Violence in Electronic Media and Film
A Policy Statement Approved by the General Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, November 11, 1993
We live in a climate of violence. Violence is everywhere: in city and suburb, in mean streets and quiet lanes, in private conversations and public media. Our society knows violence through abuse and rape, rising crime rates and diminished trust. We acknowledge that the climate of the psychological violence of words, as well as physical violence, breeds fear and rapidly escalating concerns for personal security. This in turn leads to more violence and contributes to society's tightening cycle of violence.
Violence is simple and brutal, but its roots are complex. We know it to be bred in families where children and spouses are abused and maltreated, where problems are met with force or threat of force. People who are in submissive positions to authority, actual or perceived, including women, racial ethnic persons, as well as lesbian, gay and bi-sexual persons, are particularly vulnerable to violence. We know that violence may be related to learning disabilities and chemical dependency. And we know that violence is exacerbated in communities and families living in poverty, and by the prominence given to it in films, television and other media.
Women often are portrayed in the media as being subjected to sexual violation and violence. These sexual situations would appear to create no harmful effects for women when, in fact, the context of the encounter is a power or authority relationship. The electronic media and film often reinforce this authority/victim relationship, depicting it as harmless or neutral.
Violence cannot be reduced to one cause. It is clear, however, that films and television play a role not only in reflecting but also in contributing to a violent and mean world.
Films and Television . . .
• Give the only information many of us receive about some aspects of life. Frequently, there are no other comparable sources of information available on human relationships or complex social issues.
• Model and prompt emotional responses to the realities of individual and social life. Entertainment that provides a vicarious experience of violence also models a response, often one of anger and retribution.
• Over-represent violence, with television sometimes showing as many as 30 violent acts per hour as preferred solutions to disagreements. This increases viewer concern for self-protection and a fear of going out alone. In addition, it enhances the acceptance of utilizing violence as a solution to problems.
• Increase an appetite and tolerance for entertainment with a violent content, since the more violence an audience sees, the more violence it will want. This appetite for violence entails an increased callousness to people who may be hurting or in need.
• Sexualize violence by rendering it pleasurable and/or by depicting an erotic payoff for the protagonists who initiate the sexual violence.
While films and television are certainly not the only cause of a climate of violence, they bear a considerable share of the responsibility and thus the occasion for this policy statement.
Our Faith Perspective
We are churches gathered in the story that is the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ! Not only did Jesus teach us to love our enemies, he himself prayed for his enemies when submitted to the violence of the cross. Through a violent death, Jesus confirmed God as the ultimate peacemaker, "for...while we were enemies, we were reconciled through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).
This reconciliation is part of who we are as children of God — proclaimed at our baptism when we were welcomed into the family of God. When a child is baptized or dedicated, a congregation promises to nurture and care for the child and to bring the child into faith. How can we help but be concerned about those media that have so much impact on a child's life?
We therefore deplore the competing stories of violence from the media that continue to shape our society. Even in doing so, however, we know that sin still infects and affects us all. Too often we ignore our personal and corporate complicity in violence, blaming others. Too often we are weak and uncertain about our part of the solution.
After all, we Christians . . .
• Support the media industries as consumers, thereby helping to form their financial backbone. We are, indeed, part of the audience that media violence attracts.
• Permit and sometimes encourage our children's exposure to media with violent content.
• Participate in the media industries through our investments, and through our vocations as producers and writers. We do not always use our power to work for better programming.
• Shirk our duty as citizens to be vigilant in the pursuit of a common good.
Churches occasionally have lifted their voices in concern over media violence. Statements have come from a number of churches, among them:
• Church of the Brethren (1962, 1978, 1985)
• American Lutheran Church (1969),/
• Reformed Church in America (1971)
• Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (1973, 1976)
• The United Methodist Church (1976)
• United Church of Christ (1977)
The National Council of the Churches of Christ also previously addressed this issue (1985).
