The Power of Television

The Power of Television

by Martin Ward

About 18 years ago I read Malcom Muggeridge’s book “Christ and the Media” which was a real eye-opener. The most telling passage is where he discusses how what we see (via television) enters directly into our minds with hardly any chance of being questioned, while what we read has to be analysed (at least to the level of deciphering what the words mean) before it can be assimilated. It isn’t the bald statement of falsehoods which is dangerous, so much as the things which are assumed by everyone on the screen eg. that violence is an appropriate response to a disagreement.

The TV soap presents only the worst excesses of humanity paraded as “normal” behaviour. People tear each other apart for our entertainment, like the human equivalent of a cock fight. The soap also has all the good behaviours eliminated: it is much harder to portray evil (since evil is goodness perverted. It is easier to distort something than to purify it). Hence the perception in the entertainment industry that goodness is “boring” and evil is exciting and entertaining. In reality, some people repent, some people forgive, some quarrels are allowed to drop, some enemies become friends. This never happens in a soap – it would be too boring! It’s much more entertaining for quarrels to escalate, vendettas to drop on etc. Which soap characters would you like your children to emulate? Which are good role models?

I found quotes from C S Lewis “The Abolition of Man”: he is talking about an English textbook, but it applies equally very well to the unspoken assumptions implied by every character in every soap: “It is not a theory put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognised as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy,. and he cannot know what is being done to him”. (p9)

” (the authors) have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane”. (p11)

“some incentive to cruelty and neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds … Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand”. (p12)

In this respect, TV is much more powerful than books. A book has to be read in order to gain the information in it: it has to be processed by the mind before the information can be assimilated. With a book you can stop and argue with the author at any moment. But, as Malcolm Muggeridge points out in his book “Christ and the Media”: TV images are absorbed directly by the unconscious mind with no conscious effort required. As someone who worked in the media for several decades, he is well aware of just how “unreal” is the TV world view (including the TV news!).

G K Chesterton is “Orthodoxy” explains why fairy tails are more realistic than the “the sober realistic novel of today”: “The fairy tale discussed what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world”.

Donald F Roberts, Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication Stanford University writes: “Most research has focused on whether or not viewers learn aggressive behaviours or attitudes through exposure to medial portrayals of entertainment violence. Several exhaustive reviews of over 2000 scientific studies conducted during the past 40 years lead to the unequivocal conclusion that exposure to mass media portrayals of violence contribute to aggressive attitudes and behaviour in children, adolescents, and adults (see, for example, Comstock with Pail, 1991; Paik & Comstock). Obviously media violence is not the only cause of violent social behaviour, but few social scientists would debate that it plays a contributory role. Indeed, as long ago as 1982, a National Institute of Mental Health report on television and behaviour concluded: “In magnitude, television violence is as strongly correlated with aggresive behaviour as any other behaviour variable that has been measured” (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982). Studies conducted in the intervening 15 years have not altered that judgement (Comstock & Paik, 1991)”.

A prolonged exposure (especially at an early age) to violent television and violent, realistic, interactive computer games, also contributes to the systematic destruction of a child’s ability to think rationally and control his or her life. The average American child is exposed to 25 hours of television each week, and will have been exposed to an estimated 8000 murders and 100 000 acts of violence on television by the time the child completes elementary school. It is absurd to claim that such an exposure will have no effect whatsoever on a child’s world view!

Can what you see on television affect your behaviour against your will? Of course! Why do companies spend billions of pounds a year on television advertising? Because they expect to recoup the money in extra sales: in other words, they know that viewing television (even the few minutes of an advert) will modify the viewer’s behaviour. How much more effect will two hours of a violent film have?

– Martin Ward, 13 Bromley Close, High Shincliffe, Durham, DH1 2TZ

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