By Philip Meyer *
June 1999 – As part of its coverage Tuesday evening of the mass murders in Littleton, Colorado, CNN Headline News had a well-prepared segment on the possibility that television and movie violence create a social atmosphere that makes such horrors possible.
It was a breakthrough. The story was backed up with clips from violent entertainment and expert testimony based on academic studies of the issue.
Usually, news media prefer to ignore this old story. How old? How long has there been scientific evidence that TV violence breeds real-life violence?
More than a generation
As in the case of tobacco, the health hazards of violent television were recognized by experts and even by government agencies long before public awareness began to build.
In 1968, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was created.
In 1972, there was a report by a surgeon general’s committee: “Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence.”
By 1976, the case was so obvious that the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates passed this resolution:
“The House declares TV violence threatens the health and welfare of young Americans, commits itself to remedial actions with interested parties, and encourages opposition to TV programs containing violence and to their sponsors.”
Part of the reason that so little of this information has filtered into public awareness is that the media gatekeepers don’t like to think about it. It is a problem whose only obvious solution, censorship, seems unthinkable. Denial is easier.
One of the most dramatic and convincing demonstrations of the truth of the TV-violence connection came in this decade when a prediction made by Brandon Centerwall, then of the University of Washington, came true.
Centerwall was aware that different parts of the world got television at different times. Therefore, he reasoned, TV’s effects should show up at correspondingly different times.
The United States was ahead of other countries. Our TV broadcasting got off the ground in the late 1940s. Our neighbor, Canada, was on approximately the same schedule.
Ten years later, just as the first U.S. generation raised on television reached the vulnerable crime-committing years, the homicide rate began a steep climb. After 15 years, it had doubled. Canada had the same experience.
To nail down the cause-effect relationship, Centerwall needed a nation where television had arrived late. He found it in South Africa, where the repressive government had banned TV until 1975. Better yet for his purposes, the low rate of white homicide deaths in South Africa held constant in the same period that it doubled in the United States and Canada.
When he discovered that, Centerwall made his prediction. In 1989, looking at the most recent data available to him – which was five years old – he predicted that South Africa’s white homicide rate would show a doubling in the period 1985 to 1990, which would be 10 to 15 years after the introduction of television in 1975. It did – and more.
Looking at 1983 data, Centerwall could see that the rate had already increased by 56% from 2.5 homicides per 100,000 in the final year before TV. When 1987 data became available, it showed the rate had reached 5.8 per 100,000. The doubling took place on schedule.
The same differences were found in U.S. subpopulations. Blacks got TV sets later than whites, and their homicide rate increased later by the same margin of delay. A small Canadian town out of reach of the first TV transmitters enjoyed a temporary immunity that went away after technology brought it into the media mainstream.
By 1992, when he reported the South African figures in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Centerwall had given up on any efforts to get the entertainment industry to reform itself.
“Industry spokespersons have made innumerable protestations of good intent,” Centerwall said, “but nothing has happened. In over 20 years of monitoring television levels of violence, there has been no downward movement.”
A national study sponsored by the cable television industry last year documented and updated the same finding: no progress. Industry leaders, who sincerely had believed there had been progress, had hoped the study would document it.
As in the case of the tobacco industry, some victims are turning to the judicial branch for relief. Several cases are pending in which expert witnesses for victims are showing the link between television and criminal behavior.
Meanwhile, concerned physicians such as Centerwall would like to see voluntary rejection of violent television, just as consumers have begun to reject smoking. We should be as careful about controlling our children’s TV viewing as we are about their seat belts, bicycle helmets, vaccines and nutrition, he argues.
For that to happen, the public would have to become aware of the TV-violence connection in a gut-level way that has not happened yet. Most people are aware that there is some connection. What they don’t know is the magnitude: TV may account for half the homicide rate.
That story still cries out to be told. For television news to do what CNN did Tuesday night – acknowledge the problem openly – is a pretty good start.
* Philip Meyer holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is also a consultant for USA Today and a member of the newspaper's board of contributors.