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Mean World Syndrome
April 25, 2010 11:18 AM   Subscribe

George Gerbner, a pioneer in the research of TV's effects on society, advocated a theory called Mean World Syndrome. According to this theory, exposure to the media leads people to believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, because of violent programming and terrifying news programs. This is part of cultivation theory, the idea that humans are brought up in a culture of stories, reflect those stories, and that TV is now our main storyteller.
posted by mccarty.tim (86 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
waaay back in the day, I did a senior research project for my psych degree which eventually suggested that the short term effects of watching explicitly violent films significantly decreased social cooperation.

Now,all sorts of caveats apply, the largest being this was a pretty small study and I wouldn't feel comfortable in defending it for publication or for professional scrutiny for methodological purposes. But, it was an interesting (small) data point.
posted by edgeways at 11:35 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I once saw Yann Martel put forth the following analogy in a talk:

A deer in the forest has senses that let it monitor its environment out to a certain diameter. For the sake of the analogy let's say it's 250 meters, give or take depending on various factors (e.g. weather). That is all the deer needs. If a predator is further away then it doesn't really concern the deer. Now let's say we electronically augmented the deer's senses so that it could monitor the forest up to a kilometer around it. It would be aware of a lot more predators but that wouldn't actually be of any use to it because a predator further away than its unaugmented senses could detect shouldn't be of any concern. The only result of augmenting the deer's senses would be to stress the animal out, negatively impacting it. Almost every human being on the planet has senses that have been electronically augmented, through mass media and the internet and so on, resulting in the stresses of modern existence.
posted by Kattullus at 11:40 AM on April 25, 2010 [288 favorites]


The DVD of the movie, by the way, is great. It's insanely expensive, though, so try your library. A university would likely have it.

Here's the full thing with a small resolution and an annoying watermark. I didn't realize it was the whole thing, so I didn't bother linking it into the post.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:41 AM on April 25, 2010


I find it ironic that a movie decrying manipulation in media uses freeze frames, quick cuts and somber background music, all rather manipulative uses of media. Not that I terribly disagree with what they are saying.

Looking further at some of the movies on MEF website, I somewhat disagree that this is a consequence of for profit businesses trying to maximize viewership, mainly because whenever any organization, or even small group of people, like 911 truthers, or political parties, they grab from the same toolset.

I think desensitization is an inherent part of the audio/visual medium, it has too much of a direct, lizard brain grabbing, emotional impact.
posted by zabuni at 11:58 AM on April 25, 2010


Is this some kind of scam?
posted by benzenedream at 12:02 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


If you're accusing me of Pepsi-Bluing, benzendream, I assure you I'm not. I just saw this documentary in my Communications class, and I thought it was really interesting.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:04 PM on April 25, 2010


the buddhist monk, high atop a mountain in Tibet ignores such things and thus is not concerned that China wreaks havoc and possess his country and its culture. If you ignore Katrina and 9/11 and earthquakes and volcanoes....you can be at peace, especially if you live in a famine enclave in Africa. In sum: news before and after TV was to bring you the shit of the world, not the goody goody things that happen. The truly bad thing about TV is just about most of the programming that is NOT the news.
posted by Postroad at 12:06 PM on April 25, 2010


mccarty.tim, I suspect benzenedream was making a joke based on how dangerous he feels the world to be because of his overexposure to violent media...
posted by small_ruminant at 12:10 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why do such common sense, easily observable, pervasive things have to be studied like it might be up for debate? Have you switched a TV on? Have you switched it off?

Seriously. What's the value of such studies, can someone explain.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:11 PM on April 25, 2010


bobo
posted by fixedgear at 12:13 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


It seems intuitive, but I'm not really sure how true it is.

It seems to me that before television, you'd still have stories in the newspaper and so on. And in fact there was a lot more stuff to be afraid of back then.

My view is that there is basically a set level of fear that people have, and in the absence of real threats it becomes hyperactive, and people end up becoming afraid of things that are, in fact, very low risk.

After all, ask yourself: Why is the media putting on all these news stories about bad, but rare, events? It's because that's what people want to see. They seek out stories that scare them, or a lot of people do, anyway.

As far as fictional stuff goes, I don't think that makes a difference.
posted by delmoi at 12:15 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's the value of such studies, can someone explain.

I can see the value of such studies being very macro -- we seek explanations for why, in this period of history when people are (relatively) more at peace and respectful of others' rights than ever before according to the historical record, people seem to live in fear and distrust of their fellow man. Examining the stories we tell ourselves (whether scripted, reality show, or news) and how that affects society as a whole may be useful in that context.
posted by hippybear at 12:16 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


mondaygreens, the reason such studies are useful is that well, in all honestly, most common sense intuitions are false. E.G., solid objects aren't actually solid, the sky isn't actually blue, and no matter how many times a coin comes up heads the odds of it coming up tails is still 50/50.
posted by strixus at 12:18 PM on April 25, 2010 [10 favorites]


Now let's say we electronically augmented the deer's senses so that it could monitor the forest up to a kilometer around it. It would be aware of a lot more predators but that wouldn't actually be of any use to it because a predator further away than its unaugmented senses could detect shouldn't be of any concern.

