Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
In the years since its invention, television has exerted an extraordinarily powerful influence upon American society. When television became a commercial venture after the enforced hiatus of World War II, television sets were luxury items and status symbols. People old enough to remember that period will still talk about who was the first family on their block to own their own television set, and their tone of voice makes it very clear that everyone knew that this family had "Made It". A similar phenomenon happened in the Sixties with the introduction of color television. Ordinary people made do with their black-and-white televisions, and it was a special treat to visit a friend whose family was just enough ahead socio-economically to actually be able to own a color television. But by the Nineties things have changed so dramatically that even people on welfare manage to own color televisions and see nothing at all unusual in that. Televisions have gone from luxuries to basic necessities of life.
One could draw comparisons with the various other appliances that have gone from the luxuries of the rich to basic necessities of life in the same period, such as vacuum cleaners and automatic washing machines. However all those other machines primarily reduced people's labors and provided additional free time. Television, by contrast, has had a far deeper and more pervasive effect upon American culture, one that might be better compared to the effect of the telephone and the radio. Like them, television brings information into the home and thus changes the way in which people perceive the world around them and their relationship to it. The telephone enabled people to have real-time conversations with people at a distance, thus dissolving the distances between people much as the railroad had dissolved the distances between cities and towns for travelers a century earlier. The radio brought the voices of the world into the home, chipping away at the barrier between private and public which had been a foundation of Gilded Age and Progressive society. For the first time one could sit in the privacy of one's own home and listen to the voices of world leaders or leading entertainers.
Television added images to the power of radio, for the first time allowing people to watch scenes from faraway places without leaving their own chairs. As the medium matured, channels and programming proliferated until it became the bewildering variety that now pours into American households via a coaxial cable from their local cable provider. In some areas there are more than one hundred channels to choose from, and pundits predict that this may well triple or quadruple as deregulation permits cable companies to become involved in data provision via television. But most tellingly, people have come to spend more and more of their leisure time in front of the television. And even during non-leisure periods many people will let the television run as "background," paying partial attention to it while involved in tasks that do not require their complete concentration.
All of this increasing exposure to television and the material that it brings to its viewers has affected how people perceive the world around them, since television's "magic eye" is by no means a perfect mirror of reality. Television producers must pick and choose the materials that they present during the limited hours that are available. Thus it naturally follows that these choices will result in a greater emphasis on certain events and ideas to the exclusion of others. This is complicated by the commercial nature of most television broadcasting. Because the broadcasters depend upon advertising revenues and advertisers choose to give their support to programs that draw the most viewers in order that they may receive the best return for their money, the producers must therefore choose those materials that will best draw viewers to their shows. This creates a strong tendency towards the spectacular and the sensational, since that is far more likely to hold the attention of viewers than the pedestrian and the commonplace. This is true even in those shows that are supposed to be strictly factual, such as news and documentaries. Television news magazines like Inside Edition and 48 Hours do lurid true- crime stories in order to get the ratings they need to stay on the air. Executives may want to do hard-hitting coverage of real issues like Whitewater, but they know that they won't survive on them because the ratings simply won't be high enough.1 In turn the pressure comes down on reporters to go for sensational shots, even when it becomes distasteful to them. After the Stockton, California schoolyard massacre, reporters swarmed around the school like sharks in a feeding frenzy, trying to get the "best" shots of stunned children's reactions so that the boss at the home office would know that they were doing their jobs.2 Sometimes they go so far that even the courts recognize that they have stepped over the line, as in the 1994 Appeals Court decision ruling that the CBS camera crew from the defunct Street Stories newsmagazine accompanying Secret Service agents on a credit- card fraud case violated the privacy of the family members who were not included in the warrant.3 Only PBS, which doesn't have to scramble for advertising dollars, is a refuge from this mentality, and there one can find in-depth reporting such as The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, where substance and analysis replace hype and sound bites.4
However the question remains of whether or not people are able to sufficiently marshal their critical faculties to recognize that these images are selective and by no means an undistorted image of reality. Furthermore, there is the question of whether or not television coverage produces actual changes in people's perceptions and actions as a result of what they see on the screen. For instance, do people actually become numbed to crime or conversely come to regard it as even more of a problem than it actually is? To understand the connection between television news coverage of violent crime and society's perceptions of violence fully, it is necessary to have some understanding of the development of television news and of scholarship on the effects of media portrayals of violence upon behavior.