Churches have not been alone in calling for curbs on media violence. Other concerned organizations also have taken a stand, including:
• The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1969)
• Surgeon General (1972)
• National Institute of Mental Health (1982)
• Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence (1984)
• National Parents and Teachers Association (1987)
• The American Psychological Association (1992)
• National Commission on Children (1991)
• H.F. Guggenheim Foundation Study (1993)
• Citizens' Task Force on TV Violence (1993)
An Issue of Urgency
Media violence has not abated. Movie rentals and cable television have made explicit violence more available; CD-ROM technology promises to make violence interactive. Network television, over the years, has supplied a steady diet of violence: 70 percent of prime-time programs use violence, with an average of 16 violent acts (including two murders) in each evening's prime-time programming.
If the violence has not abated, neither has the public outcry. In fact, it will become sharper as:
• More parents of young children see television as a teacher of often negative behavior and attitudes.
• More citizens view what the Surgeon General has described as a "public health crisis” with alarm, recognizing that it needs to be addressed through regulatory standards in several arenas.
• More grass-roots organizations challenge the presence of violence in the media, occasionally falling into extremist reaction.
• Cultural warfare breaks out over our institutions — government, universities, schools, churches, media — pressing the question as to what we want our society to be, and who we want our children to become.
In this public debate, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA reaffirms its adherence to the principles of an open forum of ideas and the guarantees of the First Amendment to free speech, press and religion. As objectionable as we find media violence, we do not believe government censorship is a viable or appropriate solution.
We strongly object, however, to what we see as the misuse of the First Amendment, by commercial interests, as a cover for a quest for profit. Free speech and a free press have their places within a context of social responsibility and a concern for the common good. We hold media industries accountable for what they produce and distribute, and challenge them to act as good citizens in society.
We commit ourselves to work through government and with industry to find ways to respect free expression while abhorring and selectively limiting media violence, the moral equivalent of a harmful substance. We commit ourselves also to support families and churches in their aspirations and strategies for more appropriate media choices.
A Call to Action
In order to be supportive of churches and families and in our dealings with government and industry,
We call for media that clearly:
• Create community, and value and develop cultures.
• Help to remove people and society from the cycle of violence that we understand to have been broken definitively by the cross of Christ.
• Respect human dignity and seek to involve people in participatory communication processes that enhance human dignity.
Further, we call for a nationwide approach to media literacy, involving four interrelated components:
• Critical viewing: learning to discern the meanings of media messages.
• Critical analysis: determining the cultural, social, political and economic influences on a media message.
• Creative production skills: producing films and programs that create community, value cultures and respect human dignity.
• Preparation for "citizenship in a media culture”: understanding how the media work in society; taking personal and public action to challenge government and industry.
Our Challenge to the Churches
Our requests of churches are made in light of their role in resisting hate and witnessing to the Prince of Peace.
We call upon churches to:
• Provide leadership through congregations, as centers of media literacy.
• Promote specific life-enhancing electronic media and film programs for pastors and people that teach moral and ethical values.
• Provide assistance to parents of children and youth about how families may utilize television more creatively.
• Prepare leadership, through media literacy programs in seminaries and universities, and through other means; and to develop and promote media literacy resources.
• Urge the integration of media awareness and literacy programs as critical components of peace, justice and advocacy agendas.
• Organize their efforts for continuity and wider impact, working ecumenically wherever possible.
Our Challenge to Families
As the primary social unit of our culture, we ask families to:
• Monitor family viewing habits of television, film and video games.
• Discuss programs, films and media experiences in relationship to their faith.
• Participate directly in the media world through conversations with the church, government and media industries. It is helpful to let these groups know what is valued and what needs to be changed among the media options.
• Protect children from seeing films expressly intended for adults.
Our Challenge to Government
As citizens, we are responsible for our governments. Historically, federal and local governments help maintain order and community standards, including personal safety. However, our requests for government leadership do not diminish our commitment to the First Amendment.
Keeping this balance in mind, we call upon our federal government to:
• Lead in the development of media standards, through an open, representative and accessible process.
• Develop not only regulations but also incentives for producers in order to encourage media choices that build community and enhance human dignity.
• Review its mandated task of regulating airwaves, which we hold in common.
Vigilant supervision, through the Federal Communication Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and other means, would entail a closer scrutiny of media violence than has been the case.
We call upon our municipal governments to:
• Review and discuss media violence, especially when making contracts with the cable television industry.
Our Challenge to the Media Industries
Our requests of media industries are that they re-examine their roles as "corporate citizens.” Our expectations are that they will act in a more socially responsible manner. This corporate citizenship has global dimensions because of the extensive products our media export to the rest of the world. (See Global Communication for Justice, a policy statement adopted by the National Council of Churches in November 1993.)