But if the predators are also electronically augmented, wouldn't that increase the potential dangers to the deer, and thus make the deer's augmentation helpful?
posted by inigo2 at 12:35 PM on April 25, 2010 [11 favorites]


Fiction: Unless someone has a reality disorder of some kind, it shouldn't affect them at all.

News of the mean world: Raises the stress level (the deer in the forest theory) unless the viewer uses their rational mind to realize that their forest has gotten much bigger. But that's hard to do.
posted by gjc at 12:36 PM on April 25, 2010


I, for one, welcome our bionic carnivorous wildlife overlords.
posted by hippybear at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Okay but there needs to be some study about how we are trusting our own selves less and less and not looking at our lived lives anymore like they have anything to teach us, but rather as something that we need to quickly 'figure out' so we can start gaming it to live long, happy, secure, successful lives.

I mean, the media is always fucking telling us how things are. As if things aren't changing fast enough as it is, we need trained and organized armies of experts to cover it - literally - from all marketable sides, and when it isn't there, of course make it up. The smallest quasi-possibly-important thing happens and they all jump on it and start reporting about how it is and trying to outdo each other at "up to the minute coverage" and tying it to all kinds of statistics without any sort of thoughtful analysis or even a second-long step back.

TV is a narrow, totalizing, skewed narrative with limitations that are not only part of its character but give it character. How is that up for debate? I mean no one actually thinks it's doing us any good, do they? Well, maybe this guy. But almost no one I know. (Those who are, are actively resisting TV and seeking out better knowledge than what is instantly accessible.)

In social studies like this, syndrome is just a word that gets more eyeballs. Like, this is something beyond our control and even our understanding to some extent. Where we can only discern the patterns and make interpretations. The fact that labeling it a syndrome works perfectly for the media is irrelevant, I suppose.

It seems to me that we have very very little incentive for thinking for ourselves. The irony might just explode all over us.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:40 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


mccarty.tim - forgot my /HAMBURGER tag, as small_ruminant inferred. Good post.

I wonder if the risks that we continually underestimate (car accidents, obesity, etc.) are due to them not having a clear narrative that we can lock onto.
posted by benzenedream at 12:45 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


But almost no one I know. (Those who are, are actively resisting TV and seeking out better knowledge than what is instantly accessible.)


This was supposed to say: but almost know no one I know seems to have much confidence in their own knowledge, not just in spite of what they learn about the world on TV but in inverse relation to it. (Those who are.... etc)

The point was that uncertainty breeds fear. Fear breeds aggression. Why call it a syndrome?
posted by mondaygreens at 12:46 PM on April 25, 2010


the sky isn't actually blue

Huh? Well, I mean obviously the sky changes color during the day and depending on the weather, but what do you mean? On a clear day the sky is certainly blue. What color do you think it is?
posted by delmoi at 12:46 PM on April 25, 2010


Marilyn Manson, not really known as a media scholar, talking to Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine: "The mass media is in the fear business. Fire, famine, flood, cut to commercial for toothpaste or deodorant." I'm paraphrasing here, but he makes a great point.
posted by fixedgear at 12:51 PM on April 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I can see the value of such studies being very macro -- we seek explanations for why, in this period of history when people are (relatively) more at peace and respectful of others' rights than ever before according to the historical record, people seem to live in fear and distrust of their fellow man. Examining the stories we tell ourselves (whether scripted, reality show, or news) and how that affects society as a whole may be useful in that context.

I think two things are happening here, neither of them good, but only one really disturbing w/r/t "Mean World Syndrome":

1. Violence is a button that's easy to press and will sell across a wide variety of international platforms. The same is true of sex, which is (generally) a much healthier thing, but violence is an easier sell worldwide. As someone or other once famously observed (he paraphrased), we are generally more comfortable with the sight of a woman's breast having a knife stuck in it than we are the sight of a woman's breast being caressed. Sick, sad world. In any case, what this has left us with, by design, is a cinema intended for the lowest common denominator. Story has migrated to the small screen, where costs are lower and there is less penalty for having a product that is unlikely to sell outside its country of origin (barring countries that share the same language). Television shows are violent, too, but in the case of the best ones, the violence exists within the context of a larger framework that makes the violence meaningful. The viewer is not bombarded with violence in such a way that it makes analysis impossible. On point: I don't think that movies that function like cutscenes in video games necessarily make people more violent, but I do think they're pretty much junk food that, consumed to excess, help make you kinda dumb. (But a good one now and then can be lots of fun.)

2. Our news media -- still quite squeamish about showing us the effects of war in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is all too happy to tell us there's a pedophile living on every avenue, one with probable designs not just on your child's virtue but on his/her life; that teenagers are being beaten into vegetative states over text messages (!); that, in essence, virtually everything we do can lead to some horrific consequence, as we are all constantly surrounded by predators of every stripe. Rarely does a Dateline or a Nancy Grace or a Jane Velez-Mitchell go out of its/their way to inform you that the reason the atrocity of the day is receiving so much attention is because it is remarkable -- the emphasis is invariably placed on how This Could Happen to YOU, and What YOU Must Do to Protect Yourself. This is all patently absurd, as you are about as likely to encounter a Ted Bundy as you are to find that you are winner of a Powerball lottery for which you bought no ticket. But people believe this shit. I'm not saying that none of us face any risk of violence, because we do. But if we faced the level of violence these shows imply, and if the odds of it happening to us were that stacked against us, we'd all be living in Vice City or something. I would go so far as to say the reason we can enjoy hyper-violent entertainment (fiction) at all is that we know these things won't happen to us...would anyone really go see Saw IX if they personally knew people who'd been attacked with chainsaws or whatever? No: It's fantasy. But when our journalists exaggerate the possibility of such a scenario occurring in our real lives, we become anxious and paranoid all out of bounds with respect to real threats. Scared people are unhealthy people, and people who are easy to manipulate.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:52 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why do we watch TV when it's so bad for us?... might make for a more interesting study. Probably won't be statistical though.