Television was originally invented in the twenties by John Logie Baird in England and independently by both Vladimir Zvorykin and Philo T. Farnsworth in the United States. However television technology remained experimental throughout the thirties, largely because of the Depression, and television sets were to be found primarily in the hands of network executives, with a few in bars near the television stations. The necessities of the war effort put television development on hold throughout World War II, so that television seemed to spring forth fully developed when the restrictions finally came off and the first commercial television programs were launched. The basic networks had been established during the period of the dominance of radio, and since they already had the necessary connections and expertise, they quickly moved into the business of providing television programming as well. Therefore, it was to be expected that much of the programming would be a direct adaptation of radio technique.
News is the primary reason for the existence of the networks. In the absence of networks, local stations would still be able to obtain syndicated dramatic productions, but it would be impractical for every station in the country to maintain a complete stable of reporters to cover events in every country. Instead it made far more sense for stations to band together and share news material. Thus each station was able to cover its local areas of expertise while receiving well-produced materials from other stations in the network. This pattern had already become well established in the radio business when television entered the media market, so it was only natural to expect that television news would follow the same pattern of commentators reading written reports of news events. However in the visual medium of television, watching an announcer sit at a desk and read into the camera lens quickly became boring, and it was only a matter of time before the first innovative producer realized that the visual medium practically begged to be utilized more powerfully. The first news show to break from the televised-radio look and incorporate newsreel footage of actual events being covered was NBC's Camel News Caravan, sponsored by Camel cigarettes.5
The year 1951 marked two major milestones in television news coverage. The first was the completion of a cross-country coaxial cable link to San Francisco, enabling networks to transmit images across the country instead of having to ship newsreels. To mark the occasion, the news that evening showed a split screen with simultaneous live images of New York Harbor and San Francisco Bay. The second was the beginning of Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, a precursor of the television news magazines such as 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. It ran until 1958, and its most significant contribution to American society was having the courage to challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy directly by juxtapositioning his lies with truth, a technique that ultimately destroyed McCarthy's power by depriving him of his favorite weapon, character assassination.6
Television news came of age in the sixties with the development of lightweight cameras and videotape which could be transported to the site of fast-breaking news and then put on the air without the need of developing intermediate film that had previously been used for on-site news coverage. When stations first were able to obtain this sort of equipment it was regularly the cause of great celebration by the news team, who went to great lengths to explain to their viewers how this new equipment would enable them to cover events in ways they had never been able to before. Within a few years this sort of equipment became so commonplace that vans or cars bearing television station emblems were an expected sight at any sort of news event. By the late eighties the most sophisticated television news teams began to use "flyaway uplinks," earth stations so small that they could be broken down and carried in suitcases to enable reporters to make transmissions via satellite from anywhere that had a clear view to their network's satellite.7
The development of satellite transmission technology, along with the proliferation of cable companies, led Ted Turner to an innovative concept that would totally change the face of television news. Previously news had been only a small proportion of television broadcasting, and the Federal Communications Commission practically had to force stations to carry news by mandating a minimum amount of time each day be devoted to news coverage as part of a station's requirement to "serve the public interest." However Turner believed as early as 1975 that there would be a market for an all-news channel that could be transmitted nationwide via satellite to cable carriers. Inspired by HBO's success at transmitting to cable carriers via satellite, Turner expanded his local independent station, WTCG in Atlanta, into a satellite SuperStation. Using revenues from cable carriers who subscribed to it, he began to set up his all-news station, which he called Cable News Network, or CNN. This was actually launched on June 1, 1980, after many difficulties. CNN pioneered the "open" newsroom in which the anchors' desk was set in front of the working newsroom, removing for the first time the barriers between news production and presentation, and thus part of the mystery of how the news got onto the set.8
