Violence as Media Content Essay

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Most of what we know about violence in the media comes from studies of violence on television. While some studies of television violence were conducted during the 1950s and 1960s, most of the information about the amount of violence on television in the US comes from the long-term research conducted as part of the Cultural Indicators (CI) Project’s analysis of samples of prime-time network programs (1967– 2013) and the National Television Violence Study’s (NTVS) short-term analysis of a larger sample of network and cable channels from the mid-1990s. In the UK, information about television violence comes from an analysis of samples of programs from the mid-1990s. Knowledge about television violence in other countries (e.g., Japan or the Netherlands) comes from studies looking at violence in samples of programs taken at one point in time. Most of these studies, whether conducted in the US or in other countries, focus on physical violence (hurting or killing) because emotional violence is extremely difficult to define and isolate in a consistent way.

Amount Of Violence In Television Programming

The CI studies show that the levels of violence on television are quite high and have been relatively stable for the past 45 years. Signorielli (2003) found in samples of prime-time programs broadcast between 1993 and 2002 that violence appeared in 6 out of 10 programs at an average rate of 4.5 acts of violence per program. Current ongoing research by Signorielli finds similar levels of violence in the most recent samples of prime-time network programs. In the UK, Gunter et al. (2003) sampled programming for 20 days in both 1994–1995 and 1995–1996. In both samples, the percentage of programs with violence was considerably smaller than in the US studies (37 and 45 percent of the programs were violent).

Japanese television programs are considerably more violent than programs in most other countries, but quite similar to US programming (Iwao et al. 1981). Japanese television violence, however, tends to be more graphic than violence seen in other countries. Violence in the programming seen in the Netherlands is similar in level to that seen in the US. Canadian, Finnish, and Korean programming is considerably less violent than US programming.

Overall, the US studies, particularly those conducted in the 1990s, show stability in the amount of violence on television: violence appears in roughly 6 out of 10 programs. Consequently, whether viewers watch network broadcast channels or cable channels, it is relatively difficult to avoid violence. From an international perspective, countries that import considerable amounts of programming from the US have levels of violence on television similar to those seen in the US, whereas those that do not import many programs have lower levels of violence. One of the reasons for the high level of violence in imported (typically US) programs is that violence transcends language barriers – it is relatively easy to translate, because pictures are self-explanatory.

The Context Of Violence

The NTVS study with data from 1994–1995 found that the context in which violence is presented poses risks for viewers. In particular, three-quarters of the violent scenes were committed by characters who were not punished, negative consequences of violence were rarely presented, one-quarter of the violent incidents involved the use of a handgun, and fewer than 1 in 20 programs emphasized anti-violence themes.

Similarly, CI research also found that violence tends to lack context and that most programs do not show any long-term consequences of violence, such as remorse, regret, or sanctions. The lack of contextual elements is not limited to US programming. The UK study found that programming does not show violence that is particularly harmful and that there was little evidence of blood, gore, and pain. Most of the motives for violence in UK television were related to evil and destruction. The major situations in which violence occurred were interpersonal disputes and crime, followed by scenes focusing on power and self-preservation.

Who Is Involved?

 CI studies show that television violence illustrates and provides lessons about power. Violence illustrates who is on top and who is at the bottom, who gets hurt and who does the hurting, and who wins and who loses. These studies consistently find a power structure related to character demographics, with earlier studies finding women and minorities more likely to be hurt than to hurt others. Recent studies, however, find that during prime time, men are now more likely than women to be hurt (victimized) and/or hurt others (commit violence).

In the programs of the 1980s, men were slightly less likely to be involved in violence than in the programs of the 1970s. During the 1990s, the ratios of hurting to being hurt changed from the patterns seen in the 1970s and 1980s for women but not for men. Today, for every 10 male characters who hurt or kill, 11 are victimized, the same ratio found in the earlier samples. For women, however, instead of 16 women being victimized for each woman who hurts or kills, the odds are even – women are equally likely to hurt or kill and to be hurt or killed. Moreover, although whites are a little more likely to be victimized than to hurt others, the odds for minority characters are even.

Overall the research shows that more men than women and more whites than minorities are involved in violence. Similarly, studies conducted in the UK found that women were much less likely to be involved in violence. Overall, the consensus of findings from studies of media content indicated that contemporary television programs and video games may not adequately support or reinforce the lesson that ‘crime does not pay.’ Thus, the environment of violent entertainment in which many people, including children, spend most of their free time may be potentially harmful. Finally, the lack of realistic contexts for violence on television may signal that aggression and violence are acceptable modes of behavior.


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  9. Timmer, J. (2013). Television violence and industry self-regulation: The V-Chip, television program ratings, and the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board. Communication Law and Policy, 18(3), 265–307.
  10. Wilson, C., Robinson, T., & Callister, M. (2012). Surviving Survivor: A content analysis of antisocial behavior and its context in a popular reality television show. Mass Communication and Society, 15(2), 261–283.

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