Magazine article Nieman Reports

Violence - Biggest Health Problem

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Violence - Biggest Health Problem

Article excerpt

The American media shares with adults in the United States a responsibility for ignoring the soaring toll of violence in the nation. Violence, a global public health problem, has been left to criminal justice systems to struggle with virtually alone.

In its special responsibility to support America's democratic way of life, media coverage of violence has been negligent. As fear of violence narrowed the scope of citizens' daily activities, the media failed to sound an alarm. Broken glass, dirty streets, burglar bars on windows, burglar alarms in homes and cars, and downtowns deserted after dark signaled the erosion of everyday freedoms. Yet like a happy frog in a pan of warming water, content to sit until it is cooked, the media too often treated violence as just another commonplace item to fill up column space or air time - not a problem to be debated and solved.

The media has ignored the threat violence makes to democracy in three ways: hackneyed daily coverage of crime; failure to dig beneath the surface in order to interpret events; and omission of stories that needed to be told.

Banal daily treatment of violence is evident in print headlines and in lead-ins to broadcast news that treat violence like any other story. "The Dow Jones Average Rose Two Points. Father Bludgeons Family and Kills Self. The Sox Win in the Bottom of the Ninth." Limitations of time and space have been permitted to trivialize violence and make it appear normal.

Normalization of violence by both the media and the entertainment industry makes it an option to solve a problem. Where once a disagreement between family members, friends, or neighbors might end in a yelling match or, at worst, in a fist fight, now it ends with a permanent solution - one contestant dead, the other in prison. Daily box scores on victims and novel killing methods used move news ever closer to violent entertainment.

Media coverage of violence in the suburbs and in rural areas creates class divisions by ignoring the level of violence outside inner cities made evident by rape and domestic violence data. Typical stories imply that violence in such communities is a surprise. The community will "never be the same," and the violent person, after a lifetime of virtue, suddenly ran amok. Even a little digging is likely to find that the person, usually male since the majority of violence is committed by males, has worked his way up through lesser commissions to the final big scene.

Under the guise of objectivity, coverage of the controversy about violence on TV and in movies and videos has been bland. Although numerous studies have confirmed a strong relationship between violence on the screen and subsequent behavior, the entertainment industry regularly emerges unscathed from encounters with those concerned with the fate of children.

Anyone who has ever been around children or young adults has seen them imitate behavior. Recent horror stories about imitation concern several youngsters who were injured or killed while lying down in busy highways, emulating a scene in the Touchstone movie "The Program." One 17-year-old survived being hit by a car, but according to his doctor, the accident "almost separated the upper half of his body from the lower trunk."

While media objectivity may mean presenting both sides, it should not mean giving both sides equal weight, when they are not equally weighted. The tired notion that curbing violence amounts to censorship ignores censorship that is already in place. Life is a constant selection process: to sleep or wake; to walk or drive; to marry or stay single; to have a cheeseburger or a salad. Editors, journalists, and producers now censor nonviolent fare because they contend that the public has an appetite for violence.

Violence imposes its own kind of censorship by curbing daily decisions. The householder stops walking the dog after dark. The woman college student never uses the library stacks when she is alone. …

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