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The Context of Graphic Portrayals of Television Violence

By Potter, W. James; Smith, Stacy | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Context of Graphic Portrayals of Television Violence


Potter, W. James, Smith, Stacy, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


The process of constructing explanations about how television violence influences viewers necessarily moves from content through viewer perceptions of the content to effects. This study focuses attention on the first of these components--content. We use the findings of the literatures of perceptions and effects to hypothesize patterns that should be prevalent in the violent content in order to lead to certain effects.

Key to this chain of reasoning is the context in which violence is portrayed on television. Contextual factors in portrayals cue viewers about how that action is to be perceived and hence interpreted. Reviews of the effects literature have concluded that exposure to television violence portrayed with particular contextual characteristics can lead to such negative effects as fear, desensitization, and disinhibition (for example, see Bryan & Schwartz, 1971; Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman, McCombs, & Roberts, 1978; Comstock & Strasburger, 1990; Hearold, 1986; NTVS, 1997; Paik & Comstock, 1994; Potter, 1999). The only contextual factor that researchers have been able to associate with all three of these major effects is graphicness. Exposure to highly graphic portrayals of violence are more likely to lead to fear as well as to disinhibition in the short term and to desensitization over the long term.

Because graphicness is consistently associated with a range of negative effects, and because graphicness is so strongly associated with violence itself, this study will treat graphicness as its focal construct. The purpose of this study is to answer two questions about graphic violence presented on television. First, what contextual factors are most likely to appear when violence is portrayed as graphic? Television narratives are complex. A contextual characteristic does not exist in isolation; instead, contextual characteristics appear in clusters-forming a web composed of meaning cues that supports each narrative.

Once we have found the answer to this first question, a second question becomes important: Given the web of context most prevalent with graphic portrayals of violence, which of the three major negative effects--fear, desensitization, and disinhibition--is most likely to occur when viewers are exposed to these portrayals?

Graphicness

Graphicness in a television portrayal serves to bring viewers closer to the action and thereby make that action more real or more shocking. With violent portrayals, graphicness puts viewers into the action and shockingly depicts physical harm to the victims. From a production point of view, graphicness is an issue of framing the action (National Television Violence Study, 1997). When the director shows action in close-up, it is more graphic than if the director chooses to show the action in long shots, off screen, or by implication. An extreme close-up of the perpetrator's finger squeezing the trigger, a close up of the perpetrator's evil eyes, and a close up of the bullet tearing through the flesh of the victim signal high graphicness. The same violent act would appear to viewers to be less graphic, if it were shown in a long shot. Graphicness can be further reduced by moving the action off screen, that is, viewers could hear the shot of a gun and the sound of a body hitting the ground, but the screen does not present this action. Thus the depiction of shootings can vary substantially in graphicness by changing the framing.

Another element of graphicness is degree of physical alteration to the victim. This is the concern of blood and gore. When a character is shot, for example, there are many ways in which that action can be shown to viewers. In a non-graphic manner, a victim can simply fall to the ground when shot: the victim looks the same as before being shot except she is lying down with her eyes shut. In contrast, a director wanting a highly graphic scene can show the victim lying on the ground in a growing pool of blood flowing from gaping holes in the victim's flesh.

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