Do we think it's good?
Do we like the pretty women?
Do we like having something to yell at?
posted by mondaygreens at 12:52 PM on April 25, 2010


I wonder if the practice of hitchhiking in the USA could be used as a case study for this. I understand that, as recently as forty years ago, hitchhiking was an unremarkable way to get around for the young and broke. As long as I can remember, however, hitchhiking in America has been considered nothing but the best way to get yourself raped and/or murdered. The prospective hitchhiker is an escaped con or a carjacker in waiting; the prospective ride is sure to have a machete, condoms and tarp kept in the back just waiting for the rider.

Or so I have always been told. The fears were based on true stories, I do know that, but I don't know that they were statistically meaningful. Still, I would never either pick up a hitchhiker or hitchhike (if it were legal; it often isn't) because I would suppose that the sane persons have sorted themselves out of this system, for fear of the insane. Here on my urban college town block, I've been seeing this old guy trying to hitch a ride on the corner for a couple of nights, and it's as out of place as if he were in colonial dress. The only car that stopped was a policeman, who shouted him over, and from the tone of his voice, sounded like he was about to give him a ride to the station.

The first time I actually considered that hitchhiking was in fact an inherently harmless thing to do was when I was riding through rural Ireland, where I saw kids as young as ten thumbing their way home in the afternoons -- and, considering how likely they were to know whoever came along the road, why shouldn't they have? But that was at least ten years ago, and fear may have killed the practice by now, as thoroughly as it has in America.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:12 PM on April 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I wonder if the risks that we continually underestimate (car accidents, obesity, etc.) are due to them not having a clear narrative that we can lock onto.

Could it be that we think we're in control when we're driving, and we almost always greatly overestimate our own abilities, so we aren't afraid? The roads are full of idiots -- just ask any driver -- but also ask drivers to place themselves somewhere on a scale of "idiot driver" to "excellent driver" and 95 percent will be at or pretty close to the "excellent" end.

Or is it that we take those risks every day (driving, overeating) and nothing bad happens, so we start to think that the risks weren't so great after all? If driving was like Russian roulette -- six trips and you're probably dead -- the danger would sink in, but the lower odds of death by car lead people to forget that eventually one of those car trips, especially if they keep driving like an idiot, is going to come to a bad end.
posted by pracowity at 1:47 PM on April 25, 2010


It's not clear how much people want bad news, really: local TV news stations are having trouble, newspapers are having trouble. It's a bit of a true-ism that people want salaciousness, but it's not really clear that reality backs that belief up. If you look at what does well online it's mainly political news, entertainment news, sporting news, celebrity gossip, and so forth; there doesn't seem to be anywhere near comparable traction for sites with content of the "house burns down; woman raped; two men shot two death" variety.

The dynamic with TV news seems simple: in the pre-cable, pre-internet era there were fewer ways to get passive entertainment during the evenings, and watching anything on TV is preferable to watching the paint dry. This means that on any given evening there would've been a sizable population sitting down, turning on the tv, and flipping channels till they found something engrossing.

But, it's not that anyone in large numbers specifically wants that kind of news broadcast (just look at overall ratings for the genre, or indeed look at overall viewership for TV in general); it's that lots of media execs and media critics spent their formative years in an era where it seemed like that's what people wanted (when, in fact, it was only something they seemed to want due to lack of better alternatives).
posted by hoople at 1:51 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I understand that, as recently as forty years ago, hitchhiking was an unremarkable way to get around for the young and broke.

I hitched all over in the 1970s, NY State and California-Oregon-Washington, without much fear. I got a little nervous sometimes -- maybe late at night, alone a deserted patch of road, when a car full of noise and smoke would finally pull up -- but nothing bad ever happened. Horrible people are (or were) indeed rarer than television and tabloids would lead you to believe. Now, I would be afraid to hitch because regular people are now too paranoid to stop, leaving only the crazies to pick me up.
posted by pracowity at 1:57 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't know. People were scared shitless of the world before TV. For instance, for a good part of the XIXth and early XXth century, millions of people in Europe became convinced that the Jews were out to get them, and we know how this ended. My grandfather was concerned about mysterious "yellow people" blitzing through the Russian steppes and taking over the country (a popular fear in his youth). Before that, it was witches, demons, ghosts, red-headed people, Here Be Dragons and whatnot. And that's the big ones. For small fears, there was an endless catalog of DON'T DO THAT old wives' tales / superstitions / that prevented people from doing harmless things. Meanwhile, a good number of real threats were completely ignored. At least, some of the TV-induced panics are not totally made up.
posted by elgilito at 1:58 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


One thing I've learned about TV is that people who watch it regularly do not simply tolerate it or even just like their TV's. They love their TV's.
posted by telstar at 2:00 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


This was a cool post. It's something I've thought about since I was a teen and it's cool to see that someone studied it so carefully and thought provokingly.
It really is pretty amazing if you sit and watch T.V. for several hours, how much it can warp your world view. You really start to think "It can't really be that bad, can it?"

