Media Violence: We All Share In It

Author James Read presents his ideas at the 1998 National Media Education Conference.

The following opinion essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times Calendar (entertainment) section: June 16, 1997 in response to a Calendar interview with actor John Malcovich.

As a parent of two small children who is concerned about the impact of film and television violence, I was glad to read that John Malkovich also worries about the effects of movie mayhem on young minds (L.A. Times: Calendar, June 4, 1997).

It was disheartening however, to see him trivialize a very complex issue by suggesting that ultimately "parents (should) do a better job raising their children"... so as not to be adversely affected by the constant slaughter that is part of our media culture. Pointing the finger at negligent Moms and Dads perpetuates a circle of blame (in which producers, networks, advertisers and consumers all say, "It's their fault") and encourages defensive posturing by those who should be accepting a share of the responsibility.

Malkovich says that ..."my grandmother took me to see Psycho when I was six and I still haven't killed anyone in the shower". I think he's skirting the issue. Most of us in the industry have probably said something similar to ourselves, perhaps while practicing thrusts up the belly of an actor with a rubber retractable knife or describing the dismemberment of an unsuspecting librarian while writing the first draft of a commissioned screenplay. I don't mean to bash Mr. Malkovich, but there is a danger in what he says because even casual, misinformed observations have a way of keeping workable solutions to this serious problem on the distant horizon.

I'm not a murderer either, though I've played a few on TV, and have witnessed thousands of murderous acts on celluloid over my lifetime. The point is not whether watching violence turns us into killers (which in itself it does not, alleged confessional remarks by Jeremy Strohmeyer notwithstanding). The real issue is the personal value system and cultural environment we are passing on to our children through prolonged exposure to excessively violent entertainment.

Desensitization to real-life violence and it's victims, increased aggression and anti-social behavior, increased appetite for more violence and increased fear of being a victim are the documented results of countless studies on the issue. Kids are learning that violence is normal, that it's an acceptable and appropriate way to solve problems and that it helps them get what they want out of life. Media violence is now identified as a major public health and safety issue in this country. But why should we share in the responsibility for a problem that some say is market driven?

Because we are actively involved in making violence sexy, alluring, fun and exciting. Because we sustain and increase the appetite for violence with more realism, more spectacular explosions and an increased body count which accompanies every action-packed sequel. Because the kids most likely to be affected, the ones most at risk are the ones whose parents aren't around or choose not to exercise proper controls, and everyone pays the price.

Why are we more concerned with selling cigarettes to kids than we are about selling violence to them? Aren't we behaving like the cigarette industry when we say we only fill a "need to see" (or smoke) instead of admitting we use our powerful tools of persuasion to create a greater desire?

Those of us who work in the industry and acknowledge our role in contributing to a culture of violence can sometimes feel as though we only have two choices — hypocrisy or unemployment. However, we can affect positive change by supporting efforts to teach our children how to watch film and TV, how to make smart and informed viewing choices, and how their view of the world is often shaped by market driven values in the media. Research shows the effects of viewing media violence can be mitigated in all age groups by learning and applying critical viewing skills. This country is woefully behind leaders like Canada, England, and Australia in teaching the skills needed to deal with the negative influences of the media culture, even though we are the worldwide leaders in disseminating problematic programming.

Educators could work wonders with a nickel for every movie ticket, video tape and television set sold in this country.

What can we do? Protect the 1st Amendment. Raise awareness and consciousness, both our own and others'. Acknowledge violence as a legitimate and necessary dramatic tool, but recognize that it's indiscriminate use as entertainment cheapens our lives and endangers our children.

In the entertainment industry, we are always going to find jobs, whether it's Shakespeare or a slasher pic. But if we help to empower an enlightened and discerning media consumer, we will not only create a better world for our kids to grow up in, but also give ourselves more of an opportunity for work we won't be afraid or ashamed to show them.

Author Bio: 

James Read is an actor, screenwriter, psychologist and a graduate of the CML's Felton Media Literacy Scholars Program.