THE BLOG

When the Messenger Is the Killer

12/03/2013 06:22 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

Excerpt from the author's Introduction to the collective book Nonkilling Media, published this week by the nonprofit Center for Global Nonkilling and available for purchase or free PDF download at its website www.nonkilling.org

An average person in the US watches approximately 30 hours of television every week. That equates to nearly 4 and half hours a day, an estimate common to most industrialized countries. During those 4 and half hours viewers have a choice of programming which usually ranges from several thousand individual or serial killings in crime fiction serials to multiple complete annihilations of the whole human species and all planetary life available on film. Counting individual murders alone, an average child in the US will have viewed 16,000 killings by the age of 18, according to a study by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Television series exclusively focused on killings break audience figures leading all rankings ("Criminal Minds" on CBS has a DVR of 13.5 million viewers), spearheading a multibillion dollar industry for the socialization of lethality and its institutions.

News channels also broadcast in multiple and repetitive occasions every single intentional killing or public act of violence that takes place in the "civilized" world, together with escalating threats, military deployments and security hazards that constantly siege the average viewer. While the World Health Organization (2002) calculated that an average of 4,000 people are killed from self-inflicted, interpersonal or collective violence every day -- of which the most part is attributed to suicide -- every television spectator is presented with several billion human killings every day, including nuclear holocaust, planetary extinction and every single form of random or organized interpersonal or collective form of lethality. In a society increasingly shaped by what is conveyed by the screen, this statistical anomaly has more far reaching consequences that can be imagined, especially in the increasing number of youths that have in the media one of their main sources of socialization and worldview formation.

While the media enshrines lethal violence almost constantly, its appalling impacts or nonkilling actions in fiction or reality hardly receive any attention. The 1998 National Television Violence Study evidenced that while 61% of US TV programming contained violence, only 4% had anti-violence theme. While 55% of programmes portrayed violence in realistic setting, only 16% showed long-term negative consequences and in most scenes (71%) there were no traces of criticism or remorse over inflicted violence. Lethal violence is often (42%) associated with humor and is committed by attractive people in 39% of cases (National Television Violence Study, 1998). Nevertheless, long-term frequent exposure to media violence has been proven to decrease the sensitivity level of viewers.

Video games escalate lethal socialization among younger generations. Military psychologist Dave Grossman (Variety, special issue on violence, 2013) recently pointed out how violent video games "act just like police and military simulators, providing conditioned responses, killing skills and desensitization, except they are inflicted on children without the discipline of military and police training." In the wake of the Newtown killings, Grossman warned that although only some children that use these games may actually become killers, "they will all be desensitized to human death and suffering, intentionally and realistically inflicted by themselves, for their own entertainment". Even though interaction with violent imagery can have greater effects than passive reception, as a learning process is developed, video games of extreme violence are the most widely sold by large. In 2012, Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Xbox 360 and PS3) sold 10 million, Halo 4 (Xbox 360) sold 4.7 million, and Assassin's Creed III (Xbox 360 and PS3) sold 4 million.

Brain scientists and psychologists alike have brought forward consistent evidence showing how violence in film, television and video games has "substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children". Structural equation modelling has demonstrated "that childhood exposure to media violence was predictive of aggressive behaviour in early adulthood in both men and women, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, intelligence quotient, and various parenting factors" (Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis, in Lancet, 2005). This is especially so in the case of aggressive television characters with whom viewers tend to feel identified. For this reason, many are now calling for the same degree of care with media violence regarding children as with medication or hazardous chemicals, considering exposure to the extreme violence that currently floods film, television and video games a form of parental or caregiver neglect and emotional maltreatment.

Journalism is not foreign to this responsibility. Obsessed with violence, homicide and war, it has, in general terms, failed to provide appropriate coverage of nonviolent social actions and initiatives to prevent or reduce killing. Not only has mainstream journalism magnified violence but is has also created a macabre equation of news value of deaths according to geographical and cultural variables, following the US newsroom truism, "One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans." Only a few nonkilling journalism initiatives (such as Pernambuco Body Count, in Brazil --now closed-- or the Los Angeles Times Homicide Report) have been able to take the coverage of killings beyond media ghoulishism and turn reporting into a tool for prevention and public awareness of nonkilling alternatives.

We are well aware of how the media have gained increased relevance in the way global events are shaped and transformed, especially when covering conflicts but also everyday reality. Although their lethal capacity for triggering and promoting killing across the twentieth century has been verified on many occasions, little effort has been made to refocus this power on nonkilling conflict transformation. Ignoring the role of the media is not a viable option if we seek the construction of killing-free societies.

Continue reading this book dowloading the PDF or purchasing a copy at: www.nonkilling.org