Homework: TV violence Watching: Maryland's attorney general joins his counterparts in urging that parents rate television programs and report their impressions to broadcasters.

November 12, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Assignment for parents, from Maryland's top law enforcement officer: Spend a week with Xena the Warrior Princess, the X-Men, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers -- the images that beam from the TV screen to the most impressionable brains in your home.

Take a pen and a copy of the newly printed Parent's Diary now on its way to the state's elementary schools, and rate each show for violent content. Then tell the broadcasters what you think.

The nationwide campaign to be announced today is called "Tune Out the Violence," launched by state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and others who say televised violence fuels violent juvenile crime. Maryland posted the nation's fourth-highest rate of juvenile murders in 1994.

"Parents have to rely on themselves. Parents are the best V-chip," said Curran, speaking of the blocking device that will be installed in all new television sets beginning in 1998, part of a new federal law.

To get the attention of parents and broadcasters, the National Association of Attorneys General will designate Thursday -- midway through a key ratings month -- "Tune out the Violence" day across the country.

The campaign will include plans in about 30 states to get parents to screen TV watching, understand the links found in numerous studies between media violence and aggression, and teach children how to view with a critical eye.

Network executives agreed that parents should monitor what their children watch, but disagree that their programming is harmful.

"Anything parents do to involve themselves in the lives of their children is always positive," Julie T. Hoover, spokeswoman for ABC Inc., said. "Having said that, ABC has a department of broadcast standards and practices that carefully reviews every program. We do not have inappropriate violence in our programming."

The campaign was started by Curran and Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, with support from the American Medical Association.

It adds to a chorus of attacks on media violence from parents, children's advocates, health professionals -- and from both political parties this year. The rancor helped lead to the passage in February of the Telecommunications Act, which will require the V-chip on all new TV sets.

Major broadcasters have promised to rate shows beginning in January so parents block programs they consider inappropriate, but it will be years before the device is available in every household.

A wealth of research has shown a connection between violent media messages and aggression, though there is some disagreement about the amount of violence shown.

A yearlong study sponsored by the cable TV industry, released in February, found that a majority of TV programs contained violence that was "psychologically harmful."

Network executives, however, point to a recent study by the University of California at Los Angeles, released last month, that found the amount of violence on networks declined last year.

Curran, in his 23-page report released in September, highlights the findings of major recent studies on the topic, among them:

* By age 12, a typical child has seen 100,000 acts of violence on TV, including about 8,000 killings.

* 57 percent of all network programming contained violent acts, defined as those intended to harm or injure others; the figures were higher in children's programming.

* 73 percent of violence on TV went unpunished, and 58 percent of violent acts showed no pain to victims. Such factors desensitize children to the anguish caused by violence, researchers say.

Curran stresses that his effort is not about censorship or turning off the TV, but encouraging parents to take control of their living rooms and pressure media organizations to offer more educational programming, less gratuitous violence.

Beginning Thursday in Maryland, 500,000 copies of A Parent's Diary will be distributed to elementary schoolchildren, featuring a week's calendar with half-hour time slots from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and space to document the show's content and violence rating on a scale of 1 to 5.

Other state attorneys general are forming partnerships with state medical associations -- as Maryland has done -- and are holding workshops on how to distinguish between the way problems are solved on TV (within an hour) and in real life.

"Unfortunately, our entertainment industry has gotten totally out of control," said Marie E. Hartman, PTA president of Bodkin Elementary in Anne Arundel County, whose school made a similar effort to rate shows last year. "I have to monitor what my children turn on after 9 at night."

Network representatives say the attacks on media violence resort to easy generalities, especially suspect in an election year.

They also say the critics lump the major networks in with cable TV -- which broadcasts uncut films -- and ignore the network's efforts to restrict prime time to family-oriented shows such as "Touched by an Angel."

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