Screening the evidence
Every few weeks or months depending, perhaps, on the season or the waxing of the moon a new crisis erupts about television violence. Sometimes a programme gives rise to fears about crimes or trends or a particular incident is blamed on the flickering box. The debate about whether the media has damaging effects on viewers ambles along, like a will-they-won't-they television couple who never seem to be able to make up their minds.
But reviewing the mountain of research, in the writing of Moving Influences: Understanding Television's Influences and Effects, has caused me considerable surprise. While I had been sceptical from the start about attempts to blame social ills on a popular entertainment medium, I did at least think that the argument must have some reasonably convincing research behind it.
Indeed, there is no shortage of studies which announce the finding of evidence that children will copy what they see on television. However, with startling consistency, these studies crumble when faced with even the most cursory and polite of inspections.
The argument that television has a shaping effect on the behaviour of children most often rests on a type of research which seeks to identify a direct causal link between viewing and action. In this "effects research", the children, often studied in artificial and confusing settings, are observed for their responses to television a relationship that is so over-simplified that it is like measuring a golf ball in its response to being hit by a club. Like the golf ball, implicit in the research is a belief in the young viewer's passivity and lack of understanding.
Meanwhile, a far more sophisticated type of research, which tracks young people's viewing and behaviour over long periods of time in the everyday environment, has signally failed to demonstrate any such effect. There are certainly fewer of these studies since they can take several years, rather than an afternoon but their quality outweighs the sheer quantity of inadequate psychological tests.
The problem with effects research, in my opinion, goes much deeper than some questionable research designs. The cause-effect model on which all of these studies are based is flawed as a means of understanding the impact that the media has on people's lives.
There are undoubtedly some vitally interesting things to be said about the way in which the cultural experience of television shapes the contemporary consciousness, perhaps to a profound extent. However, the superficial model which looks only for direct effects is incapable of grasping such subtleties.
It is not simply a question of whether, as they would say on NYPD Blue, we're working from the same page. What effects research overlooks is the context in which television is watched. The social setting and mode of viewing, as well as the overall content and moral framework of actual programmes, are cheerfully ignored.
Effects research treats media literacy as simply irrelevant, which is ironic since researchers' concerns about television tend to run in inverse proportion to their apparent familiarity with the medium.
There is a particular disparity between the television that is actually broadcast in the Nineties and assumptions about its violent content, often based on out-of-date perceptions. For them John Thaw will never be Morse or Kavanagh QC, but is stuck forever as the macho policeman from The Sweeney.
Anyone who took the time to watch, for example, the Superman of the Nineties in action in his current adventures could not fail to notice that the guy is nice, even sweet, and less confident and successful than his reporting partner, Lois. Altruism is cool, the gender roles are nicely tweaked, and violence barely comes into it.
If the model of violent television is outmoded, so too is the model of the vacant viewer. The search for a causal link between viewing and violence seems to anticipate an audience unencumbered by critical faculties. And in terms of young viewers, little attention is paid to the possibility that they might be well able to understand the moral questions posed by TV drama.
The conclusion that television is unlikely to make people do things which they otherwise would not, is not synonymous with an argument in favour of a free-for-all. People, and children in particular, may be upset by things which they encounter in the media, as in any other area of life, and responsibility must be exercised.
But the idea of television having some direct and unmediated effect on viewers is not supported by evidence, nor even cogently argued on a theoretical level. It is based on a model which, like The Sweeney's fashion sense, no longer works.
Moving Experiences: Understanding Television's Influences and Effects by David Gauntlett is published on May 12 by John Libbey and Company, 13 Smiths Yard, Summerley Street, London SW18 4HR