During the eighties and nineties the rise of television news magazines and tabloid-style journalism changed the nature of journalism. This was facilitated by the continuing miniaturization of television recording technology, so that Fox's controversial show Cops could be shot on-the-fly by reporters riding in squad cars and carrying hand-held camcorders, then assembled without any sort of journalistic perspective to guide viewers in interpreting the images of police officers doing their jobs. This show was touted as "unfiltered reality," but it still depended upon the cooperation of police departments letting camera crews ride in their squad cars, which meant that the producers would show matters from a police perspective and probably would be unlikely to tape or air a Rodney King-style beating.9
During all this time there was a growing popular awareness that television news coverage was having a definite effect on how people perceived and responded to events. It was well known that television journalists' access to the battlefield during the Vietnam war helped to put an end to the war by bringing home images of the futility of what American soldiers were doing and putting the sheer stupidity of it on the evening news (the regular war briefings from headquarters were popularly known as the "five o'clock follies"). As a result the United Kingdom restricted coverage of the Falklands War in order to prevent damage to morale.10 During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Pentagon followed a similar practice through the use of "pool" coverage, and the notation of "cleared" footage was a regular sight on the news during that period. Some scholars have linked the speed of television transmission of the news of Martin Luther King's assassination and the clumsy response of the police to the rioting that followed. At the time they simply couldn't anticipate the response starting so rapidly, since they were still thinking in terms of the much slower propagation of news via newspapers.11 However the Los Angeles Police Department was just as badly caught off guard in 1992 with the sudden eruption of rioting after the not-guilty verdicts were announced for the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating case.
It is clear that there has been a definite change in the way Americans get their news. In 1945, 87% of the American populace heard about Roosevelt's death from friends, relatives and other personal contacts rather than via mass media. By 1963, only 50% of Americans heard about Kennedy's assassination in the same way.12 It is probable that the vast majority of Americans in 1995 heard about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin via television. The few exceptions would have been found in situations such as the ConSanguinity II science fiction convention, where a person who had seen the announcement on a television in one of the dealers' rooms immediately ran down to the con suite to tell everyone there what had happened. Even then it was only second-hand from a television report, and almost everyone immediately sought a television tuned to CNN in order to confirm what they had heard.
Studies of television viewing started quite early, almost as soon as the medium began, but most of them were primarily for sales purposes, similar to the Nielsen ratings which developed at this time.13 There was almost no interest whatsoever in television violence, since no one at the time regarded it as being a concern. As Stephen King pointed out, violence was all-American. A culture that was able to give a PG rating to a movie such as Bonnie and Clyde which included a scene of Warren Beatty shooting a banker square in the eye was hardly worrying about violence, although the slightest hint of erotic content was enough to get the censors out and marching.14 However that changed after the sixties, a decade drenched in all too much real-life violence -- the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby and of Martin Luther King, not to mention the endless bloodbath that was the Vietnam War. As all this was going on, there was a general feeling that American society had become more violent, to the point that Lyndon B. Johnson finally created the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The NCCPV carried out an extensive study of violence and concluded that television portrayals were a problem, but they concentrated primarily on dramas rather than news.15 Most subsequent studies continued to focus on fictional portrayals of violence, although there was no reason to assume that real violence had no less of an effect upon its viewers. However the general attitude was that drama had no intrinsic need to be violent, while journalists had a professional obligation to cover the ugly side of life as part and parcel of informing the public.16 There were even some suggestions that documentaries and historical docudramas such as Roots and Holocaust could actually encourage prosocial behavior by showing the consequences of violence in terms of human suffering.17 Parents who were becoming concerned about the violence level in their children's television diet also tended to regard real- life violence as being unavoidable and thus focused their concerns primarily upon television dramas. One psychologist, arguing for this approach, said that children usually respond to real-life violence with sickness and disgust rather than the fascination they give to violent drama. However, in one case, preschoolers who were accidentally exposed to a gruesome film about the harpooning of whales later begged to see it again.18 Still one could make the case that since this was a film about violence against animals, and in particular animals which were very distant from the children's daily experience and not particularly "cute," this could not be compared adequately with the effects of seeing a clip of similar violence being committed against people or familiar "cute" animals such as cats and dogs.
