Most of what we know about violence in the media has explored 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 to 2002) 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 (Japan or the Netherlands, for example) 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 examine and measure the amount of physical violence on television by monitoring network broadcast television programming. These analyses show that the levels of violence on television are quite high and have been relatively stable for the past 30 years. Gerbner et al. (1994) found, for samples of prime-time network programs broadcast between 1973 and 1992 (N = 1,306), that violence appeared in 7 out of 10 programs at the rate of 4.6 incidents per program, and that half of the major characters in these programs were involved in violence. Signorielli (2003) found in samples of prime-time programs broadcast between 1993 and 2002 (N = 1,127) that violence appeared in 6 out of 10 programs at an average rate of 4.5 acts of violence per program.
The NTVS (Federman 1998) examined physical violence in three samples (1994–1995, 1995–1996, and 1996–1997) of composite weeks of programming across 23e channels operating between 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. each day. The sample (N = 8,200) included broadcast (commercial networks, independent stations, and public television) and cable channels (basic and premium channels such as HBO). This sample presents a broader picture of violence on television than the CI perspective. In all of the programming sampled, the NTVS found no change in the prevalence of violence from the 1994–1995 to the 1996–1997 television seasons. Moreover, roughly 60 percent of the programs in each sample contained violence, findings very similar to those of the CI researchers.
In the UK, Gunter et al. (2003) sampled programming for 20 days in both 1994–1995 (N = 5,607) and 1995–1996 (N = 7,237). In both samples, the percentage of programs with violence was considerably smaller than in the US studies. In the 1994–1995 sample, 37 percent of the programs were violent, whereas in the 1995–1996 sample, 45 percent were violent. The increase was due to inclusion of programs on the satellite channels as well as the addition of two satellite channels (TNT/Cartoon network and Sky Sports) in the second year of the study. Both the NTVS and the UK study found that premium movie channels (e.g., HBO) had the most violence – more than 8 out of 10 of the programs in these samples contained violence.
There have been several studies of television violence in other countries. Japanese television programs, for example, 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. Interestingly, many recent cartoon programs now seen in the US (Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, etc.) are Japanese animation that are specifically translated for the US market. Violence in the programming seen in the Netherlands is similar in level to that seen in the US (Bouwman & Signorielli 1985). Canadian television is considerably less violent than US programming. Nevertheless, because most Canadians can easily see a considerable amount of US television, audiences would see less violence only if they watched primarily Canadian-produced programs (Gosselin et al. 1997). Finnish programming is also less violent than US television, although imported programs tend to be more violent (Mustonen & Pulkkinen 1993). Likewise, Korean television is less violent than US programming (Kapoor et al. 1994).
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 in the US. 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 way violence is presented on television (i.e., the context in which it appears) is an important consideration. The NTVS advanced understanding of the way violence is presented on television, particularly its contextual elements, by examining the consequences of violence, whether humor was involved, the graphic nature of the violence, whether weapons were used, and the degree of realism in the violence. The analysis of data from 1994 to 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 violence incidents involved the use of a handgun, and less than 1 in 20 programs emphasized anti-violence themes.
Yet television violence was not particularly graphic (bloody or gory). Even though broadcast network programs had less violence than cable channels, the context of violence on both broadcast and cable was similar. Prime-time broadcast network programming and basic cable programming were less likely than premium cable programming to include violent interactions that depicted pain or harm. Consequently, prime-time network broadcast programs show relatively low levels of pain and suffering. 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?
Any discussion of the amount of violence on television must examine the characters who do the hurting and killing or are hurt and killed. CI studies show that television violence illustrates and provides lessons about power. Violence illustrates who is on top and who is on 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. In addition, during prime time, men are more likely than women to be hurt (victimized) 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. Fewer characters still were involved in violence between 1993 and 2002. Whites and minorities were equal likely to be victimized or commit violence (about a quarter of both whites and minorities). 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.
Although the NTVS did not generate a profile of characters on television, it did examine the demographic characteristics of perpetrators (those who commit) and targets (victims) of violence. Most of the perpetrators (close to three-quarters) were men; only 1 in 10 was a woman. Few perpetrators were categorized as heroes, and most were white. Similarly, most of the targets were men and most were white. Potter and colleagues (1995), in looking at a composite week of evening programming (6 p.m. to midnight) on four networks, also found that television typically presents an unrealistic picture of serious aggression in regard to the race of those who commit the acts as well as of those who are victimized. In short, television over-represents both white perpetrators and white victims of aggression. 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.
The Message Of Violent Content
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.” On television, the lack of adequate contexts for violent behaviors may transmit the lesson that violence is “sanitary,” that it is not necessarily immoral, and that those characters who commit violence are not sorry for their actions and may not be punished for their transgressions – in short, there are few, if any, consequences of committing violence.
Thus, the environment of violent entertainment in which many people, including children, spend most of their free time may be potentially harmful. Last, the lack of realistic contexts for violence on television may signal that aggression and violence are acceptable modes of behavior.
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