Is Violent Media Desensitizing Us?

This is an unusually deep post for this blog, and I will try not to delve too deeply into the topic, but it has been bothering me for a while.  My wife and I are part of a huge viewing audience that favors police, crime, and/or forensic TV shows.  Recently (and finally?), some of the content has really started bothering me.  In particular, as we watch Criminal Minds, the repeated violence against women.  It makes me uncomfortable to see and hear someone, anyone (male or female), screaming “NO!” and pleading for their life.  It also makes me uncomfortable to realize that 9 times out of 10, the pleas fall on deaf ears, and the “bad guy” (almost always male) goes ahead and tortures, rapes, or kills the person.

Where's Seinfeld when you need him?

Shouldn’t this make all of us uncomfortable?  Are we, sitting in front of our flat-screen televisions, witnessing countless violent crimes (hypothetical or re-enacted, of course) purely for entertainment value, all that different from someone sitting in the viewing room of an execution?

I am as guilty as anyone.  My favorite shows include the aforementioned Criminal Minds, NCIS, C.S.I., etc.  I’m just stunned at the proliferation of law enforcement-themed programming out there.  This is not a new phenomenon.  This Wikipedia list shows more than 300 (worldwide) programs “involving police work, detectives, secret agents, and the justice system” stating that they “have been a mainstay of broadcast television since the early days of broadcasting.”  I suppose it’s similar to how we all slow down to view the carnage of a car wreck.  Some part of us wants to see and hear the violence.  But should we continually feed and cater to that part of us?

When my wife and I were dating, I was slightly frustrated to learn that she loves the Saw series of movies.  I begrudgingly watched most of them with her, but I would often look away from the screen.  Since when did brutality become entertainment?  Even now, remembering parts of those movies, I have to wonder what good could possibly come from watching them?  Is there not enough pain and suffering in the real world that we need to make up new and creative ways to inflict pain and suffering on each other and then watch it again and again?

Also, it’s important to understand that this post has nothing to do with how television and/or gaming violence affects children.  That is an entirely separate – and yet very important – issue in and of itself.

I’m not quite ready to boycott my favorite shows.  If I did, there wouldn’t be much left to watch.  Seriously.  While they’re certainly not all brutally violent – some are quite intelligent, thought-provoking, and even humorous – it seems as if every other new program that comes out is another police or crime drama.  Where is the creativity?  The only difference between Hardcastle & McCormick in the 1980’s and the brand new Rizzoli & Isles is that the cops are women and they don’t drive “the Coyote”.  My gosh, someone at CBS couldn’t come up with anything new so they decided to resurrect Hawaii 5-0!  As much as I detest reality TV, it’s no wonder it has exploded over the past decade.  It’s just about the only new idea to come to TV in decades.

At any rate, back to my original rant.  In April, posted:

Television dramas that rely on forensic science to solve crimes are affecting the administration of justice. The Economist reports.

quotemarksright.jpgA new phrase has entered the criminological lexicon: the “CSI effect” after shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. In 2008 Monica Robbers, an American criminologist, defined it as “the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques, and have an increased interest in the discipline of forensic science.”Now another American researcher has demonstrated that the “CSI effect” is indeed real. Evan Durnal of the University of Central Missouri’s Criminal Justice Department has collected evidence from a number of studies to show that exposure to television drama series that focus on forensic science has altered the American legal system in complex and far-reaching ways. His conclusions have just been published in Forensic Science International.

The most obvious symptom of the CSI effect is that jurors think they have a thorough understanding of science they have seen presented on television, when they do not.

… According to Mr Durnal, prosecutors in the United States are now spending much more time explaining to juries why certain kinds of evidence are not relevant. Prosecutors have even introduced a new kind of witness—a “negative evidence” witness—to explain that investigators often fail to find evidence at a crime scene.quotesmarksleft.jpg

However, there’s another, more sinister definition of “The C.S.I. Effect”.  It also makes the criminals – at least some of them – smarter and more educated too.  There are documented cases such as this one where someone would have gotten away with murder – using techniques learned from television crime shows – if they had only been able to keep their mouths shut.  Are we giving some criminals the tools to get away with murder and labeling it as entertainment?

There are no simple answers to these discussions, but there should, at least, be some discussion.  The adults among us are not going to sit around and watch cartoons and Teletubbies all day long, but that doesn’t mean we should sit around and watch porn and Hostel all day either.  I simply fear that the countless images and story lines about incredibly violent themes, will make us in some way numb to those same things in the real world.  If watching a nearly naked woman tied to the wall and shocked with some electric contraption until she dies sounds entertaining to you, then you missed one heck of a Criminal Minds last night.  You also may need some counseling.


~ by suitenectar on July 16, 2010.

