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TV Violence and the Child

TV Violence and the Child: Evolution and Fate of the Surgeon General's Report

Copyright Date: 1975
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    TV Violence and the Child
    Book Description:

    In 1969, Senator John Pastore requested that the Surgeon General appoint a committee to conduct an inquiry into television violence and its effect on children. When the Surgeon General's report was finally released in 1972-after a three-year inquiry and a cost of over $1.8 million-it angered and confused a number of critics, including politicians, the broadcast industry, many of the social scientists who had helped carry out the research, and the public.

    While the final consequences of the Report may not be played out for years to come,TV Violence and the Childpresents a fascinating study of the Surgeon General's quest and, in effect, the process by which social science is recruited and its findings made relevant to public policy.

    In addition to dealing with television as an object of concern, the authors also consider the government's effectiveness when dealing with social objectives and the influence of citizen action on our communication systems. Their overwhelming conclusion is that the nation's institutions are ill-equipped for recruiting expert talent, providing clear findings, and carrying out objectives in this area of delicate human concern.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-600-6
    Subjects: Psychology, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the early spring of 1969, Senator John Pastore sent a letter to the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) stating that he was “exceedingly troubled by the lack of any definitive information which would help resolve the question of whether there is a causal connection between televised crime and violence and antisocial behavior by individuals, especially children.”¹ The Rhode Island senator, a major congressional figure in matters of communications policy, requested that the Surgeon General appoint a committee of distinguished men and women “from whatever professions and disciplines deemed appropriate”² to conduct a study which “will establish scientifically...

    (pp. 9-18)

    From its beginnings as an object of fascination, television soon became an object of concern. Clearly, it was an instrument of potential power, of pervasive influence. Admiration for technology’s achievement in developing this system of communication was accompanied by apprehension about the way it would be used. E. B. White, the essayist, expressed deep concern after watching a television experiment in 1938:

    Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere .... More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted .... A door closing, heard over the air;...

    (pp. 19-28)

    Government does not always move at a snail’s pace. One week after Senator Pastore dispatched his letter to Secretary Finch, the secretary sent the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, Dr. William H. Stewart, to talk with Pastore and his committee colleagues about the issues that had been raised. Appearing in open hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Dr. Stewart agreed with the chairman about “the need to know” and said that the request for a special advisory committee would be acted upon. In fact, Dr. Stewart had already gotten informal advice on the appointment of an advisory...

    (pp. 29-44)

    With that caveat, the report of the Task Force on Mass Media and Violence of the Eisenhower Commission in 1969 offered a summary of what research had shown about the effects on children of media violence:

    Novel, aggressive behavior sequences are learned by children through exposure to realistic portrayals of aggression on television or in films. A large proportion of these behaviors are retained over long periods of time if they are practiced at least once. The likelihood that such aggressive behaviors will be performed is determined, in part, by the similarity of the setting of the observed violence and...

    (pp. 45-56)

    “Field studies,” which constituted the second major group of projects supported by the Television and Social Behavior Program, encompassed an even greater variety of research approaches than the laboratory studies. There were both “experimental” studies, similar to the laboratory tests but conducted in real-life settings, and “correlational” studies in which various kinds of data were systematically analyzed to see which factors—such as television violence viewing and aggressive behavior—were closely related.*

    The most glaring gap in earlier work had been the lack of adequate measurements of children’s television habits over extended periods of time. By sheer accident, an opportunity...

    (pp. 57-66)

    While others continued to explore and debate the effect of televised violence on the nation’s children, both George Gerbner, of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and David G. Clark and William B. Blankenburg, of the University of Wisconsin, were conducting surveys to ascertain the amount and character of this violence. Using a content-analysis approach to chart long-term trends, these studies substantiated the belief that violent action is the main staple of television fare. By analyzing in detail the number of violent incidents during one week of fall prime-time and Saturday morning programming in 1969 and...