Even so, researchers did discover in the course of their experiments that children who were shown a violent clip as part of a "news" show tended to show more aggression afterward than those who saw the exact clip as part of a fictional drama.19 Other studies with adults showed similar stronger reactions to a film clip when it was presented as being real than as an extract from a drama.20 This should hardly have surprised anyone. Even the people who were so busy claiming that there was no reason to worry about how much violence was appearing on the news should have remembered the panic that the pseudo-news format of Orson Wells' War of the Worlds radio drama produced and been able to make the connection. After all, most reasonably intelligent viewers are able to realize that all the violence in a drama is stage violence, and after it is filmed the actors get back up and wipe off the fake blood. By contrast the people who are getting hurt on the news are actually being harmed and suffering pain. George Gerbner, who has become one of the most prominent researchers in the area of the effects of television violence on behavior, has recently gone so far as to claim that the violence-provoking aspects are inherent to the medium of television and that even portrayals of natural phenomena such as storms come across as messages of power.21 However this seems to be taking things a little far, since few people would tend to connect images of a tornado demolishing a house or buildings being swept away in a flood to personal aggression. The natural world may be violent in the physical sense, but it is an impersonal violence born of the cold equations of physics, not the personal violence of overheated emotions running out of control.
Almost all the studies of television violence have noted the connection between violence and negative world views. People who see a lot of violence on television are more likely to see the world as a nasty place. In a 1978 study, Gerbner found a definite correlation between the level of television viewing and a perception that most people tend to be selfish and underhanded. He termed this "mean world syndrome."22
Although these studies looked at television violence in general, there were no studies that specifically looked at television news coverage of violent crime. However there were some good studies of how the way in which the news media in general covered crime had an effect on people's perceptions of the world as being a dangerous place. The best of these was Doris Graber's 1976 study in Evanston, Illinois, in which she did an in- depth study of several individuals' news-following behavior and their perceptions of events and the world in general. As part of the study, her team observed patterns of crime coverage in various local media outlets and found that most sensational crimes were covered quite well, particularly if they happened locally. Violent crime and street crime made up almost half of television crime reporting, but the human element of pain and victimization was almost always left out of the stories. Crime coverage was generally descriptive and remote, giving only the facts of the crime and little about the human cost. Only in the most sensational crimes was there in-depth coverage of the human angle.23
Numerous other studies have shown this same phenomenon. The news media reports a disproportion of violent crime such as murder and rape compared to burglary and white-collar crimes such as embezzlement and fraud.24 Furthermore, television news gives violent crime a particularly prominent place in its coverage. A crime that might be covered in the middle of the New York Times "Metro" section is likely to be the top story on that night's local television newscast, complete with gory shots of the crime scene and sound bites from the victim, witnesses, or the police.25 This can hardly help but distort people's perceptions of what kinds of crimes are happening and to whom. And at least some people have begun to be aware of this. The popularity of Don Henley's 1984 hit "Dirty Laundry," which is entirely about the issues of sensationalistic journalism, speaks clearly of people's awareness that the news media go for the most shocking images when making the news. In Scotland, many upper-level (upper middle class, well educated) participants in a 1984-85 study of television coverage of a mine strike complained that coverage was sensationalized and images of violence were used because it made for "better" television.26
Numerous studies have shown a definite correlation between news media reporting of crime and people's fear of crime. People's perceptions of crime rates actually tend to reflect the rate of crime reporting in the area, rather than the actual incidence of crime.27 A study in Colorado found little connection between actual crime rates and the level of crime reporting. At times there were actually increases in reporting while there was a decrease in the actual level of crime.28 Graber's study also showed a strong tendency for media coverage of crime to shape people's perception of the crime problem. There was little correlation between the level of crime reporting and actual crime statistics.29
Crime news also gives little help in evaluating the performance of law enforcement agencies, since it generally focuses upon the commission of the crime rather than police efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice. In fact it has been found that repeated negative coverage, whether of unsolved crimes or of police corruption, tend to foster a perception that one cannot rely upon the police for protection and therefore a withdrawal of support for the police from the populace at large.30
Other studies have shown that distorted patterns of perception can be traced back to patterns of television news coverage. For instance, people involved in risk management have discovered that people tend to underestimate common causes of death such as cancer, stroke and accidents by as much as ten percent, while overestimating rare ones by several orders of magnitude. The common causes of death are so unremarkable that people tend to only hear about them when close friends, family or very famous people die of them. By contrast news of a death by a rare cause such as botulism or murder by a stranger is splattered all over the news and sticks in people's minds, creating a perception that it is far more common than it actually is.31 Thus people tend to have a great fear of the possibility of being murdered by a stranger, but in actuality most murder victims knew their assailants and the home is one of the most dangerous places to be, since the vast bulk of murders are the result of family altercations that turned violent.
