Direct and Indirect Aggression on Prime-Time Network Television

By Glascock, Jack | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Direct and Indirect Aggression on Prime-Time Network Television


Glascock, Jack, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


The daily news is filled with stories of conflict. And our TV sitcom "entertainment" is almost always based on conflict and people who handle it poorly. In fact much of the so-called "humor" in those sitcoms is nothing more than a series of destructive, damaging putdowns. As a result, I don't watch much of it.

--Dr. Alan Zimmerman (2006), motivational speaker

Many Americans may not posses the same restraint, or perhaps awareness, as Dr. Zimmerman. According to Nielsen Media Research, the average American spent about 4.5 hours per day, and the average household over 8 hours per day, watching television during the 2004-05 season (Consoli, 2005). If television programming is indeed replete with the kind of depictions referred to above, there may well be cause for concern.

Beginning in the 1960s not long after the advent of television, researchers have examined television violence and its effect on viewers. Other forms of aggression, such as indirect or verbal, have received relatively scant attention, perhaps because of the more overt nature of physical aggression and its demonstratable effect on children (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963a). However, the impact of these more subtle forms of aggression may be even more long lasting and harmful than those of physical aggression. An example would be the child who is teased (verbal aggression) about his/her physical appearance and then suffers a lifetime of psychological repercussions (Infante & Wigley, 1986).

Theoretically the media, especially television, have been shown to be an important source for learning behaviors and cultivating viewers' attitudes and perceptions. According to social learning/social cognitive theory, behaviors modeled on television such as aggression are learned by viewers, particularly when the aggression is rewarded, as is often the case on television (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963b; Potter & Ware, 1987). Gerbner's cultivation theory posits that television cultivates a TV view of reality, especially among heavy viewers (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). So, for example, heavy viewers of television and its plethora of violence are more likely to perceive the real world as a more dangerous place than lighter viewers (Gerbner et al., 2002). Short-term effects of exposure to violent depictions are accounted for by Berkowitz's priming process, which posits that observed aggression activates certain aggressive scripts or schemas in one's memory, thereby making their subsequent utilization more likely, (Berkowitz, 1984).

Considering the recent emergence of new programming formats during primetime network television such as news magazine and reality shows, as well as the relative omission of verbal and indirect aggression in previous studies, the intent of this study is to examine aggressive behavior, in its various forms, on primetime network television. Hopefully this will contribute to a greater awareness of the overall extent of televised aggression and the potential cumulative effect on viewers.

Literature Review

A useful topology for studying aggression in the media is suggested by Coyne and Archer (2004) who distinguish between direct (verbal and physical) and indirect forms of aggression, the primary difference being that direct aggression is face-to-face while indirect is typically carried out behind the target's back. In studies of aggression in real life, researchers have consistently found men to be more directly aggressive than females (Richardson & Green, 1999). Research on indirect aggression has been less conclusive; however studies finding differences have reported more prevalence among females than males (Coyne, Archer, & Eslea, 2004; Osterman et al., 1998).

Verbal Aggression

Infante and Rancer (1996) define verbal aggression as an attack on the self-concept of another in order to inflict psychological pain, which could include depression, humiliation, or other negative feelings. …

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