Measuring the impact of media violence

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      Once upon a time in central B.C., there was a town without television. This town, located in a remote valley, couldn’t receive TV signals until folks asked the CBC to install a transmitter in 1973.

      When UBC psychology professor Tannis MacBeth learned about the town’s plans, she seized the opportunity to study the impact of TV on viewers. What she discovered was revealing.

      MacBeth and her research team studied the children and adults in two other similar towns for comparison. The town without TV was called “Notel”. A second had one TV channel. A third had received four channels for 15 years. The researchers studied all the towns before Notel received television, and then two years after its introduction to TV.

      They studied various skills, such as creativity and literacy, but the most significant change was a doubling of physical and verbal aggression by Notel’s children. This change wasn’t reported in the other towns for that same period.

      “It was also true for children who were initially low in aggression as well as those who were initially high in aggression,” MacBeth, now retired, explained by phone. “And that’s important, because the networks have claimed for some time, ”˜Well, yeah, sure, there are some people who are characteristically aggressive and they watch violent stuff and they may behave more aggressive afterward, but they did it anyway—they’re aggressive people.’ ”

      Violence in media, it seems, is everywhere these days. Beyond low-brow action or horror flicks, critically acclaimed TV shows like Prison Break and The Sopranos, Oscar nominees and winners No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Eastern Promises, and numerous video games have all upped the ante on graphic depictions of murder, physical injury, gunplay, and physical and verbal conflict.

      Yet MacBeth has documented that most violent content is gratuitous. “In our study, which was a large sample of programs, about 70 percent of the violence”¦was not necessary to tell the story.” Action and violence, MacBeth acknowledged, transcend cross-cultural barriers when selling shows internationally. “Jokes and some aspects of character roles don’t necessarily export very easily across cultures and languages.”

      A debate about the impact of media violence has raged for decades. In spite of a large body of research, the causal link between media violence and behaviour has often been questioned.

      In a report entitled “Media Consumption as a Health and Safety Risk Factor”, Stephen Kline of the SFU Media Analysis Laboratory stated that the relationship between media and violence is one of the most controversial: “Not all children who watch a steady diet of violent entertainment are aggressive or antisocial because media risks interact with other risk factors such as class, community crime, and family dysfunction.”

      Nonetheless, the lab conducted a pilot study for a community risk-reduction strategy in North Vancouver in 2003 by challenging students to go cold turkey off all media for intermittent periods. Teachers anecdotally reported less classroom disruptions and less aggressive play behaviour.

      Similarly, in a 1987 study by University of Winnipeg psychology professor Wendy Josephson, grades two and three boys watched either a violent or nonviolent TV show before playing a floor-hockey game. The boys who watched the violent show displayed more aggressive behaviour in the game than did boys who watched the nonviolent show.

      Some, however, argue that there are beneficial effects of portraying violence on TV and in movies. “The catharsis idea is that maybe this enables people to release their aggressive impulses in a safe way and therefore they will be less aggressive,” MacBeth said. Yet in all her research, she could not find any studies to verify this hypothesis. If there were a cathartic effect, she said, the aggressive behaviour observed in her Notel study would have lessened rather than increased.

      Gordon Dahl and Stefano Della Vigna of the University of California (San Diego and Berkeley), wrote a study published a year ago that reported violent crimes actually decreased on days with large audiences attending violent movies. However, the results were attributed to extended incapacitation and decreased alcohol consumption. Also, the study only addressed short-term, not long-term, effects.

      The majority of research on violent media, according to MacBeth, has focused mostly on TV because people choose which films to go see whereas TV comes directly into people’s homes.

      In 1993, Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation developed criteria for a television code on violence. The code, fashioned for the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, included stipulations such as no adult programming between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., restrictions on violence in children’s programming, program rating systems, and frequent viewer advisories.

      The code also requires “V-chip” encoding (the “V” stands for “viewer control”). Recently manufactured TV sets have the V-chip, invented by former SFU professor Tim Collings. It allows users to block out unwanted programming based on a classification system. Ratings include designations such as C (children), C8+ (children eight and older), PG (parental guidance), and 18+ (adult).

      In spite of this code, Laval University professors Guy Paquette and Jacques de Guise discovered that from 1993 to 2001, physical violence on three Anglophone networks increased 183 percent. According to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, however, audience complaints about violence have dropped by 37 percent between 2001 and 2006.

      From Toronto, C-CAVE president Rose Dyson said that the “restrictions on public television are certainly better than on the private broadcasters and better than what’s allowed in the theatres”.

      Yet if the controversial Bill C-10 is approved, tax credits for Canadian films deemed not in the public interest, including those depicting violence and sex, may be cut. Canadian stars Sarah Polley, Sandra Oh, and Gabrielle Miller, as well as directors and average citizens, have opposed the bill because of concerns about censorship. Should artistic freedom be sacrificed for public protection?

      Dyson, who will appear before the Senate this week to support the bill, calls it discretionary funding. “I think that everybody in society, artists included, has a certain responsibility to the larger public interests. And while we certainly want to create a nurturing environment for artistic freedom, we have to put some boundaries around it.”

      The impending Bill C-10 has overshadowed its small-screen counterpart. Bill C-327 would require the CRTC to monitor both compliance with regulations on violent TV scenes and punishment.

      CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein presented a speech to the Commons heritage committee on March 4 to declare the commission’s opposition to the bill. “We believe that the present system,” he stated, “based on industry self-regulation in adherence to obligatory codes, and backed up by the CRTC as the final arbiter, does provide an effective means to achieve the desired purpose.”

      The real problem, von Finckenstein argued, is that the CRTC lacks a “full range of penalties to deal with violations”. He argued for the power to impose administrative monetary penalties as a mid-range solution.

      The CAB Web site states that the bill is redundant “since the existing system of industry codes and standards were developed through extensive and thorough public processes and consultations.” The CAB, which the Straight was unable to reach by deadline, also argues that “Bill C-327 does not provide any compelling evidence of increased violence in television programming.”

      The organization also points out that “the CAB has created a mandatory system of codes that set high standards for all its members. Adherence to these codes is not voluntary. As a condition of licence, Canada’s private broadcasters agree to observe these codes and their licences are reviewed regularly by the CRTC.”

      Despite what their supporters might believe, the thorny and complicated issue of media violence won’t go away if Bill C-10 and Bill C-327 both pass into law. The volume of the debate, however, will certainly rise.