Many youths are today exposed to violent programs presented to them by the new media. According to research findings that was conducted by an American Association of Psychologists, about 60% of television programs are characterized by aggressions and violence (Anderson, 43-60). The research also found that many parents raised voices of concern regarding some programs that they claimed dominated the media. Among such programs were the daily coverage on war toned zones, aggressive TV shows, and violent video games which became rampant with the development of the new media. These were evidence of the increasing need and worry of the society concerning possible effects the media could have on youths, and how this was bound to impact in the society.
In American journalism, the question of whether to report on real life violence, how and when is a matter of significance. News stories of such nature are thoroughly screened. Stories covering on violence are presented based on news presentation style of a particular media institution. For instance, most American journalists present news stories beginning with the most serious events, followed by the less bloody, and finally concluding with the least serious ones on the basis of characteristics of news stories such as proximity of the event, timeliness, and peculiarity of the of the story i.e. “when a dog bites a man, that’s not news, but when a man bites a dog that is indeed news” (Huffington, 8-11).
Media coverage of stories on violence and its side effects on the modern youth has generally been faced with much controversy. Communication experts are posing critical questions on this issue. Among such common questions are, to what extent should the media be allowed to cover on violence? Suppose the media is curtailed from covering violence, will this be a negative challenge to the media fraternity, as it contradicts the journalistic dictum which states “when it bleeds, it leads”. Will the youths still become violent or aggressive, irrespective of their exposures to the violent media programs? These are a few of the questions this essay has attempted to address.
Researches into the effects of the mass media have been one of the most paramount in media studies. One of the commonly referred to of such researches was that which was conducted by Albert Bandura back in the 1970s. Bandura investigated into the effects of the mass media on children exposed to the media i.e. television (Bandura, 43-60, Social learning theory). In his “social learning theory”, Bandura posited that “media characters who serve as models for aggressive behaviors may be attended to by viewers, and depending on whether the behaviors are rewarded or punished, would either inhibit or disinhibit imitation of the behaviors” (Bandura, 47, Social learning theory).
According to Bandura’s theory of social learning, the youths are more vulnerable to violent media programs which may contribute significantly in cultivating their behaviors as they grow into the adulthood age bracket (Bandura, 43-60, Social learning theory). This theory has, however, faced a number of criticisms. For instance, Gauntlet in 1995 asserted that in Bandura’s experiment on the effects of aggressive media programs on children, there could have been a possibility the Children behaved aggressively after they were exposed to violent programs, not really because the programs had an impact on them, but rather, because they wanted to please the experimenter. This could also imply the children were only keen on following the “video instructions”, but not as “incentives to feel aggressive” (Anderson, 19-74).
Rowell Huesmann, a communication expert and Professor at the University of Michigan argues “exposure to media violence can cause children to behave aggressively, and may affect them in their adulthood later in life” (Bushman, & Anderson, 56). However, Jonathan Freedman, Psychological scientist from Toronto University, is not in agreement with Huesmann. To Jonathan, “there are no scientific evidence which show that watching violent or aggressive media programs can yield into traits of violence in the people watching them later-on in their lives” (Anderson, 19-74).
Media role in the propagation of Violence
News is something “new” in nature and peculiar in existence. They are those things that would grasp the attention of audience at one instance. Because of the very attractive nature of newsworthy events conveyed through the mass media channels, public receivers are susceptible to the side effects of t news items they are fed by the media (Bushman, & Anderson, 56).
During the process of information consumption, the public consumes even those information which have some traits of aggression or violence, and which may alter their understanding of the state of affairs. Public violence and negative discourses held in the absence of the youths are embedded into the news items via the media channels straight into the public domain for public consumption (Bushman, & Anderson, 56). What becomes the power of the media is thus its strategic capability to determine what newsworthy items reach the public. This is called gate keeping process (DeFleur M, 1970).The process which explain how the mass media filters news by only releasing partially what it believes is good for the public consumption is referred to as “gate-keeping theory” (DeFleur M, 1970).
Generally, there is a notion that at least some information are important but are not conveyed to the public for certain reasons unknown to them. Possible reasons for not giving the public certain information may include the fear of threats from the State authorities regarding particular information, prejudices of the news editors in charge, influence from the top management in the media institution, dictating what should be presented and what should be curtailed off the public , among others (DeFleur M, 1970).
