Trendspotter: On TV, a more nuanced portrayal of torture

At the instigation of a human rights group, television shows are rethinking interrogation scenes. Even Jack Bauer is on board.

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It was about two years ago when David Danzig first became interested in torture on television. A campaign manager for Human Rights First, he found himself, along with much of the country, caught up in the Fox counterterrorism show "24."

"It was a weird life," he says. "I was working at a human rights group during the day and at night I was cheering on Jack Bauer as he was chopping off people's heads and stabbing them in the knees to get information."

Viewers tuning into post-9/11 television were finding those types of scenes harder to avoid. A survey by the watchdog group Parents Television Council found that the number of torture scenes on prime-time network television had jumped from 77 in the four years before 9/11 to 649 in the four years after.

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That a human rights activist could become so engrossed in a show hinging on such brutal acts got Mr. Danzig thinking about its effect on other viewers. So he started the Primetime Torture Project to educate TV executives and writers about the impact their shows can have on audiences, including young soldiers – who, military officials told Danzig, were being influenced by Jack Bauer's rogue interrogation style.

On Monday, Human Rights First presented its inaugural Award for Excellence in Television, recognizing an episode of the CBS show "Criminal Minds" for a more responsible and nuanced portrayal of torture. Written by an FBI agent, the episode depicts nonviolent interrogation techniques.

Whether the result of efforts by groups like his, or owing to "torture fatigue," which has made torture a less powerful dramatic device, Danzig has noted a change. Since peaking in 2003, there are now fewer torture scenes on TV. More programs are showing how torture can backfire or fail. Last season, even "24" toned it down, with fewer scenes of violent interrogation – while those it did air portrayed abusive techniques as the province of "bad guys."

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