Beyond Blame: Media Literacy At Work

Media violence has hit a deep emotional wellspring in society, says Renee Hobbs, a media literacy expert. "It is the topic around which the fields of media literacy and television have been defined."

This night, Ms. Hobbs is giving a seminar to a roomful of educators, ranging from school teachers and administrators to the local D.A.R.E. officer in Yarmouth, Mass. The talk is titled "Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media," a resource program created by the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles.

Ms. Hobbs focuses on what she calls a "circle of blame." It goes something like this: Parents blame producers; producers blame viewers for wanting to watch violent shows; and Congress points to the First Amendment as a reason it can't restrict TV violence. "The status quo has been really comfortable blaming someone else," Hobbs says.

One main push of media literacy is to understand the impact of violence on the media's bottom line: It sells and travels well.

"Our goal is to change the way we watch," Hobbs says. Analytical, critical viewing includes challenging what you see and hear, deconstructing messages, asking questions, and discussing.

For example, after showing clips of television and movie violence, Hobbs distributes a handout with questions a parent or teacher might ask children. Who gets hurt? Do you think this happens in real life? Why do you suppose the producers used that kind of music? With teenagers, discussions are more involved. How are men and women portrayed in violent movies? Watch the evening news for a week and see if you detect the assumption: "If it bleeds, it leads."

Noting the effects of media violence, Hobbs cites the findings of the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth:

Aggressor effect. Attitudes of accepting violence sometimes lead to aggressive behavior.

Victim effect. (The "mean world" syndrome.) Watching excessive amounts of violence can cause people to think their communities are more dangerous than they really are.

Bystander effect. Desensitization, a callousness toward violence, can result in less likelihood to take action on behalf of victims.

Appetite effect. Viewers crave increasingly violent material to remain stimulated.

Education and resensitization through parental guidance and awareness can help counter such effects.

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