The deer analogy posted above pretty much nails it and reminds me of that Bill Hicks bit where he's talking about watching CNN and it's just "famine, plague and madness" and looking out his front door and just hearing crickets, wondering "where the hell is this shit going on?"
posted by kaiseki at 2:01 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can anyone tell me if the TV studies included old time radio? I enjoy listening to OTR and I'm constantly amazed by how lurid or violent some old time radio shows are. I have listened to some episodes of The Shadow from the 1930s that I don't think would make it on TV any time soon. As much as I enjoy OTR, it reflected sexist and racist values of the day as well. There's nothing like listening to I Was A Communist for the FBI to get a feel for fear and jingoism or wondering if your spouse is up to something (looking at you, Whistler!). Surely radio storytelling must have been a build up to TV?
posted by Calzephyr at 2:03 PM on April 25, 2010


Brian Oblivion weighs in
posted by philip-random at 2:12 PM on April 25, 2010


I have difficulty reconciling the amount of freedom I had as a child and the amount of freedom I'm comfortable giving to my own children, which is to say, a great deal and very little. This theory sounds plausible to me. I haven't followed the links yet, but I intend to just as soon as I've secured our compound's perimeter.
posted by fartknocker at 2:15 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


That is all the deer needs. If a predator is further away then it doesn't really concern the deer.

Unless the predators are operating as a team and know the deer's location, but would be unable to encircle the deer if the deer were aware of them early enough, or are operating in a way predicated on the deer's unaugmented senses, like human hunters take advantage of being in shelters.

A deer with augmented senses would also have an easier time finding the best food to eat, which might reduce its stresses considerably in lean times.

I welcome our antlered, augmented overlords.
posted by zippy at 2:18 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Before there was radio there were the newspapers; William Randolph Hearst didn't need radio to brag that he would supply the Spanish-American war. But there has been a progression of immediacy that has made people feel more and more closely connected to distant and unusual events:
  1. The telegraph and later transatlantic cables reducing the news delay from weeks to hours (the next edition of the paper)
  2. Broadcast radio, which was considered quite miraculous in the 1920's, bringing the news and the voices of prominent people right into your house in real time
  3. Wire news services dredging up what would be local stories from all over the world and cherry-picking them for the ones most likely to sell ads
  4. TV, doing for pictures what radio did for sound
  5. Cable TV, making it possible to do the TV thing 24/7 without ever getting bored
  6. Internet news, giving you the illusion of participation and the ability to select sources that closely mirror and reinforce your preconceptions
It does seem, as telstar suggests, that people become fanatically devoted to their news sources. I know several people who absolutely refuse to believe anything newsy unless they see it on Fox News. When I point out to them that Fox has an obvious agenda and cherry-picks and exaggerates things to manipulate them, they just react by announcing that I've been brainwashed by that Markos guy. Pointing out that Markos doesn't quite have the same resources as Roger Ailes generally gets a blank stare.

While it seems sensible to blame this on the technology, though, Hearst still managed to get a similar reaction with print alone. It appears that people aren't just easily manipulated, they like being manipulated, and it's been that way for a long time.
posted by localroger at 2:23 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a great post, but I think the message of the link is just bullshit.

In fact, TV and other media get viewers by offering us false reassurances that bad things aren't going to happen to us (if and only if we buy the products they advertise, of course).

But climate change is real, and will make even current population levels radically unsustainable, much less the near-doubling by 2050 now projected. The consequences of this are going to be absolutely catastrophic, and no one will be safe from them.

The Alzheimer's epidemic is also real, as is the autism epidemic (approaching one in ten), as is the breast cancer epidemic (similar numbers). I think prostate cancer will also ultimately be put on this list.

Resource crunches of all kinds are real (gas, oil, coal, water, topsoil, metals, etc.), and conflicts driven by them look likely to make the 21st even more war-ravaged than the 20th was.
posted by jamjam at 2:36 PM on April 25, 2010


"I don't know. People were scared shitless of the world before TV. "

Sure, it's not hard to understand. And it's also why it's not a syndrome. Every age has had its challenges, most of them stemming from our own essential limitations in the quest for survival. But now the survival narrative has been replaced by one about progress, enough has been replaced by more, and technology has made things possible that were unthinkable before.

It is now entirely possible for people to sit at home all day watching TV (or using other appliances), for days on end, and never need to leave. That's new.

For free, in the comfort of our own homes, we can sink into a state of complete passivity, absorbing quick bytes of information, with not enough control to choose what can be on TV (although that's changing with internet TV) but enough options to keep us going round and round looking for something we can enjoy and easily absorb. And also to go out and buy a better TV sooner or later. That's pretty new too.

Narratives can be created out of thin air (rooted in nothing, empty words) and reinforced on several simultaneous fronts (see Fox News), and can not only coddle millions in their ignorance but actually manufacture celebrities and world leaders (see Sarah Palin).

Most of all, democracy is new.

