Socially Responsible Media

Will September 11 Make a Difference in Media Violence?

by the Rev. John P. Jackman

The entire world recoiled in horror at the vicious attacks of September 11th. The impact of these terrible events will be felt for years to come, and for the thousands of families who have lost loved ones the horror and pain will last for a lifetime. But immediately after the event, before the full impact of the horror became real, nearly everyone I spoke to had the same reaction: "it was like a movie."

This give rise to the question: Just what sort of movies have we been watching, anyway?

For many years, there has been growing alarm about the negative impact of graphic violence in films, television, video games, and music. The increasing coarseness of subject matter, spurred by shock radio and then bleeding into prime time TV - what used to be regarded as the "Family Hour" - has had a measurable and degrading effect on our culture. Despite vehement industry denials and self-righteous waving of the First Amendment, this direct effect is no myth. It has been documented by study after study - some even funded by the industry itself.

Over a year ago, representatives of six major public health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Medical Association, signed a statement about the impact of entertainment violence on children saying, in part:

"Well over 1000 studies… point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children. The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children."

After Columbine, there was a moment when many thought that the industry would pull back. Public concern was high. But a review of films and television programming since then reveals only more graphic violence, more gutter humor and gross sexual references than ever before. Senate hearings were embarrassing, but didn't make much difference. Dead and injured children didn't slow the onslaught.

It took September 11th to get their attention. High-budget films have been shelved, television programmers have scrambled to pull episodes that might have offensive overtones or plots too reminiscent of actual events. This sudden and highly unusual attack of sensitivity is welcome in an industry that has shown itself repeatedly to be callous, cynical and coarse. I have often wondered what it would take to get the attention of the decision makers. What a shame that it had to be a disaster of this proportion.

Please don't get me wrong; there are many very good people working in the industry. Many people in the industry have been genuinely shaken, as we all have, and seem to be reassessing what is appropriate and what is not. But I'm afraid that for many key executives, this sudden swell of sensitivity is just as cynical as any other programming decision they make, and it won't be long before they are back marketing ultraviolent programs to kids officially too young to even see them. The culture of the industry is one that values mindlessly "pushing the envelope," one that rewards and commends those that shock and images that horrify. As we are increasingly desensitized to the previous level of crudity and violence, they have to "push the envelope" even further to shock. In the words of one reviewer, "it seems the barrel has no bottom." What happens to our society when the only taboo left, the only line left to cross, is the snuff film?

How long before we're back to finding the next level of disaster flicks and images of human brains splattering on cineplex screens? Can Howard Stern be even more offensive? Can Drew Carey find a coarser visual joke for the family hour than the Exploding Crotch Gag?

Years ago, we began to awaken to the fact that we could not continue to mindlessly pour waste chemicals into our lakes and rivers, that we could not just bury drums of toxic waste and then build homes on top of them. Since the days when the Cuyahoga River burned, we have done a fairly good job of requiring industrial plants to clean up their act. But in the same way, we can't keep pouring filth, misogynistic images, and extreme violence into the minds of our youth without paying a price.

As tragic as it is, I hope that this moment when many people are reassessing their lives in a new way will also become a moment of awakening for key players in the entertainment industry. I hope it will be a moment when producers and programming executives will finally take the giant step of accepting responsibility for the images they create, and the impact that they have on society. Because one of the things that our nation desperately needs in the days to come is socially responsible media.

The Rev. John Jackman is Executive Director of Comenius Foundation, an independent nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics and values through the media.

Changing the Channels Followup:
The change was temporary, and the optimism many people felt turned out to be unjustified. While there is a little less graphic violence, there has not been any noticable increase in social resposibility. Programmers have shifted from "more violent" to "more disgusting, exploitative, and degrading" with programs like Fear Factor, Jackass, and Temptation Island.