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  Sounding the Alarm: Media Violence in AmericaSunday, May 19th, 2024  
by Jimmy R Allen


Sounding The Alarm The Problem

A history making event passed virtually unnoticed during the Union address by the President of the

United States to the joint session of the Congress. The President called on the communications media to be more responsible by curbing the gratuitous feeding of images of violence to American minds. He said, "For people in the entertainment industry in this country, we applaud your creativity and your world wide success, and we support your freedom of expression. But you do have a responsibility to assess the impact of your work and to understand the damage that comes from the incessant, repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media all the time." He was met with a thunderous standing ovation. Never have the joint leadership of America, including both parties, all of the key figures of the legislature and the administration, and leading members of the public expressed such unanimity on this subject. It was unprecedented and significant.

Alarms are sounding as Americans worry over the impact of image communication media pouring gore into the living rooms of our homes and into the minds of our children. The dire predictions of a few Paul Reveres sounding warning cries a generation ago is coming true in the streets and schools yards of today. Our killers are becoming younger, our crime is spreading out of the ghettoes into the mansions of our country, our compassion is drying up, and our fears are increasing. While media experiences are not the sole cause of these trends, there is little doubt that they are a major factor.

There is a rising litany of lament being wrung from the souls of grieving Americans about our violent society. The U. S. Centers for Disease Control has declared violence a leading public health issue. Our murder rate has increased six times faster than the population in recent years. Homicide has become the second leading cause of death of all persons fifteen to twenty four years of age (second only to automobile accidents). In 1992 the U. S. Surgeon Genera] pointed out that violence is the leading cause of injury for women ages fifteen to forty four.

"Mindless" and "repetitive" violence is the mental food we are feeding our young. Despite stated concerns about the amount of television viewing done by children, the time spent before television screens by children ages two to eleven continues to expand. It is now averaging 28 hours of weekly television watching. Prime time programming contains an average of five violent acts an hour. That amounts to 5000 acts of violence a year. Cartoons contain even more violence and are steady fare for children. Saturday morning cartoon shows contain 25 acts of violence an hour. That adds up to children watching 8000 screen murders and more than 100,000 acts of violence by the end of their elementary school years. By the end of their teen years, the figures will double: 16,000 screen murders and more than 200,000 acts of violence.

The Evidence Is In

Despite our hand wringing over the amount of time our children spend in front of television sets in America, the trend continues to spiral. Unsupervised television watching is a fact of life. Neil Postman, who has written extensively on the effects of television in our society points out in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that America is now raising a second generation of children for whom television was "their first and most accessible teacher and, for many, their most reliable companion and friend." When your most reliable companion and friend glorifies violence without consequence, it creates a consequence of its own.

There was a time when many social scientists thought the impact of television viewing was minimal. They sometimes took comfort from the idea that most cartoon violence was so far removed from life situations that it was actually a substitute or release in imagination for acting out angry or hostile impulses in children. The overwhelming evidence of research over the past few years has silenced most of that debate. There are still significant studies on the details of what causes what kind of aggressive behavior, but the fact that there is a direct relationship between what we absorb into our minds and what we do in our actions is now reaffirmed. Dr. Leonard D. Eron, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, cites a summary of over 200 studies published in 1990 which provide "convincing evidence that the observation of violence, as seen in standard everyday television entertainment, does affect the aggressive behavior of the viewers. All types of aggressive behavior, including illegal behaviors and criminal violence, demonstrated highly significant effects associated with the exposure to television violence. The behaviors affected by viewing television violence are cause for social concern."[1]

Television Violence and Homicides

Ten of the ground breaking studies on the relationship between television viewing and violence is the study by Dr. Brandon Centerwall, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington and a psychiatrist in private practice. He traces the homicide rates in the United States, South Africa, and Canada since the introduction of television. He finds that the white homicide rate experienced a 93% increase within ten to fifteen years in the US, a 92% increase in Canada while there was no increase during that same period in South Africa. After television's introduction in South Africa in 1975, there was a 130% increase by l987.~~~ Since there are varying mixes of social trends and racial components, the common denominator is television violence.