We strongly urge the media industries to contribute to the development of media standards by which we all can live. This includes the film, television, cable television and video games industries.
We will support these industries in such efforts, through:
• Ongoing dialogue with media management and professional media practitioners.
• Bringing together those who manage the media and the consumers who receive their products.
• Reinforcing a voluntary approach for protecting children from adult material, through the film industry rating board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). We urge the members of the MPAA to reverse the trend toward the increasingly violent images that now appear in films rated suitable for children. We call upon the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) to enforce more diligently the rating system at the box office to prevent children from exposure to R-rated films intended strictly for adults.
• Publicizing advertisers of specific programs that depict significant values of the religious community.
• Encouraging investors, media management, and practicing media professionals to acknowledge their responsibility for ameliorating the climate of violence and for developing alternatives to gratuitous violence.
Specifically, we urge that churches holding shares in corporations with media assets ask those corporations to:
• Adopt public and verifiable community interest standards.
• Participate in open discussions on the development and use of media technology and their implications for our common interests.
• Provide programming that promotes peaceful alternative resolutions of conflict.
• Provide increased programming from international sources to enhance our understanding of our neighbors in the global community.
We take the critical issue of media violence very seriously because it is in contradiction to our basic beliefs. Developments in the public debate on media violence cause us, once again, to lift our voices in witness to a God who promises liberty, community and care for those held captive to violence, and who calls us to new life. How can we do other than to resist hate (Matthew 5), working toward loving ways of living together (Matthew 18).
While we acknowledge the broad nature of our concerns for violence in the media, the National Council of Churches of Christ and its member communions declare their renewed commitment to changing this climate of media violence.
Resources for Learning More About the Media and Media Violence
Many of these items, recommended in 1993, are now out of print, but may still be available in church or community libraries.
From the Communication Commission, National Council of Churches, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 880, New York, NY 10115:
• Global Communication for Justice — policy statement.
• Violence and Sexual Violence in Film, Television, Cable and Home Video — an earlier version (1986) of the current policy statement, which includes the report of a study committee on this issue.
From the Center for Media and Values, 1962 S. Shenandoah, Los Angeles, CA 90034:
• "Media and Violence,” Parts I & II, Number 62, 63 (1993) — special issues of Media and Values magazine.
• "Violence and Sexual Violence in the Media,” Number 33 (1985) — earlier special issue of Media and Values on this topic.
• Beyond Blame: Violence in the Media — a multimedia educational resource package.
From Friendship Press, FPDO, PO Box 37844, Cincinnati, OH 45222-0844:
• Fore, William F. Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and Media (1990).
• Pomeroy, Dave. The Mything Link: A Study Guide on Gospel, Culture and Media (1990).
• Pomeroy, Dave. Video Violence and Values — a workshop on the impact of video violence, especially in relation to use of home video (1990).
• Peterson, Linda Wood. The Electronic Lifeline: A Media Exploration for Youth (1990).
• Duckert, Mary. Who Touched the Remote Control?: Television and Christian Choices for Children and Adults Who Care About Children (1990).
From EcuFilm, 810 Twelfth Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203:
• The Power of Image — video cassette on the impact of television (1990).
• Ethics in Media: Evaporating Values or News You Can Use? — video cassette on how television shapes our world perspectives (1992).
From the World Association for Christian Communication, 357 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY ENGLAND:
• Communication and Community: The Manila Declaration (1989) — includes Principles of Christian Communication.
From California Newsreel, 149 Ninth Street, Suite 420, San Francisco, CA 94103:
• On Television: The Violence Factor — one-hour videotape (1984).
• Television and Violence: The Violence Factor — Television series (1984).
From The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan, Inc. 866 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022:
• Donnerstein, Edward; Linz, Daniel; and Penrod, Steven. The Question of Pornography: Research Findings and Policy Implications (1987).
From The Pilgrim Press, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115:
• Fortune, Marie. Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin (1983).
From Abingdon Press, 201 Eighth Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37202
• Gore, Tipper. Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society (1987).
• "TV Violence,” The Congressional Quarterly Researchers (March 1993).