The modern mass media is in the forefront of propagating such symbols as to shape the views and perceptions of the public audience in relation to public events such as deaths and executions of certain individuals or groups of people, resulting from rebellious political affairs in a given state (DeFleur M, 1970). These behaviors amount to what may be qualified as political rhetoric. It involves the use of symbolical photos and videos channeled through the media instruments into the public domain, to reshape, redefine, misinform or even distort the general believe of the receivers about what they think concerning particular issues. How and what the society thinks is thus structured by the mass media. This calls for yet another media responsibility common known as “the agenda setting role of the media”.
The media is believed to set agendas for the public audience. To understand this process, it is necessary that we discuss briefly on how the agenda setting theory of the mass media works. This is particularly more significant in this context, as it will help us understand at depth, how the mass media links violence and the youth, the views of parents, political leaders and their followers, and the role played by the mass media in this case (DeFleur M, 1970).
Agenda setting theory asserts that the mass media can be responsible in the creation of public agendas on typical issues. It holds that the media informs the public on what to think about regarding the public state of affairs (DeFleur M, 1970).
The journalistic truism that “when it bleeds it leads” may not be justified if criticism labeled against media coverage of violence are to be tolerated. As much as there have been a long lasting concern about the effect of aggressive media programs on young people, a problem dating back to the days of Plato the Philosopher, there have also been an incessant urge on the media to continue informing the society with all that is in their best of interests and not otherwise (Larson, 24). In journalism, news should be something interesting all the time. This is a recognized news attribute in nearly every media institution (Huffington, 5-21, New York Times).
In any case “the death of the famous race car driver Dale Earnhardt ignited a debate in Florida, where a local newspaper fought with his wife over the rights to autopsy photos”, this is newsy beyond reasonable reservations and should therefore be reported when necessary (Huffington, 5-21, New York Times).
In covering the “death of the car driver, Dale Earnhardt” which triggered a lot of debates in Florida, where people were criticizing the media for publishing such violent looking photos, a news agency claimed the right to the photos, holding that citizens were only supposed to make their own judgments about the death of Dale Earnhardt but not otherwise (Huffington, 5-21, New York Times).
The concern of a few groups of individuals was directed towards the side effects the photos which were likely to exact some influence into the minds of young people, their children in particular. In this scenario, it seems there was no point arguing that the public needed to see pictures of the man in question. Perhaps, this was to enable them make judgments about the cause of death that only experts were in a position to determine.
In 90 days following the execution of Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City bomber, there were controversies between the media, some politicians and a few individuals in the public on whether it was appropriate to televise the death of a man they wanted to make sure was put in the corridors of justice. Politicians and citizens maintained they were not relenting in ensuring that some justice was done, enforcing for execution of the man who the media reported had caused death of many innocent citizens. At the end of it, some judgments had to be made, and a judge ruled that media coverage on such violence was not appropriate. The media was for the idea that execution of such a person be shown to the people, more so those who were affected by the incident like relatives. The rest of public only watched the execution coverage on closed-circuit television (Huffington, 5-21, New York Times). Here, an attempt to barricade people from having access to coverage of violent news story was apparent.
While it may generally be held that families of the murdered victims had a right to watch execution of the assassin, possibly to give them a sense of confidence in justice system in the country, and some sense of closure to their lost ones. It may on the other hand be argued as to whether there was any benefit in letting entire nation watch “the real execution process” unfolding before their eyes. This scenario presents more problematic questions given that it took place at a time when there was already a widespread concern about violent youths linked to violent media programs.
If fictional violence are viewed as inducement to actual violence, how much more dangerous is it to prominently display a one on one execution on television, right before the public, with the public watching? In a democratic society, Bushman and Anderson have argued “public executions provide strong symbolic support for the legal use of violence” (Bushman, & Anderson, 56).
Moreover, violent human conducts are not acceptable in any society, yet still, a responsible media organization must take the responsibility of reporting everything newsworthy in an accurate and realistic manner at some times. Irrespective of whether it is on violence or a proceeding on a peace making agenda, the media must inform its audience on nothing but the truth.
Besides the use of real violent coverage in the media to serve as verifiable evidence, portrayal of violence like any other human attributes, either decent or reprehensible, deserve to be there in the entertainment media (Bushman, & Anderson, 56). Exposure to good literature may also help the youths understand the role of violence in society and not otherwise as it is commonly held. Moreover, news coverage on violence stories can too provide substantial information in countering the uncertainty and panic which often emerge in wartimes (Collins, 4). For instance, a research study on the effects of mass media on the youths of Israel during “the Persian Gulf War” found that information acquired from mass media increased ability of adolescent psychologies in coping up with realism of war stories incorporated into news bulletins (Zeidner 89-108).
