Once Again We See the Power of Media Influence

I’ve read well over a hundred studies that cite the various affects of media on audiences—usually young people. The bookshelves of knowledge continue to grow, with early research being conducted primarily on the topic of violence in films and on television. As time has passed, an even broader range of issues have been examined, ranging from sex role portrayals to how the nation’s growing obesity problem may be linked to the amount of time children spend watching TV or playing video games.

And for every study, there is a rebuttal, usually found by an eager journalist who wants to provide a balanced argument. (In truth, there is no balance—the number of research papers alleging media has an effect on audiences far outnumbers the number of studies that show media to be benign… a fact rarely mentioned in news reports.)

Typically, in an attempt to win the "media has no effect on me" argument, the point is made that if everyone who ever saw a murder on TV, in a movie, or while playing a video game mimicked that same action in reality, the United States would have run out of TV viewers, movie patrons, and game players years ago.

Of course, these extreme examples are just what many journalists, eager for a great sound bite, love to hear. But it’s important the bullets and bikinis that have wormed their way into so many media products don’t blind us, as parents. These are content concerns, and are certainly worth noting when assessing whether a TV show or movie will be appropriate for your child. However, even more powerful than these elements, is considering what the entire media product is teaching. It’s the message that’s embedded into the film or TV program as a whole that will be more likely to affect young viewers and even "we know better" adults.

This past week, great examples of this have come down the newswires within two inconspicuous stories. I’ll begin with the more humorous item.

Brokeback Mountain, the film that has become Hollywood’s darling in this year’s award circles, is doing more than promoting homosexuality in the heartland. Set in the mountains of Wyoming, many viewers have been awed by the gorgeous landscapes and photography, so much so that the state’s tourism department is receiving an unprecedented number of enquiries from potential visitors.

Of course, there are many other messages in this film that are being presented even more boldly than the snow-covered peaks. But it’s worth more than a chuckle to discover those mountains are nowhere near the Equality State, but instead are outside my window here in Calgary Alberta. But these points aren’t important to the people calling the tourism telephone in Cheyenne.

According to the AP News report on the state’s recent upsurge in popularity, Michell Howard (who manages the Wyoming Business Council’s film, arts, and entertainment office) says, "When we tell [callers] it was shot in Canada, they’re still interested in Wyoming. They don’t hang up and call Alberta."

Who cares about reality? If the movie tells us those mountains are in Wyoming, than we will believe it. And "we"—in this case—are adults who have been influenced to buy this falsified tourism message. (By the way, our other senior writer at Parent Previews, Kerry Bennett, is a Wyoming native, and she loves her home state’s mountains.)

Unfortunately, I can’t be nearly as jovial about the second story that illustrates adults’ willingness to learn from media. Also from AP News, this report reveals how crime investigators have noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of destroyed evidence found at a crime scene. Where are murderers getting such advanced "cover your tracks" techniques?

Tammy Klein, a senior criminalist from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department attributes increasingly advanced television crime dramas like "CIS: Crime Scene Investigation" with giving killers a crash course in removing traces of evidence.

Captain Ray Peavy, also with the LASD, says not only are these programs "actually educating these potential killers even more," he believes "it may even encourage them when they see how simple it is to get away with it on television."

The remainder of the short article details how a man committed a double homicide in Ohio, and used extensive techniques to trash any evidence. According to an affidavit filed by Trumbull County prosecutors, the suspect—who was later indicted on two counts of murder—was a "CSI" fan.

At the risk of repeating myself, don’t be fooled by arguments that convince us that watching media is simply a recreational pastime. The vast majority of us have not committed murder, but can anyone honestly say they haven’t been influenced by an advertisement? Or a beautiful landscape? It’s especially important to never assume your children are immune to similar suggestions.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…