Dr. Centerwall contends that the time period allows the impact of value development on preadolescents to bear its fruit. Violence watched in adulthood does not change basic value systems, but violence watched in childhood fashions those value systems. Dr. Centerwall is so convinced of his evidence that he states that ten thousand of the twenty thousand annual homicides in the US are directly attributable to television's impact.

More impressive than the impersonal studies about the relationship between television viewing and homicides are the tragic events reported constantly in our news. Jason Edward Lewis, a high school freshman in a rural community near Atlanta, sat on a swing beside his mother with his arm around her as they spoke. His truck driver father was in back of the house working on a chore in the yard. That same evening, the sixteen year old left his parents watching a television program, retrieved a shotgun from his room, and shot his mother and father to death. While most of the boy's friends reported seeing no signs of anger against his parents, three of them had talked after a movie about killing their parents, robbing a pawn shop, and making their way across the country. There had been no history of violence or abuse in the boy's family. Notes were found reflecting a churning inner anger but not directed against anyone or anything specific. He had a marked behavior change which was traced to drug use. He had also been absorbed in a violent movie "Natural Born Killers" in which heroes Mickey and Mallory killed 52 people in three weeks. He refers to them in his notes in which he says "let's kill 'til we are killed".~3' Such tragedies are taking place all over our nation because of the "no real consequences" violence portrayed in our entertainment media.

The Problem is Larger Than Television

The popular response to the increase of violence in our society is to blame it all on television - its programmers, companies buying its presence in our homes, and those who are writing to pander to the lowest appetites of Americans. Elizabeth Thoman, founder of the Center for Media and Values, points out.

that television elementally is a reflection of a violent culture. We have developed a culture in America which glorifies violence as a way of life. This culture is reflected not only in our glorification of vigilante violence, but also in massive military spending. While the Cold War of confrontation with the Soviet Union created the market of fear, we built up the industries of destruction which then made us the largest sellers of destruction on the earth. As that world situation has changed, we are still grinding out the products of violence and marketing them to small nations or groups within nations. We have not learned the lesson of Humpty Dumpty that when the egg breaks "all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Humpty together again." It takes more than violence to lead responsibly in a complex world.


Parental Responsibility

Parents are exhorted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 not only to love God with all their hearts but to teach this love for God to their children.
Hear, 0 Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be asfrontlet between your eyes. you shall write them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates. (New King James Version)
The principle is that parental responsibility involves shaping what gets into the minds of children. This responsibility was less complex in the agrarian society of ancient Israel than it is in the information society. The simpler days offered time together in the work place, protection from the intrusion of foreign influences, and, of course, no television. The challenge is greater but it is more essential today then ever before. The tools of the information society must be turned toward the truth.

Personal Responsibility

The scripture emphasizes the importance of training the mind. Luke describes the growth of Jesus from childhood to manhood as the acquisition of wisdom: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor" (Luke 2:52, NRSV). Paul says that the work of the Spirit of God within us has to do with the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2).

In Philippians 3, Paul prays for the church at Philippi that the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." Paul then presses the point of personal responsibility: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8 NRSV).

One of the difficulties in developing preventive measures against abusive image communication is that you have to consume it before you can taste it. The poison is taken in before you can make a judgment. Labelling programs is the preventative response we have made thus far. The fact that labels are aimed toward the young makes older Americans believe they will be immune to destructive effects of being saturated in mindless violence. All of us must guard, however, against becoming so conditioned to the presence of violence that we become unaware of its devastation. Christians are especially responsible for being alert about the food for the mind which we knowingly consume. The command of the Bible is not centered in what we ought not to think about but in what we ought to make the nutrition of our minds.. ..the pure, lovely, positive, honest.

It doesn't take a great deal of investigation to spot the pornography of violence. Its gory trail leads from one act to another and ends in characters which are only partially human doing massive acts of destruction.

It is not accidental that entertainment creators have reached the point in which they are fashioning half human heroes-genetically or mechanically engineered Terminators and Robocops who wreak destruction as a way of life. The violent culture glorified by the entertainment media is subhuman; comic lines play off of death and destruction.