It turns out that the common perception that the present is the most violent period of human history is not completely true. People in the past also felt deep fears of interpersonal violence and crime, even in times that present-day people tend to regard as having been relatively peaceful and law-abiding. As an example, Kai T. Erikson's study of crime in seventeenth- century Massachusetts Bay Colony found that "crime waves" tended to happen when there was a shift of people's attitudes that placed acts that had previously been acceptable out of bounds of social acceptability. Suddenly activities that had been no cause for concern were transformed into crimes, leading to a perception that crime was happening everywhere.32 And in the 1850's, long before television or the social upheavals of the sixties which have been blamed for so much crime, an Englishwoman described New York City as being the most "fearfully insecure" city. She believed that the terrible crimes that happened there had numbed its inhabitants to the horrors of violence.33
Researchers are beginning to understand why these patterns should be so common. This has its roots in cognitive science. People deal with the information that they gather from the news by forming mental models of the world in which to pigeonhole specific events. Thus they are likely to see a raid on a corrupt businessman as "one of those periodic crackdowns the police go through" or the media as always jumping on such an event.34 Therefore a rapid succession of stories on robberies can quickly turn into a massive crime wave that is seen as sweeping over civilization. People's gender and socialization also affect what they pick up in the news. In particular women learn to be sensitive to the needs of others and thus are more likely to notice other people's misfortunes. However a man who is trained to sensitivity as part of his profession, such as a social worker, will show similar responses to news items.35 Such people are more likely to focus upon the victims of crime and the harm that has been done to them, and as a result are more likely to perceive crime as a serious threat to society. It is of course important to distinguish between the fear of crime and one's perceived risk of personal victimization. A person may feel that they are at a considerable risk of falling victim to crimes, yet be relatively unconcerned because they regard it as something that just happens and cannot be helped. By contrast another person may not feel that the risk of being a crime victim is high, but find that even the slender possibility evokes great fear.36
Another problem with the present mode of journalistic coverage of crime is that it tends to produce a distorted view of who is committing crimes, thus producing a feeling that certain groups of people, particularly minorities, are dangerous sorts of people. This issue came up very strongly in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots. Both President Bush and Senator Bill Bradley blamed the media for focusing on all the wrong things in the Los Angeles riots. They wanted more attention to things that were going well instead of just negative things.37 Carol Bradley Shirley, an assistant editor of the Westside section of The Los Angeles Times, agreed with this view, pointing out that the media tends to cover the "bad" sections of Los Angeles only when there is a shooting or other crime, and never covers the people's attempts to express their dissatisfaction in a positive way, such as having a meeting. This creates a feeling of powerlessness among the members of these communities so that they come to feel that the only recourse they have is to act out violently.38
In the same Columbia Journalism Review special section, Walter Goodman noted that television news coverage skews the reality of African-American life. Most African-Americans that appear on television news are criminals, not the average stable citizen. The only exceptions of a working, law- abiding citizen wearing a black face are typically athletes and the newspeople themselves. (He apparently does not include African-American musicians in the class of "working" people, perhaps because they do not have an employer or punch a timeclock or because art is generally not regarded as serious work in our culture). This creates the impression that American crime, in particular violent street crime, is what he terms a "minority enterprise zone." Although there is rarely a deliberate labeling as such, any more than organized crime was deliberately labeled "Italian" or the Wall Street scandals were labeled "Jewish," there is a clear image of a young black male in trouble with the law.39 After the Los Angeles riots many African-American reporters felt frustrated with the news system. They received all the dangerous assignments to go out on the street and report the riots as they were unfolding right around the news vehicle, but afterward the news departments would hand the analytical stories over to whites on the basis of an idea that only a white male is competent to handle the big picture. As a result many African-Americans in the business got the impression that whites were shaping the focus of the coverage and placing it on getting the riots stopped instead of the injustices suffered by Rodney King as symbol of injustice as fundamental black experience, while minority reporters were being used as cannon fodder.40 And reporters were injured in the course of the riots. Bob Brill, the West Coast bureau chief for UPI radio, was filing a report for NBC radio near the site of the attack on truck driver Reginald Denny when he too became a victim of the rioters and was badly injured. Another reporter who was targeted by the rioters but less severely injured, Mary Ellen Geist, came to believe as a result of what she saw that the media has a responsibility to present the views of the urban underclass as well as the white middle class.41 Even so, the overwhelming perception of the Los Angeles riots in the minds of America was of violence and people out of control without any mention of the possibility that these people might have grievances that they felt they had no other way to communicate.
