Switching through channels during the day or the night, one would wonder if the cause of television is only educational, informative and entertaining. Nevertheless, not everyone perceives what is projected in the same way. It has been a chronic debate in the practices of media researchers, sociologists and behaviourists who support that TV might be most times rewarding for the individual and the human mind but can also be harmful in terms of imitation of aggressive and antisocial behaviour with all the violence depicted through films, reality shows and even the news reports.
It was never clear and many hypotheses were not supported though those studies that supported their hypotheses seemed to be groundbreaking and have put the public in thoughts about the dangers produced from TV and the media in general.
Most of the fear and the protection are mostly around children and parents do their best for their children to bring them up away from trouble and antisocial behaviour. In vulnerable ages like those, if the first mistake is committed it might shadow the rest of their lives.
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Seeing all the violence around, an individual has more potential to develop antisocial behaviour and aggression; thus television is the most popular and most readily accessible way through a threshold of violence projection.
Moral panics in news and media & the fear of crime
The relationship between viewing and aggression, indirectly, was found in studies from Livingstone (1996), suggested that more aggressive individuals watch more violent television programs and that violent programs can make individuals more violent even if they are not violent at all. Also, he cited that social circumstances lead people to aggression sometimes and from there they end up watching violent television programs.
Television is said to have major influence on the public, indirectly by 'subliminal messages' or even directly as an electric device. Hennigan (1982) examined burglary in the 1950s when television entered most households of Britain. He compared 1951's cities with TVs and cities without finding more burglaries in the first. Afterwards, in 1955 he compared the cities which had TV since then with those cities that installed TVs in their households lately and found out that the second group saw an increase of 5% in burglaries. He concluded to support the direct criminogenic nature of television and the crime increase it caused as well as materialism that is seen in various programs. Also, he suggested the increasing in the public's need to report crime even when there was not any and with all this crime it displays the police become more 'crime conscious' seeing things that could really happen.
The case of James Bulger, a two year old who was abducted, tortured and finally killed by two children aged 8 and 10, was said to be inspired from Child's Play 3, a horror movie of the early 90's. The same movie seems to have inspired the torturers and killers of Suzanne Capper, a 16-year-old from Manchester. These rumours though were never proved as true despite all the blame that was thrown by parents and sociologists. On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of harm from the media and especially the news on the aftermath of each crime. It might be a huge question mark in the suggestion that media lead people to commit crime but it is for sure they committed the biggest crime of out times: the moral panics.
Cohen (2002) described a sequence of how moral panics are created through the media. First, there must be a condition or a situation that leads to an episode. Then this episode becomes a threat for the society which the media present as stereotypical. Afterwards the condition can disappear leaving behind the threat. The public feels the threat and puts pressure on politicians or people in the justice system to interact by creating legal and social changes. As mentioned above, the fear of crime is still present and this leads to more severe punishment for minor crimes.
Schlesinger and Tumber (1994) cited a change concerning the coverage of news. Their studies shown that during the 1960s the news in television, radio and newspapers were mostly about murder, jewel theft and crimes smaller by nature. This kind of crime was not supposed to be presented because of its insignificance although there was a lot of space to be covered in the news so it was included. It was only until the 90s and the ending of the capitol punishment that there was an increase in the crime rate and completely different kinds of crime were covered. Then it was child abuse, mugging, hooliganism and terrorism that saw a rise in popularity in the news.
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Greer (2005) suggested an exaggeration of the media according to violent crime, something that Ditton & Duffy (1983) supported with their study in Scotland. They traced a tremendous 46% of the news to describe violent crime at the time that recorded violent crime by the police was less than just 3%. This was also reported by Ericson et al (1987). In a study to examine deviance, they resulted to a percentage of 45% in quality newspapers and a percentage of 71% of the radio programs were discussing, examining and referring to deviance and any possible ways that could be reduced. Another study to show the extended and exaggerated amount of violence in the media was conducted by Reiner (2007). He analysed copies of the Daily Mirror and the Times, two of Britain's most popular newspapers, noticing that between the period of 1945 until 1951 the percentage of violence and deviance crimes reported in the newspaper were 2% and 3%, respectively. Then, observing the crimes of the same papers between 1985 and 1991 there was an increase of 4% for the first (6%) and an increase of 5% in the latter (9%).
