George Gerbner (1920 –2006) was one of the most perspicacious students and critics of the social and political effects of television. Of half-Jewish descent, he grew up in Budapest as a recognized poet and lover of folklore. Forced to flee fascist Hungary to the US in 1939, he studied journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. After serving in the US military, Gerbner worked briefly as a journalist and then received a PhD in education from the University of Southern California. He taught briefly at a junior college, then from 1956 at the University of Illinois’s Institute for Communications Research. In 1964, he became dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, where he remained until 1989.
On the surface, his perspective on media and influence was not that different from that of many Marxist-inflected political economists. But while Illinois colleagues such as Dallas Smythe, Herbert Schiller, and Thomas Guback were convinced they could best understand the American media by noting how the capitalist system shaped them, Gerbner focused on the actual materials that capitalism’s industrial apparatus created. He believed it was crucial to look closely at what (echoing anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker) he called mass-produced daydreams because they likely influenced the hierarchy of values as they developed in people’s minds. Gerbner insisted that because popular culture is mass produced, it should be analyzed as a system of industrially patterned, rather than idiosyncratic or artistic, messages. With the “message system” as a central concept, communication research should pursue three fundamental goals: explore the forces that shape the pattern of messages, examine the overall nature of those message patterns, and understand the social roles or functions that those patterns play in society.
Through content analyses he showed that media themes and portrayals were sharply patterned. From his analyses of the media industries, he argued that the content patterns are not objective reproductions of reality. Rather, the mass media’s “system of messages” results from media firms’ need to satisfy advertisers and politicians who benefit from showing people certain views of reality and not others.
The patterned messages that served the goals of large symbol-making industries, he argued, were generally not those that would cultivate an educated and egalitarian society. His research found, for example, that pressures on television producers led them to consistently and inaccurately depict insane people as violently dangerous in ways that would undermine medical leaders’ call for more humane approaches to the mentally ill. He showed that the industrially created popular culture’s portrayals of teachers as either impotent or dangerous were part of a pervasive, enduring negative image of education. This “hidden curriculum” created an illusion of caring about education while actually serving private enterprise’s interests in undermining schools’ “political capital and popular aspirations for mobility, equality and social reform.”
He stirred social controversy when he turned his attention to television violence. His critics pointed out that his definition of violence lumped together realistic cases of physical harm with humorous battles by cartoon animals. But Gerbner’s definition derived from his view that the central problem was not that children and adults would commit violent acts as a result of seeing them on television; most, he noted, would not. Rather, he was concerned with what ideas TV violence reinforced about the world for most viewers. Gerbner and his colleague Larry Gross (1976) developed this concern into what they called cultivation theory. Comparing survey answers of individuals who watched lots of television with those who were light viewers, Gerbner, Gross, and colleagues consistently found that heavy viewers overestimated their chances of being victims of violence. Because heavy viewers were likely to see a great deal of violence in news and entertainment, they concluded that television was helping to reinforce and extend a view of the world as mean and dangerous.
Critics pointed out that this causal explanation could easily be reversed: people who were afraid of the world would stay at home and watch a lot of TV, and the presence of TV violence had little or nothing to do with it. Gerbner and Gross replied to these critiques with elaborations on their cultivation model that have sparked much research.
Observers who dwell on these issues, however, miss a larger point: some of the later Gerbner and Gross studies, read carefully, reveal a far more critical, even subversive, conclusion about television violence. Gerbner insisted that the most widespread and socially significant negative consequence of a person’s exposure to mass media is their reinforcement and extension of discriminatory cultural norms that serve the interests of elites and media industries while undercutting the democratic values they pretend to espouse. He saw media violence as the most elemental form of symbolic control. It didn’t matter to him whether such actions were in news or dramas, live-action shows or cartoons. His cultivation studies suggested that they all presented a message of mayhem that led heavy viewers to worry excessively about their world.
Gerbner saw the hands of private and government power working together to amass symbolic influence. Violence attracted viewers for media firms and votes for politicians: insecure, angry people may be prone to violence but are even more likely to be dependent on authority and susceptible to deceptively simple, strong hard-line postures. They may accept and even welcome repressive measures such as more jails, capital punishment, harsher sentences – measures that have never reduced crime but never fail to get votes – if they are likely to relieve their anxieties.
After his retirement from Annenberg, Gerbner started the Cultural Environment Movement to encourage grassroots activities that would demand greater public participation in decisions about cultural investment and cultural policy.
- Gerbner, G. (2002). Against the mainstream: Selected works of George Gerbner (ed. M. Morgan). New York: Peter Lang.
- Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172 –194.