult.

Furthermore, both President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole have seized upon the television violence issue. Mr. Clinton is expected to call members of the Hollywood community in coming days to discuss ways for them to reduce violence and provide better children's programming. The cable study is sure to play a role in that discussion, too.

"That is the importance of this study. The cable industry paid a great deal of money for it, and that implies a responsibility on the part of the funder to follow up and actually do something about programming," Dr. Gerbner said.

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