It's been said before: we're getting dumber and our technology is getting smarter. So in some ways these are unique challenges, and we have very little relevant, tried, tested shared wisdom about it. I mean that's why MetaFilter is a great site, no?
posted by mondaygreens at 2:38 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, also, nuclear weapons and global warming - pretty new.
posted by mondaygreens at 2:41 PM on April 25, 2010


But if the predators are also electronically augmented, wouldn't that increase the potential dangers to the deer, and thus make the deer's augmentation helpful?

Yes. Perfect.

I think the danger of the augmented senses is falling back into the old "If I can see you, then you can see me." thinking that came before. Even if something isn't an immediate or foreseeable threat, why not hedge your bets and account for it anyway? Now allow the deer to see most of the planet and know what all the other worried deer are breathlessly reporting as threats, and it spends it's time worrying about a lot of things it hadn't considered before. While a lot of this information may be useful, the way the deer reacts to it --increased stress over remote or mundane dangers, a world-view shaped by over-representation of horrible events and the subsequent confirmation bias-- may not be useful in the long run.
posted by Avelwood at 3:05 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


According to this theory, exposure to the media leads people to believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, because of violent programming and terrifying news programs.

Didn't Michael Moore make this claim first in Bowling For Columbine?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:42 PM on April 25, 2010


Didn't Michael Moore make this claim first in Bowling For Columbine?

No.
posted by fixedgear at 3:46 PM on April 25, 2010


It seems to me that before television, you'd still have stories in the newspaper and so on.

Yeah, but usually the stuff in the newspaper only concerned one or two big national events and then mostly stuff in your immediate community.

And in fact there was a lot more stuff to be afraid of back then.

Not really -- there was probably as much stuff happening then. But a lot less people heard about it, because it was not in their area. It's only within the past 40 years or so, say, that we're a lot more tuned in to things that happen outside our state.

Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate being this much more connected. But you have to have the proper sense of perspective to realize that while it is indeed tragic that there was a school shooting in Baltimore, that doesn't mean that the kids in Seattle, where you live, are any more or less inclined to take up arms themselves than they would have been otherwise, because Baltimore is a hell of a long way from Seattle. So it doesn't make sense to be more cautious about it than you would have otherwise, is the point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:49 PM on April 25, 2010


>Didn't Michael Moore make this claim first in Bowling For Columbine?

No.


Actually, I'm pretty sure he did some kind of compare-and-contrast with Canadian news broadcasts and American news broadcasts, pointing out how the American ones seemed a bit more fear-mongering. The implication may not have been that they caused violence outright, but they certainly didn't help, becuase they kept their viewers all slightly tense.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:50 PM on April 25, 2010


I worry about a kind of learned helplessness that I might have picked up from all these years of passively absorbing--not just violence and sex but also art, love, friends, community, and even aspects of work. I'm so practiced in observing and absorbing, but how am I at making, doing, giving?
posted by wobh at 3:51 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am often reminded of the tavern scene in the movie The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. A peasant says: "A woman in the next village over recently gave birth to a horse's head... The world is going to end!" Everyone nods.
posted by ovvl at 3:54 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


TV also does the other thing. It sweeps stuff under the rug.

Hey, remember those wars in those dusty places? I think they might still be going on!
posted by Sys Rq at 4:02 PM on April 25, 2010


Didn't Michael Moore make this claim first in Bowling For Columbine?

Moore may have made this claim, but he did not make it *first*; Gerbner's work on Cultivation Theory dates back to the 1960s & 70s.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 4:27 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


the short term effects of watching explicitly violent films significantly decreased social cooperation.

Story related to this: When I was in high school, my next door neighbor, who was the same age as me, needed a ride to go pick up some pot from his dealer. Prior to this, my sole exposure to anything drug related was what I had seen on TV. I was like, no fucking way. I've seen how this goes in the movies. We're gonna end up dead and/or in jail. But he eventually offered me $25 and I was broke and wanted to buy Magic Cards

I was so paranoid that we were going to get shot, robbed and/or arrested that I parked at the end of the street and left the car running, expecting police sirens, helicopters and gunfire at any moment. I was expecting him to carry a suitcase full of cash in and come back with bricks of pot or something. He and his dealer apparently laughed like hell about the whole thing.
posted by empath at 4:31 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


The argument of Mean World Syndrome isn't that violent media causes violent actions (as your typical "DID GTA CAUSE TEEN MURDERERS?" headline implies), but instead that violent media lead to the general public being more anxious and afraid about the world around them.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:41 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


empath: Prior to this, my sole exposure to anything drug related was what I had seen on TV. I was like, no fucking way. I've seen how this goes in the movies. We're gonna end up dead and/or in jail. But he eventually offered me $25 and I was broke and wanted to buy Magic Cards

Aha! Finally proof for my theory that Magic: The Gathering is the gateway to drug addiction.
posted by Kattullus at 4:45 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The autism epidemic (approaching one in ten)"

That number is as far as I can see about 20 to 100 times too large - but not just that, the world would be a dramatically different place if one person in 10 were autistic - autism is not a hidden disease and one of the very obvious symptoms is difficulty with common social interactions.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:09 PM on April 25, 2010


Marilyn Manson, not really known as a media scholar, talking to Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine: "The mass media is in the fear business. Fire, famine, flood, cut to commercial for toothpaste or deodorant." I'm paraphrasing here, but he makes a great point.

