Does the Entertainment Media Set the Moral Agenda for the Country?

Does the Entertainment Media Set the Moral Agenda for he Country?

By Dr. Ted Baehr, Publisher 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the text of the speech which Dr. Ted Baehr gave at the 24th annual conference of the Association for Moral Education (AME ’98) on November 19, 1998, at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Dr. Baehr also spoke three other times at Dartmouth. All of these talks were well received. This talk was part of a panel which included: Ken Wales, producer and actor, Linda Seger, script doctor, and Dr. Judith Reisman, media pundit and author.


This profound question rests on one small verb.

Certainly, the entertainment media influence the moral agenda. There have been so many studies confirming the media’s influence on behavior that the New York Times and the London Times have declared that the evidence is irrefutable. Clearly, this irrefutable evidence that the media influences behavior has moral implications.

** Irrefutable

These newspapers as well as politicians such as Senator Joseph Lieberman and President Clinton usually focus on the influence of violence in the mass media of entertainment. In 1971, after two decades of research into the effects of television violence and forty years of research into the influence of movie violence, the massive, six-volume work known as the “Surgeon General’s Report” called for even further investigation into television’s influence. So much information was produced, over 3,000 titles, that Surgeon General Julius Richard suggested that a synthesis and evaluation of the literature be conducted by the NIMH. This project began in 1979 and was coordinated by David Pearl of NIMH. This report consisted only of reviews of the existing literature. Its focus was much broader than that of the 1971 Surgeon General’s Report. The two-volume report, Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, was edited by Pearl, along with Lorraine Bouthilet and Joyce Lazar, also of NIMH.

By now, almost 30 years later, there are thousands of more studies of all types – inductive, deductive, laboratory, and field studies – focusing on a wide variety of theories for the influence of the mass media from observational learning theory to attitude change theory to release stream theory.

The New York Times admitted that it was irrefutable that the mass media of entertainment incited viewers to violence when it reported on the studies of Prof. Brandon Centerwell of the University of Washington, whose 30-year, long-term analysis showed that over 10,000 murders annually and 50 percent of all violent crimes are directly related to entertainment media violence.

The London Times claimed that the matter was settled once and for all when it reported on a British study where incarcerated youths were shown violent movies. Those with a propensity for violence clearly learned scripts for violent behavior from the entertainment which they watched.

These admissions by major news media are quite extraordinary. As one reporter said, after interviewing three young people incited to murder after watching the movie NATURAL BORN KILLERS:

“We didn’t take this stuff seriously in the news room. We didn’t want to be responsible. Interviewing these three killers in different states brought me face to face with the irrefutable evidence that their crimes were connected solely by this movie. My colleagues are still cynical because they don’t want to accept responsibility for what they write.”

In spite of everyone’s reticence to accept responsibility, it is interesting to note that a UCLA Gallup poll of the top 3000 executives in Hollywood showed that 87% felt that the violence in the media influences violence in society. And, an MTV poll showed that 92% of the children felt the same way. If these two groups truly believe what they have told the pollsters, then logical questions emerge:  Why do you continue to make salacious violence if you believe that it incites people to violence? And, why do you continue to watch the stuff if you believe that it incites people to violence?

Of course, many of us realize that people follow their values, not their beliefs. It would be fair to say that the opportunity to make money through violence, along with the lifestyle that that money provides, is a value that takes precedence over the belief of the top executives that the mass media of entertainment incites people to violence. And, the desire to be entertained, shocked, titillated, and excited is valued more highly, than the belief of the MTV-polled children that the mass media of entertainment can incite them to violence.

** The raison d’être

Getting to the reason for the powerful influence of the mass media of entertainment is very important.

Children, as most of us agree, go through different stages of cognitive development. Although there are many factors that are common to all ages of development, there are also unique distinctions.

In fact, children often see the world and the media quite differently than adults.  Parents generally look at television programs semantically in terms of the meaning of what is said or what is happening.  Children see syntactically in terms of the action and special effects in the program. For instance, with regard to music, a mother will say to her child, “Did you hear the lyrics in that awful song?” And, the child will respond, “Ah Mom, I don’t listen to the words. Did you hear the rhythm and the beat?”

This generation gap was highlighted when Mr. Rogers of MR ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD was talking to a class of little children and a little girl asked him how he got out of the television set to be with them that day. He said that he was never in the television set and carefully explained how TV worked. Then, he asked the girl if she understood him. She said “Yes; but, how are you going to get back into the TV so I can watch you this afternoon?”

** Growing pains

Cognitive development is often directly impacted by the mass media, especially television. It is important to understand that cognition is not thinking; rather, thinking is part of cognition, and cognition itself is the process of knowing, which philosophers and theologians call epistemology. Cognitive development is similar to building a house step-by-step from a blueprint, or to adding colors to our mental palette, or to installing an operating system in a computer so that the computer can then do all the tasks, or thinking, that you direct it to do.