    (pp. 67-76)

    When the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee began to sift the research, it faced a formidable body of literature. Between August 1969 and April 1970, the staff had reviewed forty-six formal research proposals. Most had been solicited, but all were subjected to a “peer review” process which is traditional for the National Institutes of Health. This meant that an ad hoc committee was set up to evaluate the proposals and select the most meritorious ones. The review committee’s composition changed for the different tasks, but always included were: members of the standing review committees of the NIMH; one or two...

    (pp. 77-84)

    Shortly after launching the Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, Surgeon General Stewart resigned to take a university post. His successor, like Stewart, was a medical doctor and a career Public Health Service Officer. Also like Stewart, Dr. Jesse Steinfeld found that the title he assumed sounded more important than the job really was.

    In earlier days, the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service enjoyed considerable status as the chief civilian health officer of the federal government. Until the mid-1960s, he was directly responsible for overseeing almost all the government’s major health programs—from hospital construction,...

    (pp. 85-94)

    With those words, Senator Pastore opened the hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications on March 21, 1972—three years to the month since he had spurred this search for a scientific answer to a vexing social problem.

    A small contretemps marked the beginning of the hearings. Despite Pastore’s insistence that the Surgeon General was “the chief health officer of the United States of America,” Dr. Merlin K. DuVal, Assistant Secretary of HEW for Health and Scientific Affairs, appeared with the intention of speaking for HEW on the Report’s meaning. Pastore and his Communications Counsel, Nicholas Zapple, thought this would...

    (pp. 95-102)

    Committee and staff members were well aware that the Surgeon General’s Report would be carefully scrutinized, but, beyond cautious phrasing, there was little they could do to control how the Report would be interpreted by both professionals and the press. According to Dr. Rubinstein, “one of the reasons the message sent is often not the message received, is the proclivity of the press to emphasize the sensational and ignore the substance.”¹ Press coverage during the entire course of the Surgeon General’s Committee deliberations was surprisingly inadequate. By far the greatest coverage before the Report was released dealt with controversy over...

    (pp. 103-112)

    Senator Pastore had reason to believe that his hearings on the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee Report had imbued all parties with a new sense of need and purpose. The Surgeon General had asserted, on the basis of the Report, that the television industry “should be put on notice.” FCC Chairman Burch pledged to keep the networks’ “feet to the fire” to remedy their programming practices and to do better by their most impressionable constituency, America’s children.¹

    Yet, in terms of specific next steps, only one line of action seemed especially promising: Senator Pastore’s proposal for a violence index or profile....

    (pp. 113-122)

    Although the government could drag out its deliberations, the broadcast industry could not leave the airwaves empty while debating the amount and character of televised violence. Here, where program ratings are a daily reality and violence an unchallenged drawing card, the Surgeon General’s Report would face its severest test.

    Broadcasters greeted the announcement of the findings with conspicuous silence. But at the Senate hearings two months later, their testimony was vaguely supportive. Under Pastore’s prodding, the three network heads found themselves on the spot. Julian Goodman, president of the National Broadcasting Company, declared that his network accepted the responsibility which...

  15. 13 POSTSCRIPT, 1974
    (pp. 123-130)

    During the first week in April 1974, the Senate Subcommittee on Communications convened a second round of hearings on the subject of televised violence “to make sure,” according to a subcommittee spokesman, “the issue doesn’t die ... for lack of interest or money....”¹ Both the format and the witnesses closely resembled those of the 1972 hearings. In response to Senator Pastore’s repeated question, “Is the situation improving, or are we wasting a lot of time and money?”, government officials, television network executives, social scientists and concerned citizens offered testimony in support of frequently conflicting points of view. What was significantly...

    (pp. 131-140)

    Given the way the system worked in the Surgeon General’s quest, we find it difficult to put all the blame for shortcomings on particular villains. Each participant operated according to his own definition of his role. Each behaved logically according to his own terms of reference. Broadcasters and program producers, as Chapter 5 makes clear, work to feed the insatiate consumptive needs of the videotube for attention-getting scripts under conditions driving them to use violence almost as an exclamation point before the commercial breaks. In seeking a quick, definitive answer about the impact of violence on children, Senator Pastore expressed...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 141-162)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 163-167)