Media Content Labeling Systems: Informational Advisories or Judgmental Restrictions?*
Donald F. Roberts
The past several years in the United States have witnessed a remarkable debate over whether and how to control media content. The discussion has included most of the media -- film, television, popular music recordings, computer games and video games, and, of course, the Internet and the World Wide Web (traditional print media have been largely ignored) -- and has ranged from arguments about whether controls are needed at all, to what kinds of controls best fit U.S. political and social needs. One recent upshot of this debate, although hardly the end of the discussion, has been Federal legislation mandating that a V-chip be installed in virtually every new television set sold in the U.S., the industry announcement of a companion TV rating system in January 1997, and a remarkable outpouring of public and government dissatisfaction with that system, leading to its modification less than a year later.
This paper considers why the content rating issue has gained such momentum, briefly reviews empirical research on current portrayals of violence on television and on consequences of exposure to such portrayals, and discusses what the V-chip is and how it works. It proceeds to argue that an informational content labeling system is preferable to a judgmental and restrictive rating system such as the one recently adopted, at least for the time being, by the U.S. television industry, and closes with a description of such an informational advisory system.
Children are presumed, quite justifiably, to be different from adults -- to be more vulnerable, less able to apply critical judgmental standards, more at risk (cf. Roberts, 1993, 1997). As