Each of these tasks must be done correctly and in the right order or the result will be a disaster. The human operating system develops over many years in a series of stages. Each stage has unique characteristics and each stage must develop properly.

For instance, once when I was teaching at an Ivy League graduate school, a women in the audience shrieked because her toddler had picked up a sharp instrument and was about to do what every toddler does with whatever they pick up, which is put it in his mouth. After quickly taking the sharp tool away from her toddler, the mother started to lecture him.

After the wave of concern in the room died down, I noted that toddlers are in the sensation stage of cognitive development, which merely means that they learn through their senses, and that taking the object away from her child was the right thing to do, but lecturing the toddler would have no effect because the toddler was not at that stage of development where he could understand the logic of her arguments. Thus, I noted toddlers have to be protected by their parents and cannot be expected to make wise decisions when they are presented with dangerous situations.

When you pass from one stage of development to another, you tend to forget what the previous stage was like. Thus, when my six-year-old boy, Robby, was frightened by a thunder storm, my eleven-year-old, Peirce, tried to get his younger brother to be quiet by telling him to “Shut up.” When this compassionate request didn’t work, my oldest told Robby that the reason for the thunderstorm was that God was angry at him. Of course, this only aggravated Robby’s fears.  I pointed out to Peirce that Robby was affected by the storm very differently than he was because Robby was in the imagination stage of development wherein his imagination was predominant, and he was trying to sort out the difference between fact and fiction.

I reminded Peirce about the time he had a friend stay over night when he was 9-years-old, and the friend had nightmares all night long. The next morning, I asked the young boy what was bothering him, and he said that his father had taken him to see the R-rated movie TOTAL RECALL, an extremely violent movie. The boy said that he didn’t like the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger shoots Sharon Stone, who is posing as his wife, and says, “Consider that a divorce.”

When I called his father to tell him of the fears expressed by his son, he replied that his son was a man and that he took his son to a lot of R-rated movies. I noted that his son was in the imagination stage of cognitive development and was incapable of dealing with the violence in many R-rated movies. I said that taking him to see these films was like putting him on the front line of psychological and spiritual warfare just like sending children into battle without adequate training and before they are big enough to carry their weapons. After three months, the father called to say that I was right and that he could see that his son was disturbed by the movies to which he had taken him.

** Babes in Toyland

Research has confirmed these stages and shown that younger children are less able to integrate pieces of information or narration together from stories and then to draw inferences from such information.[i]

Younger children react to direct violence but not to suspense. Children in the concrete stage of cognitive development are more upset by suspense than direct violence. Thus, little children will get bored by JAWS which is mostly suspense, while older children may be traumatized by it.

During the imagination stage, when children have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, children are uniquely susceptible to what they see on television and in movies.

** The program

Teenagers in the reflection stage of development often have difficulty thinking about the consequences of their actions and continue to be more vulnerable to the influence of movies and television programs than mature adults. In fact, research shows that teenagers are physiologically limited in their ability to focus on the consequences of their actions. Perhaps, this is why teenagers are willing to take great risks.

For instance, when the movie, THE PROGRAM was released, several teenagers mimicked the main characters by lying down in the middle of the road to prove their courage. Some of these teenagers were seriously injured and some were killed.

One national radio personality said that these teenagers were really stupid. However, one of the teenagers who died was at the top of his class. What the radio personality did not understand was that these teenagers were in a stage of development when they were the most impulsive and the least able to consider the consequences of their actions. Like most adults, the radio personality didn’t remember what it was like to be in a previous stage of cognitive development.

The borders between these stages depend on the child. Some children never mature beyond an early stage of cognitive development. These children and adults may be very smart in some ways while cognitively immature, like Raymond in RAINMAN. Furthermore, there may be incomplete development or advanced development. However the vast majority of children will fit within the norm.


Research shows that younger children in the imagination stage of cognitive development are frightened by different types of stimuli and events than are older elementary school children.[ii] Researchers Barbara J. Wilson, Daniel Lynn and Barbara Randall have examined the harmful effects of graphic horror on children and discovered some important distinctions:[iii]

Visual versus non-visual threat: The principle of perceptual dependence suggests that younger children are likely to be frightened by films with visually frightening creatures like witches and monsters. Older children will focus more on conceptual qualities, such as the motives of a character,[iv] and are likely to be more upset by an evil, normal-looking character or by an unseen threat than by a benign but grotesque character. Therefore, THE WIZARD OF OZ is more frightening for younger children than for older children; while older children are more frightened by movies such as POLTERGEIST and JAWS, which rely more on non-visual threats

Reality versus fantasy: Younger children are unable to fully distinguish between reality and fantasy.[v]  Although the terms “real” and “make-believe” may be used in conversation, younger children do not understand the implications of these terms. The notion that a character or an event is “not real” has little impact on a younger child’s emotions. Therefore, fantasy offerings involving events that could not possibly happen are more frightening to younger children, whereas fictional programs involving events that could happen were more frightening to older children.[vi]

Abstract versus concrete events: A concrete threat is explicit and tangible. For example, an evil character might attack a victim. In contrast, abstract threats must be inferred from information in the plot. Examples might include movies about evil conspiracies, or disasters such as poisonous gases. Younger children have difficulty drawing inferences from entertainment and are more likely to focus on explicit rather than implicit cues in the plot,[vii] and so they will be more frightened by a movie depicting a concrete threat than one involving an intangible or obscure hazard.