Perhaps, a better concern for adults should not be pegged on the role of the mass media reporting on violence, but rather, should be placed in the entertainment media i.e. videos, games, music, movies, and cartoon shows which similarly offer such forums where youths can get access to violent media programs (Zeidner 89-108). The entertainment industry is of course characteristically full of so much violence programs, to the extent that the message sent to youth is generally violent oriented and has become part and parcel of their life. This really contributes to what worries most, the concerned and caring parents, guardians and politicians, some directing their grievances to the Hollywood perpetration of violent themes in the society of youths (Collins, 5-23).
It is also crucial for parents and all those concerned about youth affairs be able to distinguish between legal and illegal use of violence in the media, without simply jumping into conclusion that every other media program attributed to violence is rendered unfit for consumption of the youth.
Arguably, there are examples of responsible depictions of violence in entertainment media. A good example is “the 2001 Academy Award-winning film Traffic” which won quite a number of awards. These programs “elegantly captured the historical role of violence in society, as many before and after it did” (Collins, 5-23). Indeed, “American history is replete with violence, and it is hard to imagine how it could be accurately chronicled without violence” (Collins, 5-23). These stories form a significant part of the American culture, “meriting truthful expression and wide audiences” (DeFleur M, 1970).
It is also important to note “responsible depictions of violence can too be extremely valuable for the youth” (Bushman, & Anderson, 56). In two TV Show episodes on “Boston Public”, possible consequences of “gang membership were powerfully demonstrated” (Collins, 5-23). One segment of the show involved “a young high school student whose gang membership eventually led him to commit a violent act”.
In school, the young man was deemed as “pleasant, a capable student, and a prominent member of the choir, and in spite of his positive character, his actions led him to be killed by a hostile gang”. The message was apparent, “bad decisions may be irreversible” (Bushman, & Anderson, 56). In the subsequent episode of the Boston Public Show, a teacher took students to the morgue to see the body of their colleague who had been killed by a gang. As it may be expected, some parents in this episode found the trip not appropriate. The teacher’s mission was to prove to students that gang membership is not good. Evidently, this was a violent program but with a very moral lesion in it.
In contrast to the Boston Public episodes, one may talk of “the World Wrestling Federation characterized by murder mysteries that graphically show dead bodies”. This is a program where real violence is depicted and is truly one of the most celebrated by the youths. Other films depicting gratuitous violence include “The Substitute, Rambo, and Natural Born Killers”. The question is, should such programs be banned from the media, and if this happens, how will be the media role of entertainment be hampered with?
Generally, it can be concluded that the media has some right to report on what they find newsworthy enough, whether on violence or something different. But during their news coverage, they are responsible for what the public consumes. Alongside news stories going deep into the violence, there should be a message of caution to the youths not to misinterpret the information in the news. Parents should too be responsible for guiding their children regarding certain programs instead of putting the entire blame on the media. In this way, the negative impact the media has on youths is likely to reduce.
It is also very critical to note that not all violent programs are perpetrated by the media, by even within our societies, in the families and in the neighborhoods. Media should therefore not be solely blamed for everything. Furthermore, society still needs to know, who or what killed who, where, how, when, and why? These questions really form the news headlines, media institutions can’t do without them.
Anderson, Craig. “Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts versus Media Misinformation”. American Journal of Psychologist. 2001. 19-74.
Bandura, Albert. Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.43-60.
Bushman, Brad & Anderson, Craig. “Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation”. American Psychologist, 56, 2001.
Collins, Jim. “Can movies kill? Twenty-eight people died from playing Russian roulette—apparently after watching The Deer Hunter”. American Film. 1982.4-25.
DeFeur, M. “Theories of the Mass Communication”. 2nd Edition. New York: McKay.1970.
Huffington, Arianna. “Movie Traffic”. New York Times, 4 March, 2001 late ed.: A1. Print.5-21.
Larson, Reed. “Secrets in the bedroom: Adolescents’ private use of media”. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 24 (5), 1995.
Zeidner, Moshe. “Coping with disaster: The case of Israeli adolescents under threat of missile attack”. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 22, 1993.