The role of the media in the United States and the media's influence on aggression, violence, crime and the individual
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 24 Pages
Table of contents
2.0 Historical development of the media and status quo
2.1 Critical assessment of the media’s functions
3.0 Television’s influence on violence and crime: common views
3.1.1 Statistics and research: status of television and its potential influence on the individual
3.1.2 Theses on the effects of media violence
3.1.3 Evaluation of personal determinants: biological, cultural, social and developmental influences
4.0 Conclusion: the correlation between theory and reality
5.0 Perspectives: a call for action and the responsibility of state and society
Today the media is often seen as the “fourth estate” of the American system, which already marks its special position in society. This term-paper will show both how that position historically developed and which role the media plays currently. In order to underline the specific conditions and political and social circumstances that existed in the colonies and later in the United States, e.g. the British Kingdom’s influence and its predominance, the media’s gradual development will be traced back carefully. Furthermore, it shall be given an answer to the question if and in what respect the media influenced and influences social and personal life. This will be analyzed with regard to the media’s functions and its reputation as being responsible for high violence and crime rates in the USA. Moreover, an insight into common views and prejudices of the media will be given and compared to reality.
To answer the question if the media is really responsible for crimes, violence and aggression, its status in our lives must be examined. That means it will be considered of what importance the media can be for the individual and which positive and negative consequences might arise from the media’s existence and significance. Moreover, it shall be shown that media violence has certain potential effects on the individual and is able to affect everybody.
On the one hand, this term-paper will point out that the media’s impact on political, social and personal life is underestimated, respectively often not even acknowledged. On the other hand, it shall be presented that the media serves also as scapegoat and can not be blamed for everything, in particular it can not be held responsible for crime, violence and aggression all alone. To prove that, an individual’s personal determinants will be analyzed in order to underline the various aspects that must come together to create violence and aggression.
Finally, actions of state and society with the purpose of reducing violence on TV are portrayed and further suggestions are made on that topic.
Within the analysis, special attention is turned to television as the medium of the 21st century. Due to its characteristics (stimulating the recipient audio-visually, having the greatest potential of manipulation and fascination, being seen as the most important, most credible and easiest accessible source of information and depicting violence and aggression most effectively) it is the medium which the examination must base on.
2.0 Historical development of the media and status quo
The desire for information and freedom of speech and press is deep- rooted in American history since the British rulers imposed strict control over unwanted ideas and information which arose in the colonies. On the one hand, that control was successful, thus Publick Occurences, Both Forreign and Domestick, which is regarded as the oldest newspaper, was prohibited after the first circulation because “it reported that English armed forces had allied themselves with ‘miserable savages’[i] ”. On the other hand, the geographical distance to the British supreme power made control difficult in most cases and affected journalistic emancipation. One of the most important milestones during the development of a free press in America was “John Peter Zenger’s trial for seditious libel for publishing criticisms of New York’s governor in his newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal[ii]. The trial in the year 1735 was based on English common law, which intended punishment for “criticism that fostered an ill opinion of the government”[iii]. John Peter Zenger was found not guilty because the jury agreed with his lawyer, who argued that the editor had only published the truth. Although the law was not changed after that trial, editors in the whole country were “emboldened to criticize officials more freely”[iv]. As a result, more and more newspapers were published and the press gained a status of being the ‘people’s voice’, an important source of information and a means to protest. The latter function played an important role in the quarrel about the Stamp Act in 1765 when newspapers were printed with skull and crossbones instead of the prescribed stamp on the front page. Finally, the Stamp Act was repealed due to the people’s boycott of British goods and their protest.
The fight between the colonists and the British colonial power was observed carefully by the press and culminated in the War of Independence. This war was not only a struggle for democracy and independence but also for basic (civil) rights like freedom of speech and press, which were adopted in the Bill of Rights in 1791 and are still effective. Especially the First Amendment is decisive for the further development of the media:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Beside the First Amendment, also other aspects influenced the rise of the media after the war such as purchase power, the population’s alphabetization and the fact that the nation was growing and news, rumors and information were produced and consumed everyday. Therefore, in the 1830s the mass press developed. It was characterized by a sensationalist style with short and understandable articles about gossip and ‘scandals’. These newspapers such as the New York Sun (1833) were sold on the streets and called ‘One-Penny-Press’ because new machines and printing technologies reduced the production costs and the published prices so that the print media was affordable for everybody. A new kind of Yellow Press (or Tabloid Press) was introduced in 1919: the New York Daily News, which differed from other newspapers in including topics like sex, violence and crime, using more pictures and less content and aimed at attracting readers. The so-called Tabloid Press, which stands for journalism that can be regarded as the lowest in quality, and the New Journalism, a style that combines sensational, entertaining and serious reporting acted in their principles contrarily to respectable newspapers like New York Times (1851) or Washington Post (1877). The latter are internationally recognized newspapers, which offer accurate reporting and form the public opinion. Today there are over 1700 daily newspapers in the USA; the leading ones reach circulations of more than a million. Nevertheless, “with the advent of television in the 1940s and 1950s, the new electronic medium made inroads on newspaper circulation: Readers tended to overlook the afternoon paper because they could watch the day's news on TV.”[v] Today, television is the most popular and most influential medium. From the 1950s through the 1970s, 3 privately owned networks, namely ABC, NBC and CBS (later also Fox), dominated the TV market. Not before the 1980s when Cable TV, which had to be paid, entered the market, the supremacy of ‘the big three’ was diminished. Cable TV had already been invented in 1948 to provide people living in mountainous or geographically remote areas with television. This kind of network transmitted its programs by satellite and offered a mixture of entertainment and information, specifically designed for a narrow section of the population such as youths, Spanish speaking people, homemakers or businesspeople –the term ‘target audience’ began to determine the media bosses’ way of thinking. New formats like music channels (MTV), information and news telecasts (CNN) as well as interactive services like ‘shop-at-home-shows’ or ‘Movies on demand’ became popular. This completely new structure, for which the term ‘narrowcasting’ was coined, was so successful that by 1999 nearly 70 % of American households subscribed to cable TV. Compared to that, other stations have less authority, e.g. public television stations, which are independent, partially financed by taxes and serve community interests, or the various non-commercial and local stations.