Threat versus victim focus: Also, cognitive stages are distinguished by the degree to which the scenes concentrate on the actual threat versus the victim’s emotional reactions to the threat. Movies that require viewer involvement and focus primarily on the victims’ emotional reactions are less upsetting for younger than for older children. JAWS is a good example because the viewer often sees only the upper bodies of the victims as they are attacked by the unseen sharks.

Children experience fear reactions to horror entertainment, and exposure to large amounts of violence can produce either desensitization or imitation. Since all human beings want to cope with the problems they face, the child may try to immerse himself in the problem (horror movie, violence, or whatever) so he can come up with a solution. This immersion in unpleasant media is a form of cognitive dissonance reduction.

More important than the sheer amount of mass media horror and violence children watch is the way in which even small amounts of violence are portrayed.[viii]  Therefore, “a number of contextual features of violence are critical determinants of whether such depictions will facilitate aggressive behavior.”[ix] According to Wilson, Lynn and Randall, these contextual features are:

Reward versus punishment associated with violence: Violent depictions for which the aggressor is rewarded are most likely to produce imitation effects or foster attitudes supportive of aggression.[x] In fact, characters need not be explicitly rewarded for such effects to occur. As long as there is no punishment associated with a violent act, young viewers will often imitate such depictions.[xi] The lack of punishment is a reward for such behavior. Much media violence is portrayed without negative consequences; neither perpetrators nor victims suffer much, and the perpetrator is often rewarded for antisocial actions.[xii]

The timing of the reward or punishment has important developmental implications.[xiii]  In many movies, the perpetrator receives material rewards immediately after performing an aggressive act. Punishment, however, is typically delivered toward the end of the movie. Since younger children are less able than older children to coherently link scenes together and to draw inferences from them,[xiv] younger children are more likely than older children to see the violence as acceptable and to imitate such behavior when rewards are immediate and punishment is delayed in a movie.

Degree of reality of violence: Violence perceived to be realistic is more likely to be imitated and used as a guide for behavior.[xv] Older children are better able to distinguish reality from fantasy and are more emotionally responsive to programs that depict realistic events. Thus, older children are affected more by violent movies that feature events that are humanly possible. Younger children are responsive to both realistic and unrealistic violence as long as the acts are concrete and visual.

The nature of the perpetrator: Children are more likely to imitate models who are perceived as attractive or interesting.[xvi] Children who strongly identify with violent media characters are more likely to be aggressive themselves than are those who do not identify with such characters.[xvii]

Younger children are more likely to focus on the consequences of a character’s behavior in determining whether the character is “good” or “bad,” whereas older children focus more on the character’s motives.[xviii] Such age differences are presumably due to the fact that motives are typically presented early in a plot so that the viewer must be able to draw inferences in order to link them to subsequent behaviors. Therefore, younger children will be more likely to emulate bad characters as long as they are rewarded, whereas older children presumably will be cognizant of the characters’ motives in selecting role models.

Justified violence: Violence that is portrayed as justified is more likely to be imitated.[xix] A common theme in many movies is the portrayal of a hero who is forced to be violent because his job demands it (e.g., DIRTY HARRY) or because he must retaliate against an enemy (e.g., RAMBO). Although the message may be ultimately pro-social (e.g., “don’t be a criminal”), the moral is conveyed in a violent context.

“In one experiment examining “mixed messages,”[xx] children viewed either a purely pro-social cartoon or a cartoon that contained a pro-social message delivered through justified violence. Kindergartners were more likely to hurt than to help a peer after watching the pro-social-aggressive cartoon. Moreover, both younger and older children showed less understanding of the moral lesson when it was conveyed in the context of violence versus no violence. Therefore, a hero who commits violence for some “good” cause is likely to be a confusing and negative role model for younger and older children.

Similarity of movie situations and characters to viewer:  Viewers are more likely to imitate media violence if cues in the program are similar to those in real life.[xxi] Also, children are likely to imitate models who are similar to themselves.[xxii] Thus, movies depicting children as violent are more problematic than those involving violent adults. Preschool and early elementary school children focus on younger characters who are violent, whereas preteens and teenagers attend more to aggressive teenage characters.