The core of biblical truth about violence is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ who embodied nonviolence. Even when his righteous indignation drove him to fury in the Temple where he cast out the money changers, his action was to turn over tables rather than to strike people. His "turn the other cheek" instruction was lived out in the Garden of Gethsemane as he healed the soldier wounded by Peter's attack. The Messiah was violence's most undeserving victim who called his disciples to follow in the way of love rather than hate, peace rather than war, healing rather than hurting.

Things the Family Can Do

Most families feel overwhelmed by the tidal wave of violence in the media of our day. There are positive steps, however, that families can take. They cannot be done without a commitment of time and energy by parents and children.

1. Monitor television time. Time is the challenge for most families. With the schedule demands presented by both parents working, the time crunch becomes serious. It is simply the line of least resistance to let the tube be the sitter for the child while we busy ourselves with other activities. Since we cant correct out of ignorance, parents' covenant about media violence must begin with a commitment to watch what the children watch.

2. Do a family inventory of T.V. violence as a family project. Monitor the television viewing in your home for as much as thirty days. The object is to record every violent act which comes into your home for that time period. If Nielsen can do it, you can too. Design a notebook to show day, time, program name, and body count. Be sure to include the cartoons. Maybe your typical viewing exposes the family to little violence. Find out for yourselves.

The first step of the inventory requires the family to develop its own definition of violence. It should be reduced to writing so that every family member can have a copy. Media and Values magazine shares some insights on that process.

Critics of television violence research note that media violence experts measure television quite differently. George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication measures most acts of violence equally, whether accidental or intentional. The National Coalition on Television Violence 'weighs' violence so a minor act like shoving counts as one-third of an act of violence while murder counts as one and two-thirds an act of violence. Judge for yourself by developing your own definition of media violence and putting it to the test.[4]

Keep in mind things like motives (revenge or passion), consequences (death or financial reward), techniques (shootouts or fist fights), intentions (to frighten or to kill). Does violence a]-ways mean physical harm? Does violence drive the story line? If there were no violence would there be a story? Are the good guys and the bad guys real people or caricatures of people? It requires more skill and screen time to give characters full names, families, and personalities.

Next, count the acts of violence according to your definition. Make sure to note who are the perpetrators and who are the victims. How are these characters different in terms of gender, race and class? Do all the acts of violence fall neatly within your definition?

Finally, evaluate your results. What values went into your definition? Are certain types of violence used more often than others? How does the violence change over time and program? What patterns of violence emerge in terms of gender, race and class?

At the end of the thirty days, you will be equipped to look at your own viewing habits, determine whether the results are healthy, damaging, or neutral. Then you can have family discussion and decision making about what is right and wise for your family's best interests.

3. Help children discern fantasy from reality. A major concern about television violence is that T.V. violence has no realistic consequences. Damaging things are done, especially in cartoons, in which no damage really shows up. Children learn to laugh when real people get hurt. Child development professor Judith Myers-Walls cites HOME ALONE as a case in point. Consequence-free slapstick humor reenacted in play over and over by seven year old boys caused one of them to drive a nail through a board and leave it point up on the other boy's basement stairs. His friend was surprised when his mother's foot bled after she stepped on it. The boy exclaimed, "There wasn't any blood when they did it in the movie.

One way to assist children into reality is to watch the program and point out the special effects involved when the actors are pretending to be hurt or to hurt one another. Knowing how special effects work helps to keep viewers in touch with reality. Children can still enjoy the story as they learn that the camera has a magic of its own to make unreal seem real.

4. Help children cope with fear. One effect of television violence on children is the creation of the neurotic fear of the world as a dangerous place. This effect is sometimes hidden because children mask their fears with bravado.

It is easy to assume subconsciously that the murders, rapes, and attacks take place in the real world at the same rate they are seen on television. When television news, for example, pours out a constant flow of gory details of crimes, fires, and automobile carnage, it is easy to forget that a million persons living in that city have not experienced any of those things on a given day.

