The type of damage caused by media violence

January 29, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More
Image by Robertnelson at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Robertnelson at Flickr (creative commons)

Media Education Foundation has released a new video: The Mean World. This  documentary studies the work of communications scholar George Gerbner, who carefully studied media violence for four decades.

What is the effect of media violence? It doesn’t seem to make most of those who watch it engage in violent acts. Rather, viewing repeated acts of violence is “likely to make us more scared of violence being done to us.”

Gerbner’s team repeatedly determined that “commercial media have eclipsed religion, art, oral traditions, and the family as the great story-telling engine of our time.”    As Gerbner noted, a small handful of commercial conglomerates have global marketing formula that are imposed on the people in Hollywood [who are told] put in more action.  Cut out complicated solutions.  Apply this formula because it travels well in the global market. These are formulas that need no translation, that are image-driven, that speak action in any language . . . and the leading element of this formula is violence.”

This tidal wave of highly choreographed violence is unprecedented, and it is being pumped into every home.   Most children now see 8,000 murders by the end of elementary school.   Gerber holds that this violence is so dangerous because it has become routine.   There was violence in many traditional stories, such as fairy tales and Shakespeare, but modern violence is “happy violence.” which is entertaining and glamorous, “sugar coated with humor,” and it inevitably leads to a happy ending.   The problem is thus not the mere quantify of violence, but the meaning of this violence, the way that it is used to tell a story.

It is too simplistic (and unsupported) to argue that watching media violence makes one violent.   This is not to say that media violence is harmless.  According to this article by Gerbner media violence results in the “Mean World Syndrome.” Watching media violence makes us see exaggerated threats of attack and danger everywhere.

Violence-laden television contributes significantly to the feeling of living in a mean and gloomy world. By far the most pervasive effect is that of a cluster of responses we call the “mean world syndrome.”

Symbolic violence takes its toll on all viewers. However, heavier viewers in every subgroup (defined by education, age, income, gender, newspaper reading, neighborhood, etc.) express a greater sense of apprehension than do light viewers in the same groups. They are more likely than comparable groups of light viewers:

  • to overestimate their chances of involvement in violence;
  • to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe;
  • to state that fear of crime is a very serious personal problem;
  • to assume that crime is rising, regardless of the facts of the case.

Heavy viewers are also more likely to buy new locks, watchdogs and guns “for protection.”

Television’s impact is especially pronounced in terms of how people feel about walking alone at night on a street in their own neighborhoods. . . . Whatever real dangers may lurk outside people’s homes, heavy television viewing is related to more intense fears and apprehensions. The patterns of victimization on television and real-world fear, even if contrary to fact, are also related. Viewers who see their own group have a higher calculus of risk than those of other groups develop a greater sense of apprehension, mistrust and alienation; the “mean world syndrome.”  This unequal sense of danger, vulnerability and general unease, combined with reduced sensitivity, invites not only aggression but also exploitation and repression.

Watching too much violence causes people to lash out at stereotyped aggressors with force, discouraging us from looking for root causes.  One out of every one-hundred Americans is now in prison.  As Gerbner notes in the video, this increased fear plays out the most against those we view as being different than Anglo Americans.  Targeted groups include Latinos, Arabs and Muslims and, of course, African Americans, who have constantly been dehumanized and portrayed as generally dangerous on television.

Local news is a constant provider of violent images.  Keep in mind that local TV news is the prime source of news for 2/3 of Americans.  61% of lead stories involve violence and danger.  It is where we learn that the most important happenings of our communities involve fires, accidents, crimes, murders and disasters.  And guess what?  The MED video reports on a survey result that 2/3 of the people who think that their world is terribly violent get most of their information from television.

Once again, MEF has put out a quality product.  This information presented in this video leads inexorably to the conclusion that media violence is horrendously damaging to our society, even though it doesn’t directly cause viewers to go outside and commit acts of violence.  But it very well could cause people to believe that violent crime is much worse than it is, and terrorism is much more likely to harm them than it is.  And that they need to be helicopter parents.

The documentary argues that television-driven (and video-game driven) fear, anger and mistrust are irrationally driving U.S. politics because they warp our world view.  We could diminish our desire to drop bombs on poor people from the Middle East if only we had the discipline to turn off our televisions and take a few deep breaths.  Fat chance.

Can you imagine this experiment?  Some madman comes up with a horrific nuclear bomb that will destroy a major U.S. city.   Authorities are convinced that he actually has the device.  But he’s a quirky madman.  He says that he will not detonate the bomb under one condition:  That at least 100% of Americans simply turn off their televisions for one week.    It would never happen, in my opinion.  That’s how strong is our urge to watch television, and that is why we will continue to be a violent and xenophobic culture for the foreseeable future.


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Category: American Culture, Films and Videos, ignorance, law and order, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    It is always very difficult to tease causality out of these studies, because they take place in a real world full of confounds. Maybe people who are more prone to believe in a "mean world" are more likely to stay glued to their TVs for comfort and information, for example? Perhaps TV news has taken to reporting about crime because people have become more wary and interested in such topics in recent decades?

    At the least, television seems to exacerbate public paranoia. It becomes almost druglike to those who fear the outside world: it plys them with details and comforting facts, gives them the illusion that they are taking control over a social ill by learning about it. Paradoxically it is only making those fears of social ill worse.

    Not to mention that if there were only more people out on the street (and fewer people sitting at home watching the news) there would probably be less per-capita violent crime.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Fear that divides us,

    Brings anger that binds us

    and the hatred that blinds us.

    They, our masters,

    We, their slaves.

    Freedoms sold gladly,

    For things made so badly

    In China, where sadly,

    Slaves toil away

    In sweatshops all year.

    As children they teach us,

    From pulpits they preach us

    The adverts beseech us

    To trade all away

    for some shiny toys.

    Their greed never sated

    By what they've created.

    A monster much hated,

    For which we are blamed,

    but we're damaged as well.

    We the worlds scape goats,

    whose leaders are turn coats

    that glide by in swift boats,

    must make ourselves heard.

    but we have no voice.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:


    Is that original? I quite like it!

  4. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    It's not only original, but extemporaneous. I was in a weird mood yesterday.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus: I'm tempted to try to pull you out of your doldrums with some fantasy tales about supernatural beings who love you and claims that America is the greatest nation in the world and that nothing can stop us from succeeding!

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