In a single generation, communications technology has turned the planet into one small global village. Within minutes television and radio relay stories across the country and around the world. The same edition of newspapers can be printed simultaneously in cities everywhere and be on the street within hours. And, as we are all aware, the future of the mass media may not be just in the traditional forms of television, radio and newspapers but in the emerging technologies like the Internet that will shape the information highway.
The Internet is an informal and rather anarchic network of computer networks spanning the globe. It has given access to the entire world for anyone possessing a computer and a modem. These new technologies and their impact on how we share information will force us to revisit fundamental issues such as freedom of expression and associated issues such as crime and crime prevention as well as cultural integrity. It is the pervasiveness and immediacy of this whole enterprise that has given mass media enormous power in shaping public opinion.
For some, the tendency has been to view the pervasiveness of the current and emerging mass media in a negative light. After all, these communications technologies are being used to spread images of crime and violence more widely. For most, the new technologies mean less control over the images that are spread, especially among young people. But there is another way to view the mass media technologies. We can see them as providing new opportunities to reach out to people. Rather than viewing the media as culprit or villain, we could begin to see it as a partner.
Police courts and prisons alone cannot effectively prevent crime. Although the criminal justice system is essential to controlling crime, crime prevention is fundamentally about the use of social resources to change the conditions that breed crime. The ultimate goal of crime prevention is to create safer communities and any crime prevention effort, therefore, must actively involve all sectors of society. The media has a role to play in crime prevention precisely because of its ability to shape public opinion.
Do the Media Help Create a Circle of Violence? In 1960, a psychology professor at Yale University, Dr. Leonard Eron, began a study on the causes of aggression among children. He questioned families about the amount of television watched by their children. Ten years later, Dr. Eron interviewed the same families. He was surprised to learn that what he called “the best predictor of aggression” among the boys who were then in their late teens, related to the amount of TV violence they had watched a decade earlier.
Findings like these have been controversial and contradicted by various authorities over the years but there is a body of opinion that contends that media violence does lead to crime. George Gerbner, Dean Emeritus of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, who is recognized by many as the dean of research into violence on television, has documented these statistics: “We have scenes of violence an average of six times per hour in prime time in the evening. In children’s programming there are between 20 and 25 times violent scenes per hour.
But even this violence is not evenly distributed in the media says Gerbner. The victims, he says are victims as well of stereotyping: “For every ten males who commit violence, there are ten males who are victimized. For every female who is written into a script to assert that kind of power, there are seventeen women who get victimized. For every ten women of color who are put into a script there are 22 women of color who get victimized. ” But stereotyping as a major problem on television is not exclusive to programs. Often the content of commercial messages inserted in programs can be just as damaging.
Research done by George Gerbner and others has shown that the average North American watches 10,000 hours of violent entertainment before the age of 21, and witnesses 36,000 murders before attaining the voting age. But whether media violence does contribute to aggressive and antisocial behavior has been open to lively debate. Since the media are part of the problem in creating our current culture of violence, the potential exists for them to become part of the solution. However, stories of community-based crime prevention programs do not often make the news.
Many community groups feel a sense of powerlessness about media and technology, and are working on becoming more effective in using communications media and cooperating with local media to crate safer communities. In addition, advertising or consumer purchase is the lifeblood of the media, and this means the public can potentially exert an enormous influence over the industry. Members of the public can regulate their viewing choices, pressure media to choose responsible programming and boycott the products of advertisers who sponsor programming that is unacceptable.
Most companies cannot afford to be callous about censure; there is a growing awareness that they will be held responsible for the programming their advertising money puts on the air. While this approach to pushing for change has the potential to be very effective, it will work best if there is no gap between public values and private consumption. At a 1994 symposium at Hofstra University, Jonathan Friedman, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, made this point: “Consider the differences between countries that have equally violent television.
Children in Canada and the United States watch virtually the same television. Yet the murder rate in Canada and the rate of violence in general is much lower than in the United States. Children in Japan watch probably the most violent, the most lurid and graphic television in the world and the rate of violent crime there is minuscule compared to Canada and the United States. If television violence really had a substantial effect, these differences among countries would be unlikely. It makes it clear that if television violence had any effect at all, it is vanishingly small.
In a review prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage on the effects of TV violence on children of different ages, Wendy Josephson pointed out that the viewing patterns children establish as toddlers will influence their viewing habits throughout their lives. Josephson noted that “children who are exposed to television violence may become desensitized to real life violence, may come to see the world as a mean and scary place, or may come to expect others to resort to physical violence to resolve conflicts.
She added that the effects of television violence lead “at risk” children to be even more aggressive than they would otherwise be. Of concern to many, might be not what television is doing but what it isn’t doing. This medium has the most powerful ability to shape our perception. It can educate its audience, combat stereotypes, provide models of pro-social behavior and attitudes. But for the most part television and other media too, have not picked up the challenge.
In a 1990 study two Canadian researchers, Julian Roberts and Michelle Grossman, carried out a systematic survey of articles appearing in Canadian newspapers and periodicals between 1982 and 1989. They wanted to estimate the number of crime stories pertaining to crime prevention that appeared in the print media. Their search revealed 17,562 stories dealing with some aspect of crime or criminal justice. Of the total, fewer than one percent dealt with crime prevention. Part of the challenge today is to get the media to assume its role in crime prevention.