Amount of violence: Although the way in which violence is portrayed is more critical than the amount of violence in facilitating aggressive behavior, the sheer amount and explicitness of the violent content is important with regard to the viewer’s emotions. Excessive exposure to violence may produce a “psychological blunting” of normal emotional responses to violent events. Children who are heavy viewers of television violence show less physiological arousal to a clip of filmed violence than light viewers.

In one experiment, children who watched a violent film were subsequently less likely to seek help when the other children became disruptive and violent. Thus, exposure to media violence leads to a lack of responsiveness to real-life aggression.[xxiii]

** Dangerous minds

Television researcher Robert Morse has found that the very medium of television, apart from the content of what is being shown and communicated (such as the perverse sex and violence that is the subject of so much research), can cause severe cognitive problems when viewed in excess.[xxiv]

Morse notes that the medium of television is effective at converting (e.g. from one product to another or one point-of-view to another), motivating (e.g., to buy a product that you may not need) and informing (e.g., the news).[xxv]  The result is that many viewers can be converted from one product to another and even from one political candidate to another, as evidenced by the voter swings after the Carter/Reagan and the Bush/Clinton television debates.[xxvi]

Many viewers are influenced to look at the world in the way television does since their information about the world is filtered through the unique nature of the television medium. Thus, Morse has found that television is very effective at transmitting emotions and concrete physical information or facts to the viewer, but he also found that it is deficient in promoting or affecting cognitive growth.[xxvii]

Cognitive growth is that process by which we come to understand something so well that we set up the cognitive structures to use that thing which we now know and the structure we have developed to think and reason.

For example, a baby can look at a door and learn to call it a door without understanding what it is. Only after the child plays with the door, opening and closing it, will the child come to know what a door is and experience cognitive growth.

Through exhaustive testing, the producers of SESAME STREET found that the children who watched SESAME STREET would often acquire words from the program which they could repeat but did not understand, so they were unable to use those words correctly or to use them in reasoning. Perhaps this problem arose because SESAME STREET used a “distracter machine” with a test audience to insure that viewers’ minds did not wander from the program. Researchers would watch the test audience to see when they looked away from the SESAME STREET program at the distracter machine. At those points in the program where the test audience was distracted, the producers inserted a technical effect such as a pan, fade, camera move, or dissolve, or an action to hold the attention of the audience. Thus, the producers guaranteed that there was no time to stop, review, react, dialogue, and concentrate.

Part of the problem with television is that it is so effective at propelling powerful, emotional images into the viewers mind in real time with no time for the viewer to reflect, react, or review the information he or she is receiving – processes which are absolutely necessary for cognitive development.

Therefore, the very act of watching is harmful to the cognitive development of children and, as a consequence, adversely influences their moral, social, emotional and religious development.  Television also “debilitates an important cognitive function in adults, the one that permits abstract reasoning — and hence related capacities for moral decision making, learning, religious growth, and psychological individualization.”[xxviii]

“At the same time as television inhibits cognitive growth, research shows that children ‘habituate’ to repetitive light-stimuli (flickering light, dot patterns, limited eye movement). When habituation occurs then the brain decides that there is nothing of interest going on — at least nothing that anything can be done about — and virtually quits processing information. In particular, the left brain `common internegative area’ goes into a kind of holding pattern, and television viewing reaches the level of somnambulism, similar to being hypnotized. [xxix]

Therefore, excessive television watching can be harmful apart from the content.

** The twilight zone

Children who are heavy users of television demonstrate decreases in the capacity for creative imagination, concentration and delayed gratification. With regard to imagination, they are less able to form “mental pictures,” and they engage in less “imaginative play.” With regard to concentration, children become “lazy readers” of “non-books” with greatly decreased attention spans (you have to exercise concentration or it atrophies). With regard to delayed gratification, the children have less tolerance for getting into a book or other activities.

The symbolic function, perception and abstract reasoning are damaged in a manner that resembles dyslexia. The rapid increase in reading disabilities, or dyslexia, in the United States may be, in part, attributed  to heavy television viewing. Television inhibits eye movement and, thereby, the acquisition of reading skills.

With respect to adults, Morse said television saps the cognitive strength, analogous to the situation in nursing homes where inactivity leads to cognitive impairment. After an hour or two of television watching, people come away cranky, irritable, tired and ready to explode.[xxx]

** Trained to kill

Perhaps Lt. Col. David Grossman has done the most to help us understand the ability of the mass media of entertainment to influence younger media consumers to violence.

Lt. Col. Grossman spent almost a quarter of a century as an army psychologist, learning and studying how to enable people to kill. When he investigated the killings by the 15 pre-adolescents and adolescents last year, he found that there was a significant correlation between how the media had trained them to kill, and how the army trains its recruits to kill.

Lt. Col. Grossman points out that the per capita murder rate doubled in this country between 1957, when the FBI started keeping track of the data, and 1992. During the same time period, the rate people are attempting to kill one another – the aggravated assault rate – has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade!

As bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for two major factors. First is the increase in the imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. The second factor keeping the murder rate from being any worse is medical technology. Lt. Col. Grossman notes that if we had 1940-level medical technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is.

Lt. Col. Grossman points out that killing is unnatural. Killing requires training because there is a built-in aversion to killing one’s own kind. Only sociopaths – who by definition don’t have that resistance – lack this innate violence immune system.

Thus, children don’t naturally kill. It is a learned skill, and they learn it from violence in the home and, most pervasively, from violence as entertainment in television, the movies, and interactive video games.

Even in war there is a reticence to killing your fellow man or woman. For instance, the average firing rate was incredibly low in Civil War battles. The killing potential of the average Civil War regiment was anywhere from five hundred to a thousand men per minute. The actual killing rate was only one or two men per minute per regiment. At the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 27,000 muskets picked up from the dead and dying after the battle, 90 percent were loaded. These men were willing to die for their beliefs but not kill for their beliefs.

During World War II, the U.S. Army discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier. From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians.

When the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this “problem.” So, by the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill, and by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.

Lt. Col. Grossman notes that understanding how the military increases the killing rate of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing the same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are desensitization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling.

** Desensitization

Lt. Col. Grossman points out that brutalization and desensitization are what happens at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus, you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.

Something very similar to this desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence in the media – but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months when a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch something happening on television and mimic that action, but it isn’t until children are six or seven years old that the part of the brain lets them understand where information comes from. Even though young children have some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.

When young children see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four or five watch a “splatter” movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered, is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. Regrettably, this happens to our children hundreds upon hundreds of times.

** Classical conditioning

Lt. Col. Grossman shows that the Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind them. One by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet “their” prisoner to death. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in months, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate committing violent acts with pleasure.

Operant conditioning (which we will look at shortly) teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.

As Lt. Col. Grossman shows, our children watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death, and they learn to associate it with their favorite soft drink and candy bar, or their girlfriend’s perfume.

After the Jonesboro shootings, one of the high-school teachers told how her students reacted when she told them about the shootings at the middle school. “They laughed,” she said with dismay. A similar reaction happens all the time in movie theaters when there is bloody violence. The young people laugh and cheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised a generation of barbarians who have learned to associate violence with pleasure, like the Romans cheering and snacking as the Christians were slaughtered in the Coliseum.

** Operant conditioning

Lt. Col. Grossman states that the third method the military uses is operant conditioning, a very powerful procedure of stimulus-response, stimulus-response. A benign example is the use of flight simulators to train pilots. An airline pilot in training sits in front of a flight simulator for endless hours; when a particular warning light goes on, he is taught to react in a certain way. When another warning light goes on, a different reaction is required. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. One day the pilot is actually flying a jumbo jet; the plane is going down, and 300 people are screaming behind him. He is scared out of his wits; but he does the right thing. Why? Because he has been conditioned to respond reflexively to this particular crisis.

The military and law enforcement community have made killing a conditioned response. Whereas infantry training in World War II used bull’s-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at realistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop into their field of view. That is the stimulus. The trainees have only a split second to engage the target. The conditioned response is to shoot the target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response – soldiers or police officers experience hundreds of repetitions. Later, when soldiers are on the battlefield or a police officer is walking a beat and somebody pops up with a gun, they will shoot reflexively and shoot to kill. 75 to 80 percent of the shooting on the modern battlefield is the result of this kind of stimulus-response training.

Now, if you’re a little troubled by that, how much more should we be troubled by the fact that every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exact same conditioned reflex and motor skills.

Lt. Col. Grossman says that he was an expert witness in a murder case in South Carolina offering mitigation for a boy who was facing the death penalty. He tried to explain to the jury that interactive video games had conditioned him to shoot a gun to kill. He had spent hundreds of dollars on video games learning to point and shoot, point and shoot. One day he and his buddy decided it would be fun to rob the local convenience store. They entered, and he pointed a snub-nosed .38 pistol at the clerk’s head. The clerk turned to look at him, and the defendant shot reflexively from about six feet. The bullet hit the clerk right between the eyes – which is a pretty remarkable shot with that weapon at that range – and killed this father of two.

Afterward, Lt. Col. Grossman asked the boy what happened and why he did it. It clearly was not part of the plan to kill the guy – it was being videotaped from six different directions. He said, “I don’t know. It was a mistake. It wasn’t supposed to happen.”

One of the boys allegedly involved in the Jonesboro shootings (and they are just boys) had a fair amount of experience shooting real guns. The other one was a non-shooter and, to the best of our knowledge, had almost no experience shooting. Between them, those two boys fired 27 shots from a range of over 100 yards, and they hit 15 people. That’s pretty remarkable shooting.

Lt. Col. Grossman says that he runs into these situations often – kids who have never picked up a gun in their lives pick up a real gun and are incredibly accurate. Why? Video games.

