It's the question that won't go away: Does media violence promote real violence?
After all the evidence is cited, the debate about media violence quickly falls into a tired and frustrating pattern: either you are for government regulation of the media, or you support the First Amendment and are opposed to censorship.
This "either/or'' choice shuts down discourse and diverts attention from what our experience tells us: that young people are impressionable, and that mass media help legitimize the belief that violence is the way the world works.
Given this impasse, we need a new way of talking about media violence. One approach begins by recognizing a little-known fact about commercial TV: When it comes to violent programming, censorship already exists.
It's called "economic censorship.'' Here's how it works. Countless media texts--from cop shows to cartoons--depict violence as the preferred solution when conflicts arise. The violence formula is preferred because it's a tried-and-true way to grab and hold the attention of viewers, especially young viewers. Young viewers are the most prized audience for advertisers and their clients. They know that young people spend more freely and indiscriminately and have more years ahead of them as ardent consumers.
Indeed, new TV networks--Fox and MTV--have been built on the fact that violent and sensational programming attracts and holds young viewers, especially in the age of "channel surfing.''
Because it is formulaic, media violence is cheap and quick to produce. It doesn't require high-priced creative talent. Just as important, the visual language of media violence translates easily into foreign markets, where American-based media companies earn about half their revenue.
But here's the catch. In order to deliver viewers to commercial messages in a receptive mood, media violence must be neat and efficient. Advertisers do not want their products associated with any complicated, tragic, or downbeat moods. Likewise, Hollywood producers avoid films that might leave audiences with disturbed or ambivalent feelings.
Media producers, in effect, censor any depiction of the tragic consequences of violence. (Older viewers will recall that the social realism of "Playhouse 90'' was unpalatable to advertisers, and thus the popular and critically acclaimed program was canceled.)
Commercial media divert attention from their economic censorship by portraying themselves as protectors of free speech. Their skill at using the First Amendment as a shield for profiteering will nullify any legislative attempts to regulate media violence. Even if a channel-blocking device--like the so-called V-chip--is mandated on new TV sets, only a small percentage of affluent and well-educated viewers are likely to buy and use it.
Moreover, the V-chip--as currently envisioned--would block only those programs designated by the industry as objectionable. Letting parents decide which programs to block would pose too great a threat to industry profits.
So while the current dance between Congress and the industry makes headlines, programming will change little, especially with the coming explosion of cable-TV channels. In the end, public antipathy toward commercial media will only increase. More disturbingly, however, we can also expect further erosion of public respect for the First Amendment.
There's got to be a better way. And there is. Unwittingly, apologists for commercial media point the way when they question how anyone can take media violence seriously. "It's make-believe. It's just entertainment,'' goes the industry refrain.
These apologists make such statements with a straight face because they make up a media elite which understands how media texts are constructed and how commercial forces shape programming. Media elites simply conform to the inevitable logic of the system. As the cultural historian Mark Crispin Miller has noted, "[T]he marketing imperative ... resides in the very consciousness and day-to-day behavior of the media's general workforce.''
Anyone who defies this logic by criticizing the products of commercial media "just doesn't get it.'' Media insiders simply assume the system's logic is self-evident.
But audiences do not think about TV as do the media-makers themselves, whose careers and hefty salaries are publicly on the line with each program or 30-second ad. "People don't really attend to TV,'' says Fred Baker, senior vice president of the McCann-Ericksen ad agency. "It's more of a subconscious or subliminal effect.''
Says Lou Centlivre of the Foote Cone Belding agency: "People don't watch television like they're taking notes for an exam. They're half-conscious most of the time when they're watching television.''
As a result, advertisers and programmers understand that their job is to "jolt the nerves of the half-attentive'' with "stark pictures and a lightning pace,'' adds Mark Crispin Miller. Violence, whether it's the "Terminator'' or the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,'' is an efficient tool for the job.
But stories built on the violence formula have more power and influence than their makers can afford to admit. Storytelling is how we organize society. Stories tell us who we are as a people, where we came from, and where we're going.
Especially powerful are stories about heroes. Before commercial mass media, heroic stories were grassroots creations tied to the needs and experience of local communities and cultures. With mass media, a historic change has occurred: Our culture's stories are increasingly manufactured by media insiders whose most important goal is to tell stories to mass audiences for the benefit of advertisers and their clients.
Young people are especially vulnerable in this new storytelling environment. Advertisers, no less than parents and teachers, understand that young people are walking bundles of needs and anxieties on the complex path to adulthood. Stories about heroes have always been important maps for that journey, because heroes exude power and a strong sense of self, just what young people are seeking.
Today's stories, however, serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many. This truism was foreshadowed years ago with L. Frank Baum's early critique of media pyrotechnics: The moment when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the real Wizard of Oz.
Media elites have seen behind the curtain. They know how the pseudo-realities of TV and movies are constructed. We need to give our young people this insider's knowledge. Fortunately, there's a way to do this. It's called media literacy.
Media literacy takes students behind the scenes to show how special effects, editing, camera angles, sound, and lighting are used to create powerful illusions of reality. Media literacy also delves into the economics of media and examines how the needs of advertisers dictate what we're offered by commercial media.
For example, media literacy pulls the curtain back on what advertisers and marketing experts routinely discuss in their trade publications: that toymakers make more money off boys, and that boys most often determine which channel is watched on Saturday morning. That's why cartoons are dominated by male action heroes who use violence to resolve conflict.
Media literacy also reveals how different audiences respond to media. For example, during the Persian Gulf War, researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that heavy TV viewers were more likely to support the war and to mistake Kuwait for a democracy.
Similarly, the media researcher George Gerbner finds that heavy TV viewers are more likely to believe they live in a "mean world.'' Used in the classroom, this insight can lead students to pose interesting questions: How does the "mean world'' outlook influence the political and social behavior of heavy TV viewers? Are heavy TV viewers more likely to own guns? Are they more likely to use them?
These are just a couple of examples of how media literacy helps students think critically about the media world we live in. By understanding the profit motives behind media violence, young people are less likely to let violence define their view of reality. When industry apologists argue that TV and movies simply hold a mirror up to reality, media-literate young people know it's not that simple.
Fortunately, media literacy is not just another add-on to our schools' already overloaded curriculum. Media literacy enlivens how our schools teach critical thinking by serving as a bridge between the classroom and the world in which our young people live most of their waking lives. Indeed, the school curricula in many states such as North Carolina and New Mexico have numerous references to thinking critically about mass media.
The missing link, however, is teacher training. While media-literacy training has been conducted in Canada, Australia, and Britain for more than two decades, only North Carolina, New Mexico, and Massachusetts have begun offering media-literacy training for teachers. We must do more. Media literacy must be put on the fast track in our schools, communities, and teacher training programs.
Media literacy protects our tradition of free speech by sidestepping the First Amendment shield used by commercial media to protect their profits. Media literacy is not a cure-all for violence, but it should be part of any comprehensive effort to address the problem. It's our only real tool for reining in a media culture that is out of control.
Wally Bowen is the executive director of Citizens for Media
Literacy, which is based in Asheville, N.C. He teaches media literacy
at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching and also
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Principals'