7 Responses to “Is Violent Media Desensitizing Us?”

  1. That whole CSI effect is very interesting. I’ve never been a juror, but I would probably have high expectations of the forensic evidence. I also agree that the shows may have a numbing effect on us to some extent, but hopefully it doesn’t change our core values of right and wrong that we learned as children. If we want to take some positive out of all the murder shows its that the bad people out there will have to spend a long time coming up with something original, otherwise they will get bad press for being a “copycat killer”. Good thoughts though Nectar

  2. divine…..some one asked which is the number one disease of the societies across the world….replied…insensitiveness…as societies get insensitive to feel that societies are body gets numb or insensitive hard to harder pinching to hardest pinching
    surfaces in the society in way of media, films, music, and behaviour and drugs.etc

    as a part of society every person has a positive role to play…let us find a way for ourselves and future generations to come….

    spotting a disease itself is first cure and you have started a
    conversations….thank you…bless you..

  3. I know you are shocked your wife is commenting on your blog…But I am a woman with opinions and I am not afraid to air them! I watch those shows for entertainment. I see the end as a ‘good guys got the bad guys’ ending. I am fascinated by forensic science and as futuristic as CSI is making their holographic images on their lab wall, I feel most of what you see must be available for detectives “in the real world”. “SAW” is a suspense movie along with the gore. Movies and TV shows do not affect my ability to sleep, you know that. I think everyone must use their own discretion in watching. The most disturbing movie for me-“Wolf Creek”. The other shows I take with a grain of salt. I love you even though we have varying opinions on TV 😉

  4. There is another aspect to this that you did not mention. Since most people do not know any real criminals they really don’t know how criminals act. The repeated sensationalized behavior of the criminals in the media teach us that is how all criminals act and it teaches want-to-be criminals how they should act.

    That combined with the 24 hour news media that brings every violent crime into our living rooms creates a feeling of not being safe in our own communities. We hear about the crimes and say what if it happened in our community. We imagine the crime being done just the way that we see those types of crimes being done on TV or in the movies. The constant repetition of the news makes it seem like there is more crime taking place then there really is. All this creates a subconscious fear and hysteria in us. We start looking at strangers differently. We ask ourselves, “What if that person is really a criminal who wants to harm me?” We start holding back from others to protect ourselves. This is increasing our distrust of each other and breaking down our sense of community.

    I know the rebuttal to this is that what we see on TV and in the media is just entertainment. We also say, “I am smart enough to be able to distinguish between entertainment and reality.” I disagree with that. The advertisers on TV also disagree with that. After every four minutes of “entertainment” we get two minutes of commercials. Those commercials are influencing people to buy the advertisers’ products. Do our minds really flip back and forth like that consciously tagging some stuff as entertainment and other as valuable information? Furthermore, companies are paying the entertainment industry millions of dollars to place their products in the various “entertainment” shows and films. Why would they do that if it did not affect your behavior and cause you to buy the product?

    For further proof that “entertainment” affects our behavior is when we jump after hearing a strange noise after that noise was featured in a scary movie. Or we see a stranger that looks like the bad guy in the movies and we get that uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomach that something is not quite right.

    I am old enough to remember when Jaws first came out. That summer people would go to the same beaches they had safely gone to for years but very few actually went in the water. Lots of anxious parents were scanning the water looking for fins. Before that it was the shower scene in Psycho. After people watched that movie they would check to see if someone was hiding in their shower before they got into it. This was new behavior for them. Before that movie it never occurred to them that someone would be hiding in their shower waiting to attack them. Those are two examples of entertainment, although fiction, that certainly affected people’s behavior.

    All this is to say that I agree with you. I am reconsidering what I watch. What I watch winds up in my mind and heart. What is in my mind and heart affects my behavior. My behavior determines whether or not I am becoming a better person. I am not sure that I am becoming a better person by watching all this stuff. Maybe it is time for me to change what I watch.

    • Thanks, Will. Very good points. I especially like your real world examples of Jaws and Psycho. I once watched them both back-to-back and ever since then I always check for sharks in the shower before I get in!

  5. I have also been increasingly bothered by these violent TV series and that younger and younger children are also able to watch with very few parents screening their kids TV time. We are becoming desensitized to violence, murder, death, rape and morality.
    No wonder violence and chaos is on the increase in our world today.
    Can those who supply us with this entertainment not think of better ways to entertain us? I too have been a big fan of CSI, NCIS etc. but things like Dexter are just OTT and very subtle about it. I mean how can you but help rooting for serial killer??? And the vampire diaries, which the kids are watching, high on sensual content and blood gore and violence, the kids are being influenced by the shows. I love a lot of the shows and yes its for entertainment for those of us who are strong mentally and have no issues, but what about those people and kids that are easily swayed by the things they see, we are creating a society of psychopaths, sociopaths and more.

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