** Role models

Lt. Col. Grossman notes that in the military, you are immediately confronted with a role model: your drill sergeant. He personifies violence and aggression. Along with military heroes, these violent role models have always been used to influence young, impressionable minds.

Today, the media are providing our children with role models, and this can be seen not just in the lawless sociopaths in movies and TV shows, but it can also be seen in the media-inspired, copycat aspects of the Jonesboro murders. This is the part of these juvenile crimes that the TV networks would much rather not report.

Research in the 1970s demonstrated the existence of “cluster suicides” in which the local TV reporting of teenage suicides directly caused numerous copycat suicides of impressionable teenagers. Somewhere in every population there are potentially suicidal kids who will say to themselves, “Well, I’ll show all those people who have been mean to me. I know how to get my picture on TV too.” Because of this research, television stations today generally do not cover suicides.

When the pictures of teenage killers appear on TV, the effect is the same: Somewhere there is a potentially violent little boy who says to himself, “Well, I’ll show all those people who have been mean to me. I know how to get my picture on TV too.”

Thus, Lt. Col. Grossman notes we get copycat, cluster murders that work their way across America like a virus spread by the six o’clock news. No matter what someone has done, if you put his picture on TV, you have made him a celebrity, and someone, somewhere, will emulate him.

The lineage of the Jonesboro shootings began at Pearl, Mississippi, fewer than six months before. In Pearl, a 16-year-old boy was accused of killing his mother and then going to his school and shooting nine students, two of whom died, including his ex-girlfriend. Two months later, this virus spread to Paducah, Kentucky, where a 14-year-old boy was arrested for killing three students and wounding five others.

A very important step in the spread of this copycat crime virus occurred in Stamps, Arkansas, 15 days after Pearl and just a little over 90 days before Jonesboro. In Stamps, a 14-year-old boy, who was angry at his schoolmates, hid in the woods and fired at children as they came out of school. Sound familiar? Only two children were injured in this crime, so most of the world didn’t hear about it; but it got great regional coverage on TV, and two little boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas, probably did hear about it.

Then, there was Springfield, Oregon, and so many others. Is this a reasonable price to pay for the TV networks’ “right” to turn juvenile defendants into celebrities and role models by playing up their pictures on TV?

Our society needs to be informed about these crimes, but when the images of the young killers are broadcast on television, they become role models. The average preschooler in America watches 27 hours of television a week. The average child gets more one-on-one communication from TV than from all her parents and teachers combined. The ultimate achievement for our children is to get their picture on TV. The solution is simple, and it comes straight out of the suicidology literature: The media have every right and responsibility to tell the story, but they have no right to glorify the killers by presenting their images on TV.

Lt. Col. Grossman states that in the days after the Jonesboro shootings, he was interviewed on Canadian national TV, the British Broadcasting Company, and many U.S. and international radio shows and newspapers, but the American television networks simply would not touch this aspect of the story. Never in his experience as a psychologist had he seen any institution in America so clearly responsible for so very many deaths, and so clearly abusing their publicly licensed authority and power to cover up their guilt.

Time after time, idealistic young network producers contacted him from one of the networks, but unlike all the other media, these network news stories always died a sudden, silent death when the network’s powers-that-be said, “Yeah, we need this story like we need a hole in the head.”

Lt. Col. Grossman complains that the networks will stick their lenses anywhere and courageously expose anything. Like flies on open wounds, they find nothing too private or shameful for their probing lenses – except themselves, and their share of guilt in the terrible, tragic crime that happened here.

In fact, Lt. Col. Grossman notes that a CBS executive told him that he knows all about the link between media and violence. His own in-house people have advised him to protect his child from the poison his industry is bringing to America’s children. He is not going to expose his child to TV until she is old enough to learn how to read. Then, he will select very carefully what she sees. He and his wife plan to send her to a daycare center that has no television, and he plans to show her only age-appropriate videos.

** Selling murder

When all is said and done, one of the most important demonstrations of the power of the mass media of entertainment to influence morality occurred in one of the most advanced countries in the world sixty years ago. The country in question was at the forefront of art, music, science, and religion. In fact, it had been the birthplace of the Reformation.

However, the dedicated use of the mass media of entertainment transformed the general population of this country from overwhelming opposed to so-called mercy killing to overwhelmingly supportive of the Holocaust.

A few years ago, British television produced an important documentary on how Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels sold murder to the German people. To see how these men used the mass media of entertainment to change the moral values of a nation, you need to watch SELLING MURDER.

** One small verb

However, the issue before us, in spite of the irrefutable evidence, is whether the mass media of entertainment set the moral agenda, and this issue is much more complex than the issue of whether the mass media of entertainment influence behavior because there are so many other factors involved.

For instance, when I participated in a debate organized by UCLA  on religion in prime time television, I pointed out that during the 1980s when there was the most significant villainizing of Christians, the church had its greatest growth.  It seems as if religious faith was fostered and promoted by the attacks. Therefore, instead of the mass media of entertainment setting a moral agenda, it prompted the opposite reaction.

