To what extent does viewing media violence change feelings or behavior?
As Gladiator wins the Oscar for The Best Picture and the television series "The Sopranos" is acclaimed by sophisticated reviewers, the political debate about media violence continues, and the questions surrounding research on its effects seem as relevant as ever. (James, 2001)
There is an abundant evidence that a great many of us like entertainment that involves viewing violent acts. It has attracted audiences throughout history. The gladiatorial combat depicted so realistically in last year's award-winning movie is one example from the ancient world. Medieval tournaments and modern boxing and football are other examples. Epic stories in many cultures recount life-and-death conflicts. According to Aristotle, when tragic violence was properly structured in ancient Greek drama, it aroused pity and terror and provided an opportunity for helpful catharsis. Violence is no less common in Shakespeare's tragedies, with their high number of deaths involved. (Rhodes, 2000)
Images of death are the subject of some of the earliest mass-produced sketches and photographs
Publishers of mid-nineteenth century newspapers and magazines quickly learned that violent stories and images attract readers. The circulation of Harper's Weekly jumped from 75,000 to 120,000 when it published an illustrated story of adultery and murder involving a congressman and his wife. A century and a half later, a survey done on television news found that more than half of the stories had violent themes, and "bad news" was placed early in broadcasts. (Rhodes, 2000)
We have to weigh not only the various influences on the risk of violence, but also the competing values involved. Even if we could accurately predict the effect of restricting media violence, for example, how much censorship would be desirable to achieve that end? This is a central issue in the political and economic debate. The researchers and politicians who argue for more restrictions on violent programming often say that the relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior is statistically almost as strong as the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Researchers describe the defensive stance of the entertainment industry as similar to the maneuvers of the tobacco companies in their efforts to refute scientific evidence. By using the analogies of tobacco and firearms, critics of the entertainment industry join two touchstone issues, public health and public safety. The question is whether either analogy is appropriate.
As Aristotle implied in his discussion of tragedy, the dramatist's talent and our receptiveness to it determine whether we find a program or film satisfying or repulsive. Caryn James of the New York Times wrote in her admiring review of "The Sopranos": "The issue should not be about graphic scenes themselves, but about how purposefully that freedom is used." (James, 2001). We want to be safe from violence and we want to be free to enjoy good stories. With some effort, we may be able to achieve a reasonable balance between that safety and that freedom.