So, by over-presenting and exaggerating of amounts of news, details that could stay concealed like faces, situations and locations and generally the facts only negative outcomes can be produced. Sociologist Stanley Cohen (2002), referring to the abduction, sexual abuse and killing of children, cited a very interesting result: The more crimes of this nature happen and the more they are presented, the public feels defenseless and think that their children, siblings or relatives might as well become victims of a crime of that nature. After all the details that are related to the crime that are shown in the news, they feel like the danger is outside their door waiting for them and it is just a matter of time before they become victims themselves. This leads to what we call the fear of crime.
'Fear of crime' is a phrase often used to describe the feeling of people who consider themselves as possible crime victims affected by everything they see around them. In Britain it affects the government and all the work they produce to in this factor. In Home Office's Standing Conference on Crime Prevention in 1989 in was mentioned that reporting crime in such amounts of time and presenting all unusual crimes on television like violence, rape, murder or disorder, sends to the public the impression of fear and the possibility of victimization (Newburn, 2007). Even though, Reiner appointed the lack of evidence in research that suggests that the increasing of fear of crime is caused by media exposure (2002:401). It really is easy to measure it through criminological research, criminals and victims, but according to his opinion, the results will not be clear enough to support the hypothesis that everyone sees reasonable - that media exposure is responsible for fear of crime under certain circumstances.
Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) gave their own explanation: the threat is affecting values or interests and then is presented in the media. The public concern, as usual, makes an appearance and the response of authority is that joins in, results in social changes.
More or less the two approaches are similar and result into more intense policing and stricter laws. It is really a kind of over-reaction from the police to make the public feel safe. Crime is not only an act of violence or antisocial behaviour; there are crimes, lighter in their nature that can easily have someone prosecuted. Illegal drug possession and use, for example, is a crime really overrated and the media are responsible for that.
Young (1973) studied the effects of drugs and the perception of the public against drugs. In fact, he suggested social isolation of drug users from the police and the fantastic world drugs offer both depicted as they were presented in the media. This 'fantasy stereotype' led police to intensive actions and harsh sentences, two things that lead to the secrecy between dealers, users and so on and give drug crime a massive value. He continues his chain reaction theory by linking the rarity of drugs to the increase of the price and the drugs getting in the black market, a field that it is not consisted from the most innocent of the kind, so this leads to even more intensive policing, search and raids in drug houses and arrests without clues. Drugs are another huge chapter and surely they are nothing like they present them in the media. They never suggest that you can get addicted to drugs only if you try, on your own will and with your own hands but they depict them as something that is waiting around the corner for innocent people to trap and get them addicted. However, in most films drugs introduce the audience a relationship they have with masculinity. An ethnographic study conducted in New York suggested Latino males seemed more masculine when involved with drugs and violence (Bourgois, 2003).
Violent TV, imitation, aggressiveness from adults and children
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Violence does not appear from a day to another, knocking a sane adult's door and start manipulating his life. Parents play a severe role in how their children perceive the matter of violence, antisocial behaviour and generally what is harmful for them and others and what is accepted from the society and what is not.
However, parents show to be mostly concerned about the children's of others being violent and watching inappropriate TV programs more than they are concerned about their own children being violent (Buckingham, 1996). In the same field of studies Buckingham also asked parents what programs they allow children to watch and what programs they prohibit them to. Most parents did not have a problem with their children watching violent films and programs because they support that their children can judge right from wrong and can say fiction from reality. Although, this proportion also said that they prefer their children watching violent programs that those with sexual content.
Firmstone (2002) describes a study conducted by Buckingham that wanted to examine the way children feel about and perceive specific programs on TV that were aired frequently. 72 children of four different age groups (6-7, 9-10, 12-13, 15-16) participated in this study that wanted them to watch Casualty, a hospital program of real-life events that were re-done by actors, Crimewatch, a show that described real-life criminal events with real footage and interviews and Ghostwatch, a show about spirits that needed special effects to make fake fiction stories seem real. Children referred to the first show as fake and stated that they were not frightened at any time watching the screen but some of them were either upset or shocked by some story lines and by some gore scenes of horrible accidents. Watching the second program, children felt unsafe, worried and threatened as the real footage from the cameras made them more vulnerable to the issue. They got more frightened after they saw that some of the crimes were near their territory. The strange thing is that parents let them watch shows like that to be more familiar with the world around them. The third show with all the fictional events and all the means of deception used, to make the show look real, seemed to find the children confused in the start but later on horrified and scared mostly because of all their belief of the existence of ghosts.
