Media violence: A thorny constitutional issue

Tony Pederson, the Belo Distinguished Chair in Journalism at SMU and former executive editor of The Houston Chronicle, writes about violence in the media.

By Tony Pederson
Belo Distinguished Chair in Journalism at SMU

As the New Year and a new Congress begin, gun control is certainly on the agenda. The school shootings in Connecticut just before Christmas shocked a nation. That the killings were carried out with assault weaponry guaranteed a strong reaction and debate that we'll see in coming months.

A candid national discussion is in order, and rest assured there will be plenty of earnest proposals and concerns on both sides of the issue, just as surely as we'll hear demagoguery and irrational comments from both.

In the days after the shootings, some commentators noted that media violence should also be addressed. Even though it may well be a significant part of the overall problem, it is much less likely to be addressed by Congress for the simple reason that it involves even thornier constitutional and practical issues – and that’s a good thing.

It is fascinating to look back at television of the 1950s and note the care taken in programming. There was extraordinary sensitivity to language, taste, decency, and of course violence. Yet with the social upheaval and turbulence of the 1960s, television gradually changed.

From the early 1960s, studies indicated negative effects of television violence on children. In 1972, the United States surgeon general released a landmark study on television violence with three major findings. Children who watched television violence were more likely to show aggression toward other children, were less sympathetic to the pain and suffering of others, and showed an exaggerated sense of danger in their personal surroundings. Even children who watched cartoon violence were affected.

The debate began immediately on direct causality and whether only children with certain predispositions were affected, which is certainly true. Not every child who watches a violent film will later take up an automatic weapon and kill others. But in the last 40 years, hundreds of studies have confirmed and expanded on the basic findings of the 1972 report.

In the 1960s and 1970s, movies became increasingly violent and portrayed more explicit sex and drug use. Studies indicate that video games may now have even more impact on children than television or movie violence, perhaps due to the personal nature and the constant interactivity that is so much a part of the video game experience.

Yet what can be done when such strong First Amendment protections are in place, particularly in the case of film? Any legislation would likely be pure folly and meet with the same fate in the Supreme Court as attempts to control pornography on the Internet.

Is it reasonable to expect Hollywood and the manufacturers of video games to regulate themselves when they understand full well that violence and entertainment will sell?

Most would agree that some graphic violence is appropriate in artistic contexts. Are we not richer as a society for having seen two Steven Spielberg classics, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan? Both films can be difficult to watch, yet illuminating in powerful historical contexts. The idea of censoring such filmmaking is ridiculous. Though lacking in such historical context, Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction, laced with violence and drug use, is widely recognized as a classic of postmodern film.

Yet dozens of films with gratuitous and senseless violence are released annually and gain wide audience, especially among teen-agers. Where can a line be drawn? How can artistic freedom be separated from crass commercialism, in television, film or video games? While most people might agree on what is an assault weapon and differentiate it from a hunting weapon, what constitutes artistic license is much more difficult to define.

Do we really trust a legislative body or a regulatory body such as the Federal Communications Commission to make such distinctions? Or do we trust the marketplace of ideas that has served us well for more than 200 years?

We realize again that we make tradeoffs in a free and democratic society. Anything smacking of censorship – or, equally as pernicious, self-censorship – will meet even fiercer resistance than gun control. Aside from encouraging self-restraint, Congress would be wise to steer clear of the issue.

Tony Pederson is professor and Belo Distinguished Chair in Journalism at SMU. He is formerly the executive editor of The Houston Chronicle.