And so many people out there couldn't grok that Marilyn Manson's persona was supposed to be a fucking joke.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:17 PM on April 25, 2010


What television has taught me lately is that it's important to cry like a smacked child if a twat "celebrity chef" isn't sufficiently impressed with my blancmange.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:20 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe they meant Autism Spectrum Disorders, which would include diagnosis like Asperger's Syndrome? That still sounds really high, though. According to a quick Google, most studies find that it's generally oneish percent.

I'm curious to see how they came up with that number.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:26 PM on April 25, 2010


Actually, I'm pretty sure he did some kind of compare-and-contrast with Canadian news broadcasts and American news broadcasts,

Yeah, but the question was first and people have been saying this for ages

Actually, way back in my introductory social psych class they talked about a study that indicated that violence and crime went way up after TV was introduced in different cities. But think about the programming available at the time, nothing like what we have today.

---

But look, maybe TV makes people more violent. But overall society is far less violent then it was when T.V. was introduced. So there's that.

But fundamentally I just don't buy this idea. If the thesis is "mass media makes us more fearful". Now, it may be that people who don't watch TV are less fearful, but I think people who watch less TV are also more intelligent. (It would be interesting to see a study that corrected for intelligence in measuring fearfulness)

But I think that in the past people were also very afraid of stuff. I would bet that the fear level stays pretty constant over time.

It would be nice if fear could be directed at the things that are most common. Maybe TV should be required to report on 'boring' deaths, like car accidents and cancer and stuff.
posted by delmoi at 5:30 PM on April 25, 2010


And so many people out there couldn't grok that Marilyn Manson's persona was supposed to be a fucking joke.

Maybe by the time he got to the Antichrist Superstar era it had taken on some elements of satire, but I don't think it was a joke originally.
posted by empath at 5:31 PM on April 25, 2010


"Remind me to write a popular article on the compulsive reading of news. The theme will be that most neuroses and some psychoses can be traced to the unnecessary and unhealthy habit of daily wallowing in the troubles and sins of five billion strangers." - "Jubal Harshaw", in Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

That quote's only 50 years old, and it's from a science fiction novel, but it's not a successful attempt to prognosticate about a new future problem, just an obvious extrapolation of a past problem. See also "yellow journalism" if you want to look at the same effects before television was even invented: people suckered by sensationalism into paranoia over far-off problems, leading to damaging over-reactions.
posted by roystgnr at 6:03 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you had watched the video of George Gerbner, you will recall that he located the beginning of the problem with the industrialization of communication; specifically, things started to go very wrong when the steam engine was hooked up to the printing press. So the radio vs TV argument indicates a failure to grasp the basics of the case he was laying out.

I did get the impression that he was suggesting that TV was worse because it speeding things up more and reached wider audiences faster. If this was text instead of video, I could check that a lot more easily.

TV makes people stupid. Fact. Just ask any stupid person if they watch TV. The vast majority of them will say "yes." A very small number of them will say "true but hamburger."
posted by warbaby at 6:24 PM on April 25, 2010


Warbaby, are you implying only stupid people punctuate their sentences with hamburger?
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:34 PM on April 25, 2010


I think Hawthorne addresses perhaps something of this point in The Scarlett Letter

So, he's writing of a time where nature is associated with evil. The Puritanical culture (which had a lot to say for itself in terms of positive values, especially while in England) was addressing a series of obstacles that were associated with the unknown environment to which they were adapting -- i.e., the New England wilderness.

The Scarlett Letter was transgressive in that Hawthorne upturned the Puritanical desire to manage the natural unknown by depicting all of the unnatural unknown as evil. He does this by portraying the Puritans who persecute Hester as fucked up, and associating Hester and Pearl with the unknown wilderness. The fucked up people cause bad shit because of their fear, fear based on their cultural ideas of what the natural world was.

There's probably somebody here who can speak to this point better than I can. I'm not a Hawthorne scholar.

I really like Yann Martel's analogy, too. Looking forward to reading whatever that book of his that's out now
posted by angrycat at 6:34 PM on April 25, 2010


This explains why old people who read readers digest are scared of identity scams, relatives on drugs, and babies being stolen.

Don't even get me started on fox new watchers.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:55 PM on April 25, 2010


If you watch the full documentary, you see that Fox News has a lot of clips on it. There's even a whole section on how it cultivates a fear of immigrants.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:03 PM on April 25, 2010


Ok, one problem with this theory is that as TV violence has gone up, murder rates have gone down. Dramatically-- as in, nearly halved in the last 20 years or so. As has other crime.

This doesn't mean that the media can't have an effect or that we haven't become scared witless about threats that are statistically rare (stranger abduction of children) while ignoring a huge real threat (global climate change). And it doesn't mean that policies made based on assuming TV crime-based news is reality aren't going to wind up doing more harm, as we've clearly wound up doing by locking up so many people. Politicians driven by fear of crime based on TV news are a menace.

What it does mean is that a much more important influence on violence is witnessing violence or being a victim of it as a child and child abuse of this sort has actually declined as well, though it is hard to measure when the drop started and hard to prove any kind of cause/effect.

However, when those gross effects of huge influences like witnessing domestic violence or being a victim of it start to fade, the smaller ones like media become more important. And indeed, some part of the rise in crime in the 60's and 70's that preceded the fall can be linked at least in part to television-- there are studies showing that cities that got reception earlier saw earlier rises in crime.