Now, imitation is another aspect of the media that influences violence and deviance. Albert Bandura, during the early 60s, conducted the popular 'Bobo doll experiment' to examine the imitation of violent behaviour. Two groups of children, an experimental group and a control group took part. The first group saw an adult being violent against the doll verbally and physically. When both groups went into the same room with the doll, the experimental group showed twice the amount of violence than the control group. Maltby et al (2007), describes three factors affecting imitation of behaviour that Bandura came up with in 1977.
The three characteristics of the model suggested are; the first one suggesting that the more similar we are with the model, the more likely we are to imitate his behaviour. There are various films that illustrate drug use, gang crime, mugging, murder and other crimes carried out by subcultures. For example watching films with black rappers who carry weapons and smoke marijuana could lead a black person to set that lifestyle as stereotype. The second characteristic cited is the attributes of the observer. Confidence and self-esteem are crucial in how we perceive things and let them affect us. A sane person with confidence would not imitate criminal behaviour because his friends think it is 'cool' neither would lose control of a situation that could be breaking the law. Thirdly, the final factor given suggests the consequences of imitating a behaviour. A popular question by other or our own self comes to take place. How many times in life have you wondered around the question: "Would you do something illegal if you could get away without any legal action?"? Positive results though, can push someone into imitating. For example seeing a bank heist in a film and thinking what you would do with all this money. This is a situation where positive outcomes overrun negative and as a result imitating is unavoidable.
It is over time that aggressiveness is built in a child and it is not the whole audience that is affected from it. Some media researchers emphasized that those mostly affected are children of poor academic achievements and children with poor social skills, who spend most of their time watching television (Gunter & McAleer, 1997). Also, in role play in games between them it is likely to copy violent TV characters and put themselves in fake confrontations and fights. In addition to turn their imaginative world and play into a more realistic situation with aggressiveness and violent that can result to harming their friends (Singer & Singer, 1981).
Dorr et al (1980) conducted an investigation about children's aggressiveness after watching an episode of the popular, then, series: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. They were considered about the change in playing styles and expecting more violent behaviour from the children after the viewing. Same as Bandura's experiment, the children were separated in a group that would watch the episode and a control group that would not. As expected, the children of the first group proved to be seven times even more violent than the children of the control group, the conclusion was produced out of the amount of their aggressive martial arts copying from the series.
Imitation in criminology usually leads us to Copycat killers. Those who just admired the work of previous murderers and had the ambition to be like them someday either in popularity or from the brutality's point of view so they just start killing using the ways and means the previous killer did. These means cannot be copied from anywhere else than the media. News broadcasting gives every detail of the crime and someone can easily copy. They name the weapon; they describe where each stab is located and how the criminal grabbed the victim. Even in rapes they even describe if there was oral and anal sex or what piece of her clothes the rapist torn first. Violence depicted in news and reality shows along with programs like Criminal Minds or Prison Break, seem to be an inspiration for curious people looking for the perfect crime or aroused by the challenge of not getting caught.
As discussed above, it is difficult to confirm whether TV and films can affect violent behaviour since people have their own identity, though most times parents think of their children as saints and would therefore never expect that what they see in news might happen in their own residence.
Children are vulnerable and through their development they are like learning machines that copy behaviour and gather experience so they have the foundations to build their own personality and lifestyle. However, with the popularity of the TV, the amount of hours spent in front of it from the viewer and the variety of characters and individual types presented, it would be difficult from a vulnerable individual not to get attached or not to copy even a small bit of the projection.
Above, a couple of studies of children's imitation were strongly supported but they both had to do with young children. In adultery mostly drug cultures are copied from movies as well as murders and the other more extreme types of crime. This is still objective. If someone is poor and desperate can be led to burglary or mugging. They all have to do with one's personality which in this case protects the individual by being the balancer between right and wrong.
It is not only television that can influence behaviours but in the end of the day it is the only one that does because of the public considering it as harmless and fun. It can be harmless only if the individual is sane and has a normal perception of the limits that are set by society and shall not be passed for the well-being of the individual and the other members of the society.