This has been a victorious year for the battle-weary researchers
and activists who have spent entire careers combating violence in
1996 has produced the V-chip, the three-hour-a-week-rule (for
mandated network children's programming), impending TV ratings, and
two independent, multiyear studies that for the first time have the
support of both network and cable-TV producers. New
antimedia-violence programs also debuted at both the American
Medical Association and the National Council of Churches.
But, like creeping shadows in a horror film, the explosion of
new technologies such as the Internet and interactive video games
is threatening to darken this victory parade with entirely new and,
many say, more daunting challenges.
"The technology is going from passive to active," notes
Professor Brian Stonehill, who created the media studies program at
Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "The violence is no longer
vicarious with interactive media. It's much more pernicious and
worrisome. Will we take responsibility for the thrill-seeking areas
of our culture? That's what we're wrangling with now," he adds.
Technology always moves ahead of society's moral and ethical
judgments, giving rise to a cultural lag, observes Richard Gelles,
director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University
of Rhode Island, in Kingston. While many people still can't afford
the expensive new hardware and software (the average cost of a new
computer setup is about $2,000 and video game decks average $200),
Mr. Gelles says society must move on to consider the new issue.
"The TV wars are over. The new wars are going to be brutal."
While years of research gave rise to the successes of the past
year, work in the new areas is just beginning. Many scholars who
might be expected to lead the charge are slow on the uptake. "I'm
overwhelmed by the Internet," says Jeff Cole, lead author on the
three-year network-funded study of television violence at UCLA's
Center for Communication Policy. At the same time, he acknowledges,
"It's the next frontier for everything."
Researchers, however, are not at ground zero. Much of what they
now know about the impact of violence and how to handle it applies
to these new technologies as well. For starters, the underlying
assumptions about the effects of violence are no longer debated by
most scholars. They are:
*Television violence can lead to imitation.
*Witnessing repeated violent acts can lead to desensitization
and a lack of empathy for human suffering.
*The cumulative impact of violence-laden imagery can lead to a
"mean-world" perspective, in which viewers have an unrealistically
dark view of life.
Next, says UCLA's Mr. Cole, progress has been made in
influencing the producers of material, in his case the networks. In
undertaking yet another study in a field littered with reports,
Cole's group was anxious to produce one that would make a
They took a qualitative or contextual approach to analyzing the
violence in network shows. In an area that has long been dominated
by quantitative scholarship, Cole's is the largest qualitative
study ever done. "We wanted to do something that was accessible to
the public, so that when we write about a show like 'America's
Funniest Home Videos,' we explain why."
The approach seems to have paid off. The UCLA report, which
issued the second of three annual parts in September, noted that
violence decreased from 1995 in several areas, notably in on-air
promotions and movies of the week.
Martin Franks, senior vice president at CBS Inc. confirms that,
in contrast to many other studies over the years, the UCLA study
"gets referred to a lot. It sits on an awful lot of desks at CBS."
Ed Donnerstein, director of research for this year's other big
report, The National Television Violence Study (NTVS), funded by
the cable industry, is less sanguine.
Noting that the UCLA study was extremely selective, targeting
only prime-time shows, the NTVS took a random sampling of a week's
worth of programming. …