How can we help our children deal with the violence they are exposed to through television? One way is to say "NO." Some programs are off limits. While parental viewing rules may bring resistance and pleading that peers get to see off-limits programs, the fact is that children feel cared for when parents fairly enforce reasonable rules.

Another way to help children is to listen to their fears. Opening the door to share how it feels to be scared while watching a program gives the opportunity for deeply needed assurances. Sometimes this sharing does not come at the moment of the experience but in later conversation. However, an intentional attention to those issues pays off.

Let older children help younger children. Ms. Ramona Pence, Virginia elementary school teacher who does Television Awareness Training (TAT) with children, has started a Kid Teaching Kids approach to violence. She appeals to the older elementary children, who always like to feel they know more, to help the younger ones with their understanding of violence on television. By getting them into the process, she teaches them by getting them to coach individual children one on one. The concept is transferable to many homes. When families are learning together, parents can get new insights through the eyes of children.

5. Teach children alternatives to violence. We need to show children how problems can be solved in nonviolent ways. What path could be taken in ways alternative to the situation being depicted? If force must be used, how can a maximum of good be done with a minimum of force? Under what circumstances and for what reasons is force justifiable? Let them help think of a better way.


Media literacy involves understanding the media better in its workings and impact, developing guidelines for its control, creating actions to change policies, and ministering to its victims. Materials are available for creating discussion groups in media literacy. The format for such groups can take several forms or directions.
  • A general meeting on the subject of "Redeeming Television" can take the form of a one hour interactive use of video and discussion. One of the most helpful Christian resources on what the churches and church families can do about television is Dr. Quentin J. Schultze, professor of communications at Calvin College. Dr. Schultze has prepared an hour-long interactive video based on his book, Redeeming Television. The video presents an overview of the challenge with a special emphasis on what churches and Christians can do.

  • Small adult discussion groups can explore media violence and constructive responses using a resource available from the Center for Media Literacy. Dr. Quentin J. Schultze provides another source of information for these groups in his book, Winning Your Kids Back From The Media.

  • Stop the Violence Sunday. A number of communities and denominations are joining in a Stop the Violence Sunday designed to spotlight the problems of violence. While media violence is only one aspect of this emphasis, the effort helps to sensitize people to the problems each community faces. It is sometimes accompanied by a violence inventory of the community conducted by a task force of community religious leaders. Appropriate steps for community actions can be supported by Stop the Violence Sundays.

There are no easy solutions for the problems of lessening the violence reflected by and promoted through the media. In addition to conventional media like movies, television, and print, new technologies present their own kind of complexities. Cable communications is joined by CD-ROM, interactive television screen toys of violence, and a tidal wave of greed. We must move beyond blame to positive actions which preserve and protect the young and the weak. We cannot wait for ultimate solutions. We can learn to handle the media instead of letting it handle us, but doing so will take a concerted effort by all concerned for the next decades. We don't have time to wait. Our children and grandchildren are at stake now.

It is time for the people of God to pray, to work, and to act. Our present as well as our future is at stake.


1] Media & Values, Vol. 62, Summer 1993, p. 14.

[2] Journal of the American Medical Association, June 1992 and cited in Media & Values, Vol. 62, Summer 1993, p. 12-13.

[3] Atlanta Constitution, March 7, 1995.

4] Media & Values, Summer 1993, p. 15.

Dr. Jimmy R. Allen is chaplain at the Big Canoe resort community in the Georgia mountains north of Atlanta. Prior to his present work he served as a pastor, as Director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, and as President of the Radio and Television Commission. He served two terms as President of the Southern Baptist Convention. He prepared this material on "Media Violence in America as part of an important and highly valuable 178-page resource notebook, "Violence: A Christian Response." Available in a 3-ring binder for $12, this complete set of materials dealing with Violence in American Culture and Violence in American Families may be ordered either from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, P.O. Box 450329, Atlanta, GA 31145-0329 or the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, 333 N. Washington, Dallas, TX 75246-1798, under whose joint sponsorship the project was developed. Dr. Allen's article is printed here with the kind permission of both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.

© ©2000-2002 by The Christian Ethics Today Foundation http://www.christianethicstoday/index.htm,

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