Dr. Centerwell’s long-term studies give us an important insight into this opposite reaction.

In this regard, it should be pointed out parenthetically that it is a benefit to be a generalist. Since I was Director of the TV Center at the City University of New York in the late 1970s, I have been able to participate in many of the studies and debates on these issues, and read and reviewed most of the studies, and conducted a comparative analysis. What I think we are seeing today reflects Centerwell’s conclusion that it takes 15 years for the media influence to take hold.

Prof. Centerwell showed that in every country that he studied with no television, when they introduced television, it took 15 years before the murder rate started to climb precipitously. Why? Because the children needed time to mature into adolescence.

A survey in USA today shows that 55% of the American people say that going to church is their favorite leisure time activity. However, a survey by the Teenage Research Institute shows that 90% of the teenagers say their favorite leisure time activity is going to movies.

Right now, we have the biggest teenage generation hitting their teenage years since the baby boomers – 77 million strong. This baby boomlet or baby kaboom, as Time magazine calls them, has a million more members than the baby boom generation.

These children were not raised on OZZIE AND HARRIET or LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, but on LETHAL WEAPON, HALLOWEEN and SCREAM. Even vulnerable First Graders at a conservative Christian school in the Bible Belt have viewed some of the most potent movie mixtures of violence, sex and humor, as one young boy informs me during a video production for the Southern Baptists.

The first signs of the moral character of this generation may be the killings conducted last year by the 15 adolescents and pre-adolescents. If Dr. Centerwell’s findings are correct, then it may well be said that the violent media of entertainment has set the moral agenda for the future of our country.

To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt: if you educate a man’s mind and not his heart, you will have an educated barbarian.

This is not to stay that all 77 million are educated barbarians. Studies show that most who watch the media merely become desensitized. A significant minority become frightened and paranoid. Regrettably, 7 to 11 percent of the adults and up to 31% of the teenagers say they want to copy what they see. They have a propensity in this area. They are influenced to copy what they see.

If this is true, then more important questions emerge:  What is our moral compass? How do we deal with the mass media of entertainment that is setting a moral agenda? Is that agenda something that we welcome or fear?

** The Wooz

There is a place in California near Sacramento where some enterprising individuals have created a modern renaissance maze for people’s enjoyment. This place is called the Wooz.

It has extremely high walls, covers many acres and allows the visitor the privilege of trying to make it through the maze or getting lost.

A few visitors make it in 20 minutes, but many take much longer. Some need help.

Now, from reviewing the conference material, it seems that there are many definitions of morality, but let’s just look at morality for a moment in one way – as a directional device.

A group of people is lost in the Wooz. They argue about how to get out. One says, I have a pebble here that will tell me how to get out if we will only meditate and follow the pebble’s direction. Another suggests that they all vote on which direction to take. Someone contends that they should just follow their heart – their emotions. Others suggest statistical and scientific research. One man says,  “I have a friend who is the Designer of the Wooz and the son of the Owner. He gave me a map of the Wooz. This will help.”

Whom do you follow? Perhaps we are caught in a Wooz: violence, consumerism, materialism, racism, and all sorts of moral values, principles and presuppositions are being proposed by the mass media of entertainment as the way out. Whom do we follow? How do we determine what is the right direction to take? Do we get angry at the friend of the Designer for giving us directions? Do we stay where we are and become defeated adventurers who have no food or shelter and have hopelessly lost their way?

I think we all understand that the media influences morality. Some may contend that the mass media of entertainment set the moral agenda. However, the deeper question is, “How do we get out of the mass media Wooz and go forward into freedom and renewed life?”


[i] Wilson, Barbara J., Lynn, Daniel and Randall, Barbara, “Applying Social Science Research To Film Ratings:  A Shift From Offensiveness To Harmful Effects,” JOURNAL OF BROADCASTING & ELECTRONIC MEDIA, Volume 34, Number 4, Fall 1990, pp. 443-468, citing the research of SCHMIDT, C.R., SCHMIDT, S.R., & TOMALIS, S.M., Children’s constructive processing and monitoring of stories containing anomalous information, CHILD DEVELOPMENT  (1984) 55, 2056-2071, and THOMPSON, J.H. & MYERS, N.A., Inferences and recall at ages four and seven, CHILD DEVELOPMENT(1985) 56, 1134-1144.

[ii] Ibid. citing CANTOR, J., & SPARKS, G.G., Children’s Fear Responses to Mass Media: Testing some Piagetian Predictions, JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION, 34 (2) (1984) 90-103; SPARKS, G.G., Developmental differences in children’s reports of fear induced by mass media, CHILD STUDY JOURNAL (1986) 16, 55-66; SPARKS, G.G., & CANTOR, J., Developmental differences on fright responses to a television program depicting a character transformation, JOURNAL OF BROADCASTING & ELECTRONIC MEDIA (1986) 30, 309-323; and, WILSON, B.J., & CANTOR, J., Developmental differences in empathy with a television protagonist’s fear, JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGY (1985) 39, 284-299.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. citing HOFFNER, C., & CANTOR, J., Developmental differences in responses to a television character’s appearance and behavior, DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY (1985) 21, 1065-1074.

