Judging the Degree of Violence in Media Portrayals: A Cross-Genre Comparison

Article excerpt

Ever since the rise in popularity of television in American households from the 1950s and continuing to today, the public has been complaining that there is too much violence in TV programming. In fact, the public has continually been putting pressure on Congress and the television industry to reduce the amount of violence (Potter, 2003; Rowland, 1983). During those five decades, social scientists have been conducting analyses of the violent content on television to document the amount of violence and to try to inform public debate about this issue. However, there is reason to believe that much of what social scientists carefully measure and report in their results is not what generates the complaints among the public. That is, there is a growing line of research indicating that the public perceives media violence in a different manner than do media researchers. The public's way of making interpretations about the degree of violence in particular shows is very different than the way social scientists have operationalized the degree of violence on shows.

This discrepancy between the public's and scholars' definitions of violence in the media is important to examine because it has significant implications for how useful these content analyses are for the public and for policymakers. It also has important implications for media effects. Researchers have been identifying the role of contextual elements in the media effects process. The public's lack of association of these elements with problematic outcomes such as antisocial behaviors may lead to increased effects due to decreased critical consumption of such violent televised content.

This study is designed to contribute to this line of research examining how the public makes its interpretations of the degree of violence in television programs. It tests the robustness of findings in previous studies on this topic by conducting an experiment to test whether those interpretations differ across several genres of violent programs. Before presenting the details of the study, the researchers will first contrast the way social scientists and the public make their interpretations about the degree of violence on television.

Researchers' Definitions

The literature of content analyses of violent content on television is fairly large, with more than 60 published scientific studies over the past 50 years (see Potter, 1999, for a list). This literature is dominated by two large scale analyses--the University of Pennsylvania's Cultural Indicators Project and the National Television Violence Study (NTVS). In the early 1970s, Gerbner and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania began conducting yearly analyses of violence on television and continued for more than two decades. They counted the number of violent acts using the definition, "the overt expression of physical force, with or without weapon, against self or other, compelling action against one's will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing" (Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox, & Signorielli, 1978, p. 179). Furthermore, they required that the violence be plausible and credible, which rules out idle threats, verbal abuse, or comic gestures with no credible violent consequences. The violence may be intentional or accidental. In addition, violent accidents, catastrophes, and acts of nature are included. Signorielli (1990) clarifies:

   Any act that fits the definition, regardless of conventional notions
   about types of violence that may have "serious" effects, is coded.
   This includes violence that occurs in realistic, serious, fantasy,
   or humorous contexts. "Accidental" violence and "acts of nature"
   are recorded because they are always purposeful in fiction, claim
   victims, and demonstrate power. (p. 89)

The NTVS (1996) analyzed more than 10,000 hours of television programming across 23 channels over 3 years using the definition of violence as

   an overt depiction of a credible threat of physical force or the
   actual use of such force intended to physically harm an animate
   being or group of beings. …