What can be done about the problem of sensationalistic journalism, when even members of the press begin to regard the practice as having stepped across the border of decency? The quickest thing to come to the lips of most people is a suggestion that someone ought to make a law about all these gruesome images. On the surface it would seem easy enough to have the Federal Communications Commission construct regulations that would cover these issues. But there is the delicate issue of the First Amendment here, and censorship is often likely to cause as much harm as good.
Unfortunately the line between images that will shock the viewer from apathy to action and images that merely titillate is terribly slender. How can legislation or regulation hope to make a perfect distinction between these two? Furthermore, in cases where the activities of government itself are involved, it becomes a conflict of interest that fairly invites abuse. All too often government censors have been happy to use laws intended to protect the public for the purpose of suppressing information that would cause the government to look bad. Even before television, the government claimed national security in order to hide the true extent of its bumbling prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, since it was more convenient to them to make scapegoats of the commanders in Hawaii than to have to admit its own culpability and failures of judgment before the public. Had some sort of censorship (whether for national security or to protect television viewers from shocking images of violence) been in effect during the Vietnam War, would there have been any hope of getting the news of the infamous My Lai massacre out to the public? After all, it was public indignation at the sight of American soldiers committing atrocities that led to the breaking of the military cover-up and a complete investigation of the incident. Without it, people might well have continued to believe that our government and military knew best and were incapable of such untoward activities.
And even the most reviled forms of television news, the tabloid talk shows, can at times do good. Take for instance the case of Heather Lory, a fourteen-year-old girl who was gang-raped by three boys in a country cemetery in rural northern Minnesota. When she returned home and told her family what had happened, her parents went to confront the parents of two of the boys. The confrontation turned into a violent altercation in which Heather's father shot and killed one of the alleged rapists and injured the boy's father and his own wife. Because the original newspaper coverage of the incident was badly handled (the Lorys were prevented from speaking with the reporter while the other family was able to tell their side, so that the story that resulted was slanted), Heather found herself reviled as a slut who invited the attack and probably enjoyed every moment of it, then cried rape to avoid the consequences of her promiscuity and thus was guilty of the boy's death. Some members of the community even tormented her with death threats to the point that she dropped out of school. Her mother lost her job, and with her father in prison and the public defender regarding it as an open-and-shut case of murder and criminal assault, the family was staring absolute poverty in the eyes. With winter fast approaching, they didn't even have enough money for heating fuel.
However one reporter, believing that there was more to the case than what had been previously examined, managed to secure an interview with the Lorys and write a second article. This came to the notice of a producer for the Sally Jessie Raphael show, who arranged to get Heather and her mother on the show. Although they had their doubts, the Lorys decided that the risks of publicity were worth the chance that having their side of the case aired would help them find a better lawyer who could actually hope to get real justice for Rich Lory. After some difficulties, mostly having to do with the Lorys' extreme poverty at the time (they didn't even have enough pocket money to tip a limo driver, but were being told to pay the bills and turn the receipts in for later reimbursement), they made their appearance. As a result of the Sally Jessie Raphael appearance, their story was picked up by the television newsmagazine Hard Copy, which paid them $3000, enough to get a decent lawyer for Rich. By the time the case actually came to trial, a lawyer who had seen them on television agreed to work for expenses only. Furthermore, the publicity had done nothing but good for Heather and her mother, who found new strength and courage from their ordeal. Heather received the support of many other women and girls who had lived through sexual assaults and were able to reassure her that she was most definitely not a slut or an any way guilty of what had happened as a result of the rape.42
It has been said that to prevent a single innocent man from being imprisoned it would be better for a dozen guilty men to go free. How much sensationalistic crime coverage should we as Americans tolerate in order to make sure that there will be some kind of forum for people such as the Lorys to be able to have their story aired? How much shocking footage of crime scenes and body bags should be allowed on the air in order to make sure that the next My Lai massacre will get covered and the people will know when their government is committing atrocities? This is particularly true in a democracy, since we the people are responsible for the actions of our government, but we cannot carry out that responsibility to exercise restraint upon them if we are not informed of what they are doing.
