Curbing TV Violence

ANALYSIS. Conference left unexplored the idea of an ethics code as an answer

TELEVISION violence is bad for children. Moreover, TV violence has been found to contribute to violence on the street. But what should be done about TV violence?

Research scientists engaged in studies over the last 30 years are convinced that the link between TV violence and on-the-street violence is strong and clear. But how to curb the violence children see on television without infringing on First Amendment guarantees of free speech?

A historic conference on television violence last week in Beverly Hills, Calif., may be the start of big changes. Industry officials, writers, directors, programmers, and producers met to hear and reply to some of the leading social scientists in television violence research. But the most significant idea of the day was dropped inadvertently and never picked up - the idea of an ethics of television.

ABC News correspondent Jeff Greenfield moderated the two panels (academics, then media pros). Mr. Greenfield pointed out that TV violence has no constituency: Conservatives and liberals both hate it. More important, after four decades of television, "more and more Americans are convinced that some of what pours out of their screen is having a baleful influence on their children."

Despite the response of many television professionals who questioned the validity of the research and raised the specter of censorship, the fact is that violent TV shows are relatively easy to write, cheap to produce, and cross cultures easily. The TV people came across as self-protecting, defensive, and fearful.

The television industry has been put on notice by the United States Congress. Two bills introduced last week - one to federally control the level of violence, another to require circuits in TVs that would allow parents to "lock out" violent shows - put pressure on the industry to clean up the airwaves before Congress does it for them. At the conference luncheon, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois told television figures that they had 60 days to make a good-faith effort toward solving the problem of violent television - or else.

Television is not simply a medium, it is an all-pervasive environment, pioneering researcher George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania says. Dr. Gerbner states, as does Leonard Eron of the University of Michigan - also interviewed - that many parents neglect their children. Many more work and cannot always supervise - one-third of American children come home to empty houses every afternoon. As a society, we reap what television sows, these two observers say.

Television professionals made valid points, too. Del Reisman, president of the Writers Guild of America West, says, "It's such a many layered problem: Cable, independent stations, networks - everyone has to get involved in the solution." The networks are almost the least of the problem: Cable and local stations frequently run violent programming during prime time - programs that the networks intend for late-night viewing.

Nor is TV responsible for all street violence. "It is too easy to say, `Fix the movies, and you fix life,' " Mr. Reisman says. "The television industry can't raise children."

There is no substitute for parental care. Like so many of his colleagues, Reisman hears in Senator Simon's demands the old chains of industry censors.

William Abbott, director of the Foundation to Improve Television, says, "We must be aware of First Amendment issues. But that should be the beginning of the discussion, not the end. We are already protecting our children [from obscenity and pornography]. All we are asking is that we extend that protection into the home.... Violence has been proven to harm children."

Suggestions for ways to shield children from violent programming ranged from on-screen warnings, to showing the true consequences of violence, to Gerbner's recommendation that the creative community be given more freedom - freedom from formulas, from the constraints of global marketing, as well as freedom to develop a greater variety of original work. That would change the course of TV, he said.

Suzanne Stutman of the Institute for Mental Health Initiatives dropped one word no one raised again: ethics. Television has had guidelines since 1948, but there has never been a developed and over-arching system of ethics such as every other powerfully influential profession must have - lawyers, clergy, medical practitioners, academics, the media, and others.

Such professions not only have codes of behavior, but something more, something like a vision of right - no matter how many individuals have failed to live up to it. A system of ethics, unlike a list of guidelines, can accommodate the special case, the complex situation. Ethics must be organic and generous, encompassing future situations humanely and intelligently.

Professionals may sometimes find ethics inconvenient, but clearly ethics are not repressive. Professional ethics ensure greater freedom, protect individual rights, and foster creative problem solving. Any ethical system for television should begin with the premise that TV should not harm children, Michigan's Mr. Eron says.

As invasive as television is, surely it is not too much to ask that its practitioners be accountable to something greater than the dollar sign, critics say.

At the same time, the public must be wary of assigning too much responsibility to TV. It does not cause all our problems and it cannot solve them all.

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