2.1 Critical assessment of the media’s functions
The media serves three major functions. First of all, it shall inform, which means not only spreading news but also confronting citizens with political and social problems and disputes. The individual is supposed to be aware of its position and responsibility in society (e.g. as voter or member of an association) and should be able to rate the events that happen in the country critically. Information offered by the media assists (and influences) citizens in forming opinions and attitudes, which create the public opinion. Here, the media’s functions of coverage and opinion forming overleap. The last and maybe the most important task is the so-called ‘watchdog role’ of the media. That mission implies not only surveillance over government and its actions but also calling attention to misdemeanors or blunders of representatives and officials. By informing the public and accusing the ‘guilty’, the media is able to interfere when injustice happens or a scandal is revealed. Due to this modus operandi, the Watergate-scandal was uncovered and President Nixon had to resign. During the Vietnam War, the press supported the peace-movement and therefore played a major role in accelerating the exit of the USA from a publicly condemned war. In 1971, the government tired to prevent the New York Times from publishing classified documents, known as the ‘Pentagon Papers’, which contained secret information about the U.S. policy in connection with the Vietnam War. The argument was settled in court and like in most cases concerning the freedom of the press, the jury found that publishing the information was legitimate. These cases can be seen as emblematic for the problem of the fine line between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy (respectively the government’s obligation to protect national security). On the one hand, it can be said that the media generally affects the individual and society positively. It creates the basis for a public discourse and offers the mere possibility to rise and express conflicts and other important aspects of political and cultural life. Furthermore, the media provides a platform for issues or topics of special personal and social interest e.g. environmental protection by Greenpeace, presentation of politicians during election campaigns or human rights movements like Amnesty International etc. Therefore, practically everybody can make oneself heard, for example in call-in radio shows, talk-shows, by commentaries or a private radio station. This option is so essential because today, the right to free speech is inseparable connected with the media. The fact that television, newspapers and radio act as mouthpiece (of the public opinion, of political parties, of lobbyists like possessors of arms, feminists etc.) underlines their powerful position and, at the same time, their potential to misuse that status. To ensure that the media operates according to basic ethics and meets its moral responsibility, some guidelines were established. Already in 1923, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) approved the first journalistic code of ethics, which appeals to journalists to act upon intelligence, objectivity, accuracy and fairness. In addition, these guidelines imply the demand for comprehensible and entire reports. Nevertheless, these principles are not always observed (maybe because they are not obligatory) and that is why also negative aspects of the media exist, which one has to reflect on. After all, there is no pro without a contra. So, many of the media’s advantages unfortunately turn out to be as well disadvantages, which is dependant on the point of view. The following three examples shall emphasize the media’s duality:
- On the one hand, the media is supposed to inform people, on the other hand superficiality and loss of contents harm its credibility. Therefore, one can speak of a duality of information and ‘disinformation’.
- Television offers various programs, news and reports from all over the world; only a few hours pass between a happening anywhere in the world and its broadcast to most countries. In fact, this technical progress, which is unquestionably an important achievement, leads to the individual’s isolation and de-socialization since people don’t have to leave the house to meet persons (compensated by Internet chat-rooms) or purchase goods (substituted by shopping channels). So to speak, the media simulates reality and creates a conflict between own perception and a world depicted by the media. The journalist Hermann Meyn utters on that subject:
“Wir müssen uns der Tatsache bewusst sein, dass wir die Welt zum großen Teil nicht mehr unmittelbar erfahren; es handelt sich überwiegend um eine durch Medien vermittelte Welt. Was der Einzelne weiß, beruht höchstens noch zu 20 Prozent auf eigener Erfahrung, 80 Prozent werden ihm vor allem durch Presse, Hörfunk und Fernsehen zugetragen. Wir sind eine Mediengesellschaft.“[vi]
This centralization of the media in personal and social life has led to a new system to rate news or happenings and their significance, namely according to their appearances in the media. Simplified, it can be said that most people think everything (news, reports, interviews etc.) shown on TV is important and topical. (Of course, the public also pays attention to reports in newspapers or broadcasts on the radio but as C hart I on page 22 illustrates, TV is regarded as both the most important and most credible source of information.) Therefore, the danger of being manipulated is existent for everybody since the human being tends to believe what he or she sees. This can be problematic when advantage is taken of that, for example in connection with advertising or political commercials.
- The media’s ‘watch-dog role’ was justified earlier in this term paper by indicating its significance for the social and political life in present and past. A critical inspection is supposed to reveal the problematic aspects of that role and must focus on those that shall be controlled- the people in power. Consequently, the following questions emerge: The public controls influential and powerful people by the media, but how effective is that supervision? Could these people maybe even reverse the media’s function and then be able to control the public by the media? Is that unlikely to happen or already reality?
 Published 1690 in Boston
 an interactive service, which allows any viewer to choose from various programs at times he or she wishes
[i] Sieper, Roswitha, The student’s companion to the USA, Ismaning: Hueber, 1990, 215
[ii] America 95
[v] “The media and their messages“ www.usembassy.de/usa/media.htm
[vi] Heym, 35