[v] Ibid. citing MORISON, P., & GARDNER, H., Dragons and dinosaurs: The child’s capacity to differentiate fantasy from reality, CHILD DEVELOPMENT (1978) 49, 642-648.

[vi] Ibid. citing SPARKS, G.G., Developmental differences in children’s reports of fear induced by mass media, CHILD STUDY JOURNAL (1986) 16, 55-66.

[vii] Ibid. citing COLLINS, W.A., Interpretation and inference in children’s television viewing. In J. BRYANT & D.R. ANDERSON (Eds.), CHILDREN’S UNDERSTANDING OF TELEVISION: RESEARCH ON ATTENTION AND COMPREHENSION (New York: Academic Press, 1983), pp. 125-150.

[viii] Ibid. citing COMSTOCK, G., & PAIK, H.J., TELEVISION AND CHILDREN: A REVIEW OF RECENT RESEARCH (Report No. XX) (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, 1987).(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No XX).

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid. citing BANDURA, A., Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses, JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1  (1965) 589-595; BANDURA, A., ROSS D., & ROSS, S.A., Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning, JOURNAL OF ABNORMAL AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY (1963) 67, 601-607; ROSEKRANS, M.A., & HARTUP, W.W., Imitative influences of consistent and inconsistent response consequences to a model on aggressive behavior in children, JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY(1967) 7, 429-434.

[xi] Ibid. citing BANDURA, A., Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses, JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1  (1965) 589-595.

[xii] Ibid. citing Potter & Ware, 1987.

[xiii] Ibid. citing BANDURA, A., Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses, JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1  (1965) 589-595.

[xiv] Ibid. citing COLLINS, W.A., Interpretation and inference in children’s television viewing. In J. BRYANT & D.R. ANDERSON (Eds.), CHILDREN’S UNDERSTANDING OF TELEVISION: RESEARCH ON ATTENTION AND COMPREHENSION (New York: Academic Press, 1983), pp. 125-150.

[xv] Ibid. citing ATKIN, C.K., Effects of realistic TV violence vs. fictional violence on aggression, JOURNALISM QUARTERLY (1983) 60, 615-621; FESHBACH, S., The role of fantasy in the response to television, JOURNAL OF SOCIAL ISSUES  (1976) 32, 71-85.

[xvi] Ibid. citing BANDURA, A., SOCIAL FOUNDATIONS OF THOUGHT AND ACTION: A SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986).

[xvii] Ibid. citing HUESMANN, L.R., LAGERSPETZ, K., & ERON, L.D., Intervening variables in the TV violence-aggression relation: Evidence from two countries, DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY  (1984) 20, 746-775.

[xviii] Ibid. citing COLLINS, W.A., Interpretation and inference in children’s television viewing. In J. BRYANT & D.R. ANDERSON (Eds.), CHILDREN’S UNDERSTANDING OF TELEVISION: RESEARCH ON ATTENTION AND COMPREHENSION (New York: Academic Press, 1983), pp. 125-150.

[xix] Ibid. citing BERKOWITZ, L., Some aspects of observed aggression. JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY  (1965) 2, 359-369; MEYER, T.P., Effects of viewing justified and unjustified real film violence on aggressive behavior, JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY (1972) 23, 21-29.

[xx] Ibid. citing LISS, M.A., REINHARDT, L.C., 7 FREDRICKESEN, S., TV heroes: The impact of rhetoric and deeds, JOURNAL OF APPLIED DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY  (1983) 4, 175-187.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid. citing BANDURA, A., SOCIAL FOUNDATIONS OF THOUGHT AND ACTION: A SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986).

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Morse, Robert W., “The TV Report” (New York: The Regional Religious Educational Coordinators of the Episcopal Church, 1978).

[xxv] Ibid. For an interesting insight into the power of television to perform these functions see Leff, Laurel, “TV Comes to Town; Fads and New Wants Come Along With It,” The Wall Street Journal (October 2, l979), p. 1.

[xxvi] The Roper Organization Inc. and other researchers have tabulated the extent of television’s impact on voters. After the Carter/Reagan debates, 36% of those surveyed who voted for Reagan said that the televised debate was helpful in their deciding who was the best candidate to vote for, according to a report by The Roper Organization Inc. entitled, “Evolving Public Attitudes Toward Television and Other Mass Media 1959-1980,” available from the Television Information Office, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10022.

[xxvii] Morse, supra.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid. citing the research of an Australian National University psychological research team, headed by Merrelyn and Fred Emery.

[xxx] Ibid.