Media exposure is also a problem when it substitutes for social activity-- if a child is alone watching TV, by definition, he's not out there making friends. So, whatever he watches is going to be less rich in real interaction than being with actual people and interacting with them and his social skills will suffer due to the reduced practice.

Also this: It's not clear how much people want bad news, really: local TV news stations are having trouble, newspapers are having trouble. It's a bit of a true-ism that people want salaciousness, but it's not really clear that reality backs that belief up.

Reality does back this belief very strongly. TV news is in trouble because advertisers aren't paying to support it, not because "if it bleeds, it leads." If it bleeds, it leads is based on decades of eyeball data from Nielsen, showing quite clearly that sex and violence get more viewers than "good news." Though there's clearly a market for contentless news like the morning shows.
posted by Maias at 7:09 PM on April 25, 2010


"The media as watchdog is absolute shit."

--The Jam
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:20 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have never seen anything on television that I would consider graphically violent, unless it was a movie on HBO. I have never seen anything on the news that I would consider "terrifying" in the least. I understand there was fairly explicit coverage of the Vietnam war in the 60s and 70s, but today's TV news coverage of war varies between tame and non-existent.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:43 PM on April 25, 2010


I did get the impression that he was suggesting that TV was worse because it speeding things up more and reached wider audiences faster.

How would making things "faster" make any difference in terms of making people more afraid? What's the difference between seeing news about some murder on TV, or reading about it in the paper, or hearing about it secondhand gossip?
posted by delmoi at 7:44 PM on April 25, 2010


I'm also waiting on "Nice World Syndrome," which will hypothesize that people raised on "Barney" and "The Cosby Show" end up being nice to everyone.

Oh wait, that doesn't exist. Because anyone who suggested it would be laughed of the room. And yet the inverse is somehow considered plausible by otherwise intelligent people.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:45 PM on April 25, 2010


Great set of links. I'm been thinking about the problem of getting a false sense of what's going on in the the world (thanks to 'keeping up with the news') so this is making my day!
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 8:24 PM on April 25, 2010


I meant to say autism rates approaching one percent, not one in ten. I had in mind to say diagnoses had increased by a factor of ten in a relatively short period of time, but had trouble pinning that down--and it would have been better to say ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders), too, as someone pointed out.

Sorry.
posted by jamjam at 9:08 PM on April 25, 2010


Ok, one problem with this theory is that as TV violence has gone up, murder rates have gone down. Dramatically-- as in, nearly halved in the last 20 years or so. As has other crime.

Just to be clear, Cultivation Theory does NOT say that TV increases violence. Cultivation Theory is an attempt to explain an observable phenomenon, namely that some people, specifically heavy viewers of television *perceive* the world to be a more dangerous place than it actually, statistically is. Cultivation Theory is about the media's effect on people's understanding of reality.

Furthermore, regarding text vs. TV, I think some scholars would argue that TV's effects are more powerful because the audio-visual format is more immediate and more emotional.

And yes, in general, heavy TV use is associated with lower levels of education.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:39 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure why Gerbner thought faster was worse. I still haven't watched the full version, maybe he explains more thoroughly.

I know why I think faster is worse; several reasons in fact. One is that disinformation has a mass effect. The more people who are misled, the harder it is to set things straight. In my personal experience, the worst time I ever had with that problem was watching the FBI insist that the OKC bombing was the work of Arab terrorists for 48 hours when we had very good reason to believe it was domestic several weeks before it happened.

Another reason is the pace of TV is so much faster and repetitious than print or radio. How many times on 9/11 did you see the planes fly into the towers? Did anyone get anything out of that other than increasing the shock and trauma of the event? I strongly feel that TV magnified the emotional effect of the attacks and that the media participated in a very active way in broadening the harm done.

The third reason I draw from Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves To Death": what he calls the "and now this..." effect. The rapid pace and lack of time spent considering things makes the nonsense that Fox pulls off on TV very hard to do in print. It would be too obviously stupid. But in fast cut TV all sorts of nonsense can slip right through because it comes so fast there's no time to consider or evaluate it.

Mass brainwashing like the Tea Party insanity would be much harder without electronic media. In print, it would look as stupid as it really is. On TV it looks very convincing to people who watch TV a lot.

Did I mention that watching TV makes people stupid?
posted by warbaby at 10:42 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


In such contexts I never tire of bringing up The Power of Nightmares, a BBC dcoumentary (find on Google Video) which is kind of a "Mean World Syndrome" specifically for terrorism on TV - as used for political leverage. As in "Up to the 90s we controlled you by promising a better world... now we promise SECURITY." Worthwhile.
posted by yoHighness at 12:31 AM on April 26, 2010


One thing that really bugs me about TV (and consumption of video in the first place) is the fact that it's not only passive, but highly inefficient. I always hate it when people post long videos on the sites I frequent and urge me to watch them - the first question I usually ask is if there's a transcript available. Honestly, even if it's one of the coolest videos I've ever seen, I don't want to waste 40 minutes watching something when I can read the transcript in 10. Then, if I want to watch bits and pieces of the video, I will.

I've basically started ignoring any videos without transcripts - they're just too much of a time waster for me.

