Academic journal article Journalism Quarterly

The Frequency and Context of Prosocial Acts on Primetime TV

Academic journal article Journalism Quarterly

The Frequency and Context of Prosocial Acts on Primetime TV

Article excerpt

Study finds 20.2 prosocial acts per hour. They occur in all types of programs.

The purpose of this study is to content analyze primetime television to determine the frequency of certain contexts in which prosocial activity is portrayed. The contextual elements examined here are the rewarding nature of various acts, justification for the acts and whether the acts were internally or externally motivated. The pattern of context for prosocial activity is then compared to the pattern of context that has been found previously with antisocial activity.

The literature on media effects has reached a consensus that television viewing does exert a definite effect on viewers, but that the effect is strongly dependent on the type of content to which the viewer is exposed. If viewers are exposed to violent or otherwise antisocial activity on television, they are more likely to behave more aggressively or in a more antisocial manner.1 On the other hand, viewers who are exposed to prosocial behaviors on television will be more likely to behave in a constructive manner.2 For example, Rushton who reviewed more than 35 experimental studies for the National Institute of Mental Health, says that watching prosocial content can modify viewers' social behavior toward increasing generosity, helpfulness, cooperation, friendliness, adherence to rules, delaying gratification and reducing irrational fear. "Television is much more than mere entertainment; it is also a major source of observational learning experiences, a setter of norms. It determines what people judge to be appropriate behavior. People learn from watching television, and what they learn depends on what they watch."3

Frequency of Prosocial Activity. How much prosocial activity is portrayed on television? While there are many reports of content analyses of antisocial activity, there are far fewer reports of prosocial activity. The most extensive analysis was performed on a data set now almost a decade old.4 Prosocial behavior was defined as "that set of behaviors which is generally accepted by society as constructive, appropriate and legal."5 They had eight categories of behavior in their definition: altruism, showing affection, explaining feelings of self, explaining feelings of others, reparation for bad behavior, delaying gratification/task persistence, controlling others' antisocial behaviors and self control. They report that from 1976 to 1979, the most common prosocial act was altruism which occurred on average 14.3 times per hour. Explaining feelings of self occurred 11.5 times per hour; explaining feelings of others, 8.7 times; and affection, 8.2 times. They reported that the highest rate of prosocial behavior was observed on situation comedies while the lowest was on action/adventure shows. This last finding is also reported in other studies.6 Also, in an analysis of 300 primetime, afternoon and cartoon programs, liebert and Poulos report finding an average per hour rate of 11 acts of altruism (sharing, helping and cooperation) and six acts of sympathy (verbal or behavioral expressions of concerns for others).7

Context of Portrayals. In addition to the frequency of an act, the way the act is portrayed is also important. The labelling of shows based solely on the frequency of prosocial acts ignores the very important element of the context of the acts.

Several research studies have presented an argument for examining contextual characteristics in the content of television portrayals. liebert, Sprafkin and Davidson argue that "context factors should influence the impact of prosocial actions on the viewer."8 The only contextual factors which they found reported in the literature dealt with the type of show. They report that prosocial activity is least often found in crime adventure shows and most often found in situation comedies and dramas.9

Since a key element in the socialization process is observational learning, it is probable that the configuration of elements in the portrayal, not the frequency or the type of act, is most strongly related to the possible effect on viewers. …

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