Finding violence on prime-time TV can be as simple as clicking through the channels. But the picture gets fuzzy when determining just how violence affects the viewer. Recently, panelists at a five-day meeting of the Northeastern Association of Criminal Justice Sciences tried to adjust the focus during a presentation on "Violence and the Media."
Each panelist took a different approach, but they agreed on one conclusion: Television violence is a distortion of reality.
In response to the contention that TV violence begets real violence, the panel's chairman, Richard R.E. Kania, who specializes in justice and policy studies at Guilford College in North Carolina, gave statistics that showed no marked link between the amount of crime on television and in real life.
"We just don't watch something and go out and change our behavior in response to it," he told an audience of criminal justice professionals and educators.
TV is pervasive. But the crime rate keeps climbing in urban areas, he said, while increasing only slightly in rural areas. And although he acknowledged that copy-cat crimes do happen, the numbers are negligible given the size of the television audience.
"We need to move away from the simplistic idea that if we simply knock off the number of crime shows, crime will go away," Kania said.
James Carlson of Providence College, a political scientist and author of the book, Prime Time Law Enforcement, thinks the shows tend to strengthen conventional behavior and attitudes rather than spur deviant acts.
"The TV world is a very dangerous place _ it's unrealistically dangerous," Carlson said, citing a study comparing the number of crimes in television shows with FBI statistics. For example, it found that 36 percent of TV crimes during the time studied involved murder; in reality, murder accounted for less than 1 percent of crimes.
The function of TV violence, he contends, is to demonstrate that the bad guys lose. That message supports the status quo and conventional order rather than deviant behavior.
Those who own and control the media have a stake in the status quo, Carlson said, and, "You can't forget that the purpose is to attract viewers."
John Martin, television writer for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, reminded the audience that entertainment, not reality, is the goal of prime-time TV. Like Carlson, he said that the choices of shows are commercially driven. "It's not about telling true stories, but what people will watch," he said.
Kevin Cullen, a former police reporter and now legal affairs reporter for the Boston Globe, told of readers who complained that a recent page-one photo of gang members glorified violence and legitimized their groups. Most of the calls, he said, came from the suburbs, where crime is low.
Readers don't seem to mind watching violence on TV, he said, but they aren't comfortable seeing it in black and white.
"People don't really want to know what's there," he said. Such photos, he thinks, demonstrate to readers that the gangs don't look like demons but more like the kids sitting across from them on the subway. "And that's what scares them."