Legislation and regulation are not the answer, since they can only deal with the externals of action, and no matter how well they are constructed they cannot hope to make a perfect distinction between the image that shocks the viewer into action to change a wrong and the image that merely titillates the viewer's voyeuristic desire to be able to watch the misfortunes of others while remaining comfortably safe at home. True change must come from within, altering the structural causes of the problem.
The biggest problem at present is the aforementioned connection between the viewers, the advertisers and the producers. This vicious cycle could be broken at several points. Most obviously, one could get rid of the whole scramble for advertising dollars that fuels the tendency towards more and more sensationalistic coverage of violent crime. It can hardly be a coincidence that some of the most thoughtful in-depth news coverage is found on public television (and public radio), where tax money and viewer subscriptions provide the funding. One could argue that commercial television should be abolished entirely and the United States should move toward a model like that of England's BBC, which is supported by tax money rather than individual advertisers who can grant or withhold their funds according to their perceptions of the success of a given program. However that is hardly likely in these days when Newt Gingrich is able to garner vast support for his call to "privatize" (read commercialize) the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So advertising and the power of advertisers to push broadcasters to go for the lowest common denominator will probably remain a major factor in television programming for the foreseeable future.
However there is another important factor in the equation, and that is the viewer population. Advertisers are not backing the sensationalistic news coverage because they themselves have some sort of perverse fondness with cranking out a nonstop video diet of sex and gore in order to twist the perceptions of the American public, whatever certain conspiracy theorists may say to that effect. Advertisers put their money into these shows because that is where the viewers are, and therefore that is where their advertisements have the greatest chance of being seen and causing changes in people's purchasing patterns. Therefore people out there are watching these shows in numbers large enough to make a significant difference in the statistical patterns.
So the only real place to make the change is with the viewing population. If enough people can be convinced to avoid sensationalistic news coverage instead of craving it, this could make a visible change in the ratings patterns that would convince advertisers and producers that the American public doesn't want a steady diet of blood and gore on the news. Also some people such as Dr. James Dobson of the Christian organization Focus on the Family are beginning grass roots movements to vote with their wallets, boycotting the products of the advertisers who support the worst offenders among the sensationalistic school of journalism. Unfortunately Dobson and many others have in turn been vilified as trying to impose their own point of view upon everyone, rather than being regarded as simply people who choose to register their support for a particular point of view by withdrawing financial support from those whose actions incur their disapproval.
Here and there one can see glimmers of hope, signs that television news reporting is developing a new focus on helping transform society instead of merely titillating viewers with images of violence. In Los Angeles there is the celebrated and controversial case of KTLA-TV reporter Warren Wilson, son of a North Carolina sharecropper, who helps to arrange the surrender of criminals into police hands. Some people praise him for helping to prevent further violence by getting these hardened criminals to turn themselves over peaceably, but others question his actions as a possible conflict of interest because he is also able to get a good story out of them.43
It cannot be denied that the development of television news coverage and its manner of handling crime news, particularly violent street crime, has changed the way in which Americans view their society. However as awareness of the problem has grown, so have demands that news departments change the way in which they cover the news in order to reduce the level of sensationalism and increase the level of thoughtful examination of events. Whether this will result in any true changes will of course depend on whether the viewing public is willing to vote with their remote controls and change the channel from sensationalism to analysis.
Conklin, John E. The Impact of Crime. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
Frank, R. S. Message Dimensions of Television News. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1973.
Graber, Doris A. Crime News and the Public. New York: Praeger, 1980.
_______. Processing the News: How People Tame the Information Tide. New York: Longman, 1988.
Gunter, Barrie. Dimensions of Television Violence. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
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Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
This paper was originally written for a class in 20th Century American History, taught by Professor Paul Holsinger, Illinois State University.
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