When I used to visit my grandmother's place as a kid, I would always be so bored, because after awhile, you've exhausted every possible conversation topic, and all she had were some magazines for reading material and a television. I've always been a fairly quick reader, so I'd burn through the magazines and then I'd have nothing to do but watch TV. I don't know if this is some sort of anti-placebo effect, but I would always feel my mind start to dull after I sat in front of the screen for awhile.

I don't know if there's any empirical evidence for that "dulling effect" but I swear I can feel it if I sit in front of the TV for too long.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 12:42 AM on April 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Maybe watching TV does make people stupid, but not watching it clearly makes them smug and ignorant.

"TV" is not one cohesive thing. They have different "channels" you can choose from, where the user can choose which "program" to watch. Some are good, some are bad.
posted by gjc at 4:14 AM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


So the content can redeem the problems created by the format and the process of passively watching? I don't think so. If you have a case for TV content creating a social good, go right ahead. Somehow I suspect that the studies at Annenburg would have picked up on the benefits of nature programs and Sesame Street, but perhaps you found something they missed.

As far as the claim that TV dispels ignorance, I offer the Tea Parties as a compelling counter-example. Not the mention the Mean World Syndrome.

If the process of watching and the format of the information are the major locus of the problem, then the choice of content will not fix what's wrong.
posted by warbaby at 6:56 AM on April 26, 2010


People were scared shitless of the world before TV.

Agreed. I don't really think that before "the modern world" people lived in a fearless utopia. I think the effect that mass media has had is homogenizing fears, not broadcasting/creating them. Which is no surprise, since mass media has homogenized so much else.
posted by DU at 8:27 AM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


...likely to make the 21st even more war-ravaged than the 20th was

I don't need to watch TV to be told the world is a horrible, terrifying place with no hope for the future. I've got Metafilter for that.
posted by happyroach at 8:30 AM on April 26, 2010


And so many people out there couldn't grok that Marilyn Manson's persona was supposed to be a fucking joke.

Maybe by the time he got to the Antichrist Superstar era it had taken on some elements of satire, but I don't think it was a joke originally.
posted by empath at 8:31 PM on April 25 [+] [!]


nah, it was a gag the whole time. MrDoodley met him and his dad back around 1990 at a festival where I was bartending, back when the full name of his act was Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids. his dad was the advance man, for crying out loud.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:58 AM on April 26, 2010


Yeah, but usually the stuff in the newspaper only concerned one or two big national events and then mostly stuff in your immediate community.

I read a lot of newspapers from circa 1900, and I know this to not be entirely true. It really depended on the size of your community and what the scope of the newspaper was. In a boring place like Duluth, MN, which had two newspapers much of the time, morning and evening, there just wasn't enough local news to keep people buying papers. The front pages were instead chock full of salacious, scary stories about celebrities, murders and disasters far and wide. I don't know what a bigger city paper was like, but I can certainly tell you that the smaller the community, the more they were passing on the same sort of stuff you get on CNN today.
posted by RedEmma at 10:08 AM on April 26, 2010


It seems that the choice by the television producers to focus on and exaggerate frightening and violent situations would be to frighten the viewer so much so that they remain inside watching frightening and violent situations becoming more frightened so much so that they remain inside watching ....
posted by pianomover at 10:09 AM on April 26, 2010


It seems that the choice by the television producers to focus on and exaggerate frightening and violent situations would be to frighten the viewer so much so that they remain inside watching frightening and violent situations becoming more frightened so much so that they remain inside watching ....

Nah, that's far too meta-conspiracy. It's more like they focus on frightening and violent situations so people will talk about what they saw last night, and encourage others to tune in to the same thing the next night in case the same channel has something equally frightening and violent to talk about, which they then have to do in order to make sure people are talking about what they saw and encouraging others to tune in...

The fear is the side effect. The marketing of eyeballs to advertisers is what is driving all this.
posted by hippybear at 12:00 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fear is the side effect. The marketing of eyeballs to advertisers is what is driving all this.

Or as an intelligently paranoid friend used to say, "If it is all one big conspiracy, it's a subconscious one."
posted by philip-random at 12:23 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Philip-Random, that's exactly what I've been trying to tell the kooks for years! The system does work against people, but not because there's some cabal. It's just because knocking people down is what the markets (information, money, politics) reward.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:52 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fear is the side effect. The marketing of eyeballs to advertisers is what is driving all this.

What if the advertisers are insurance companies? Fear still just a side effect?
posted by Sys Rq at 1:59 PM on April 26, 2010


I think Marilyn Manson had it right: the fear is a great sales-thing, in that fear will get people to buy products. It's also a great grab, because if you're promised information on something scary, you will feel like you should watch, because, either consciously or otherwise, you believe that information could save you. Fear attracts people, and fear sells.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:07 PM on April 26, 2010


In his book Information Anxiety, Richard Saul Wurman uses the appropriate phrase “violent wallpaper” to describe such information given us by the media. The reality, he says, is that “Basing your view of the world on these isolated events is like basing your knowledge of music on what you hear on the elevator.”

* * *

”Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home.” — David Frost

”Television has proved that people will look at anything rather than each other.” —Ann Landers

”I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” —Groucho Marx

[Other nice quotes about TV.]
posted by LeLiLo at 8:32 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


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