New Technology: Two or Three Things I Know about 'Media Effects'

By Julian Petley

Does TV affect you? I mean, do you watch NYPD Blue and attack someone, a party political broadcast and decide to vote for that party, an advertisement and go out and buy that product? I’m prepared to bet that the answer to all those questions is ‘No, of course not!’ But that’s exactly how ‘effects’ theories portray you, the viewer: a sort of Pavlov’s dog of the TV age, helplessly and passively ‘responding’ to every ‘stimulus’ that the set beams out at you. For all the fancy psychological and pseudo-social-scientific jargon in which these theories are couched, they can be summed up – and in my opinion, dismissed – in four simple words: monkey see, monkey do.

Ah, I hear you say, I’m not affected like that by TV, but what about other people – children, the unstable, the vulnerable, and people who live on a diet of TV violence? OK, what about them?

There’s a growing body of evidence that even quite young children are a great deal more tele-literate than many worriers suppose. Unhampered by would-be ‘scientific’ pretensions, researchers such as David Buckingham have come up with the incredibly radical (to a social scientist, that is) idea that if you want to know how children interact with TV, then you just sit down and talk with them about it! The results (in books such as Children Talking Television, Reading Audiences and Moving Images) are most illuminating, revealing a level of media sophistication that questionnaire responses and ‘correlational data’ don’t begin even to hint at. This does not, of course, mean that children should be allowed to watch just anything, or that parents, teachers and other responsible adults should not make every effort to ensure that children are not unduly disturbed or upset by watching unsuitable programmes.

As for the ‘unstable’, any specialist in mental illness will tell you that those whose disorders manifest themselves in outbreaks of violence can be triggered by almost anything and everything. Violent images don’t loom larger than anything else on the virtually infinite list. And let’s not forget the uncomfortable, but easily verifiable, fact that a disturbingly large number of killers, both famous like ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ Peter Sutcliffe, and relatively unknown such as a sad but steady stream of infanticidal parents, have claimed that it was not the media but God who ‘told them to’. It also needs to be pointed out, for the umpteenth wearying time, that, in spite of a raging torrent of misleading and sensational press stories to the contrary, and the way in which such stories seem to work their way into collective ‘folk wisdom’, there is not a shred, an iota, of evidence to link such high-profile cases as the Hungerford massacre or the murder of James Bulger with any one film, video or TV programme in particular, or with these media in general.

And just who are these people who are so ‘vulnerable’ that they must be shielded from what Baudrillard has called ‘the evil demon of images’? Personally I’ve never met one of these delicate blooms. Have you? Or do you think that you’re one? I doubt it. Everyone I know (and no, they aren’t all clever-clogs media academics) seems very well media-educated, and quite tele-literate enough to deal intelligently with all the programmes they watch. Actually, there are some vulnerable people around, and I’ll tell you who they are – they’re people who don’t watch TV: psychologists who pose as media researchers, politicians, snooty press pundits, moral busybodies, and all those other people who mistake their own sad inability to ‘read’ contemporary TV for an inability on the part of other people who, in fact, are far more sophisticated in this respect than they themselves are.

In the same way that I’ve never met anyone who was ‘vulnerable’ to TV, I’ve also yet to encounter someone who lives on a ‘diet of TV violence’. Of course, I may have led a particularly sheltered life, but it may also be that, given that British TV is particularly highly regulated in terms of content, it isn’t conceivably possible that anyone could construct such a diet. And indeed, all the available evidence suggests that most people do enjoy a reasonably balanced TV diet.

Anyway, just what is meant by ‘TV violence’? Obviously, there are programmes in which violent actions occur from time to time, but inevitably these also contain lots of other kinds of action too, and it is quite impossible to think of a programme on British TV that could be defined entirely in terms of violent content. Again, to tag programmes with the all-embracing label ‘violent’ and then to castigate them accordingly is entirely to misunderstand the very nature of TV programming. After all, when was the last time that you sat down and said, ‘Right, now I’m going to watch some TV violence’? As David Gauntlett put it in his book Moving Experiences: ‘Violence, like any other content category, from “swearing” to “stereotyping”, is not one clear-cut thing which is either present or not present in particular television programmes; there is not simply “violence” on TV, but ways of showing violent encounters, which can cover an enormous range of possible acts and their associated meanings, intentions and motives. The view of many researchers that violence on television is something which can be simply counted up – an assumption shared by the popular press – has been of little help to the progress of meaningful research.’

Once we’ve got rid of the pervasive bogeyman of ‘TV violence’ we can settle down to the far more sensible proposition, which most people take to be self-evident anyway, that different kinds of programmes will contain different kinds and levels of violent action and will present them differently. We may be absolutely certain, however, that, whatever their differences, not one of these programmes will ‘advocate violence’, either implicitly or explicitly. The vast majority of TV programmes – and, for that matter, films too – are profoundly moral: violent and other anti-social actions may well be represented, but they’re usually committed by negative characters (or by positive ones attempting to bring them to justice) and the idea that such representations somehow ‘promote’ or ‘celebrate’ violence is palpably absurd, demonstrating a quite reprehensible ignorance of what is actually shown on TV.

Finally, let me state quite categorically that to argue against ‘effects’ is not the same thing at all as saying that TV has ‘no influence’. Indeed, this would be simply to replace one absurd proposition with another. Our own daily experience tells us that TV (along with other media, of course) exerts an influence over the way we perceive and interpret the world – our ‘mental maps’, if you like. But it does so in conjunction with a whole host of other influences too – family, friends, school and so on. There is no earthly reason to suppose that TV’s influence is stronger than any other, nor the slightest justification for the patronising stereotype of the viewer as a passive puppet waiting to have their strings pulled this way and that by the next programme which happens to come along.

Julian Petley lectures in communications and information studies at Brunel University. He is the co-editor, with Martin Barker, of Ill Effects: the Media Violence Debate, which will be published by Routledge early next year.