December 20, 2008

College Papers: Social Responsibility of the Mass Media

This is a paper I wrote in October 1998 for the class Journalism 201 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

In the wake of the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, the mass media have been under extreme scrutiny for their role in influencing audiences. Supporters of the Social Responsibility Theory have called for government or self-regulation of the media by rating, blocking, or editing objectionable material from television and movies. On the other hand, groups in favor of the Libertarian Theory have declared any regulatory action on media to be unconstitutional by violating First Amendment rights to freedom of press. The local television station should follow the practices of Social Responsibility Theory because the audience is irrational, as indicated by numerous copycat incidents and extensive cultivation research.

The Libertarian Theory of mass media focuses on the press’ right to broadcast any opinion, either right or wrong, in an uncensored fashion. Libertarian Theory advocates argue that the First Amendment of the Constitution prevents any law from being passed that blocks the freedom of the press. By doing this, mass media can promote a wide variety of opinions without government intervention through regulation or other censorship.

Another Libertarian Theory belief is that the audience is a group of rational thinkers. The audience is able to distinguish right from wrong, and they are able to comprehend the difference between fact and opinion. Knowing that the audience is rational, mass media are then able to present a diverse number of ideas to everyone. These ideas can then be evaluated and tested by the rational audience.

In contrast, the Social Responsibility Theory criticizes many of the views of Libertarian Theory. The Social Responsibility Theory stresses that the audience is not as rational as the Libertarian Theory suggests. They argue that many consumers have a distorted view of the world based on television viewing.

Social Responsibility Theory also states that government intervention in media is acceptable in certain circumstances. When media are harmful or offensive, Social Responsibility Theory supporters approve of the government stepping in to regulate the media. This regulation is done through television ratings, movie ratings, or the electronic V-Chip, among other things. By regulating the media, supporters hope to curb the violent and other objectionable material seen by children and others.

In the case of the local television station, the audience, on the whole, is so impressionable that it is reasonable to take away some First Amendment rights in order to protect everyone. As seen in the following examples, without any regulation, the audience is greatly affected, often unknowingly.

In 1967, the University of Pennsylvania’s George Gerbner created cultivation analysis, embracing the idea that television viewing “cultivates” people’s views of the real world over a long period of time. Since then, numerous other studies have been done using cultivation analysis. The majority of these studies proved that heavy consumers of mass media, especially television, had a distorted view of the outside world. Many believed that the heavily violent television world mirrored reality, with heavy viewers being more inclined to purchase a gun than light viewers. Other studies have shown heavy television viewers to have a more skewed view of normal sexual behaviors when compared to light television viewers.

Along the same lines, the 1993 movie The Program depicted numerous football players lying down in the middle of a road to prove their courage. After the release of the movie, reports of car accidents involving teenagers performing similar stunts appeared across the United States. As was the case with other copycat incidents, the media clearly impacted the actions of the teenagers greatly.

Finally, the audience contains an increasingly large amount of young children. With the rise in working parent families, many children turn to television as their role model. Without parental supervision, some children are unable to make the distinction between right and wrong shown on television. In the 1960’s, Alfred Bandura ran several experiments containing videos of adults beating up a clown doll. When children saw the video, they mimicked the aggressive behavior seen in the video. As seen in Bandura’s experiment, children often mimic the violence seen on television, unaware that their actions are unacceptable in society.

Undoubtedly, some sort of restriction or regulation is needed in order to keep objectionable material away from children and the older, yet still impressionable, adults. TV ratings, similar to the ratings given to movies, help parents quickly and easily see if the content of a television show is acceptable for their children to watch. Additionally, warnings displayed in between commercials of violent television shows can also aid parents in finding acceptable viewing for their children. Unfortunately, these methods are only effective if the parent is watching the programs with their children, something that does not occur often.

A different, more radical approach to curbing the effects of television violence would be for the local television station to broadcast public service shows on successful parenting. Often, many children are not brought up knowing the difference between what is acceptable and unacceptable because their parents never taught them. With these parenting shows, more children could be brought up successfully and eventually become more responsible in consuming mass media.

The issue of violence in the media is a difficult topic to tackle. Many people believe that freedom of the press should be preserved at all costs, while others contest that regulation is needed with such a large, susceptible audience. In the end, media outlets like local television stations should take the initiative and educate their audience on the importance of being a well-rounded consumer of mass media.

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