MEDIA AND VIOLENCE
The relationship between the media and violence has been a perennial topic of community concern, which in the Australian context has prompted a range of official inquiries, scholarly studies and policy implications—many of which have coincided with technological advances in the media. Recurrent concerns have been about the pervasiveness of violence in the media—especially in the news and as entertainment—and the possibility of a causal relationship between media violence and violence in society.
Studies of media and violence date back to the mid-1950s, with an early emphasis on television and radio, when the content of popular crime and police radio dramas like Night Beat and D24 and the introduction of television news enlivened concerns about media effects. On 4 January 1956, the Melbourne Age reported that the Australian Broadcasting Control Board had received a number of complaints. By 1973, reports from the United States and the United Kingdom that exposure to violence on television ‘made children callous and unfeeling towards other people’ had prompted calls in Australia for a national inquiry into the media’s role in causing acts of violence. In 2010, the Sydney Daily Telegraph questioned why ‘the level of brutal, bloody content on our TV screens’ had escaped the same scrutiny as sex and nudity.
In Australia and internationally, the debate about media and violence has often been renewed in the aftermath of atrocities, such as school and other mass shootings. Community anxiety swelled about the influence of ‘video nasties’ following the Hoddle and Queen Street massacres in Melbourne in the late 1980s. Writer Melanie Brown explains that there remains a concern that the reporting of violent and criminal events, and suicides, will result in imitation or ‘copycat’ acts. This, together with evidence of the Australian media’s perpetuation of misconceptions about mental illness and violence, led to the introduction of resources in the 1990s—such as the Mindframe National Media Initiative—to encourage responsible, accurate and sensitive reporting and portrayals of suicide and mental illness.
In Australia, the strength of public concern about copycat violence prompted the establishment of a National Committee on Violence and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s 1990 Inquiry into Violence on Television. Sixty per cent of the adults surveyed as part of the inquiry believed that too much violence was shown on television, with particular concerns about news and current affairs. These concerns were revitalised following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.
In response to emerging forms of popular media and changing consumer trends, more contemporary studies of the relationship between media and violence have focused on violent video games, rap music videos and the internet—with a continued emphasis on the potential influence on children and youth. In Australia, the debate about the relationship between media and violence has also led to public discussions about media regulation, censorship and government policy.
In 2007, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found that inflammatory media coverage, spearheaded by radio broadcaster Alan Jones, had been partly responsible for igniting the racial tensions that had underscored the Cronulla riots two years earlier. According to the ACMA, Jones’ program had breached the Commercial Radio Code of Practice by broadcasting material in the days before the riots that was ‘likely to encourage violence or brutality’ and ‘vilify people of Lebanese background and people of Middle-Eastern background on the basis of ethnicity or nationality’. Although social and mobile media technologies had carried the ‘call to arms’ for the mob violence, the repetition of the messages by more traditional media outlets, such as Jones’ radio program, had ensured the content reached an even wider audience.
In 2006, controversy also accompanied the ABC’s Lateline, after its report (nominated for a Walkley Award) about ‘paedophile rings’ operating in remote Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory was adopted and broadened by Australia’s major metropolitan media to include sensationalist reporting of widespread Indigenous ‘gang violence’ and lawlessness.
The lengthy 10-year campaign to introduce an R18+ classification for violent video games (which passed through the Senate in mid-2012) was another notable moment in Australian media history. Prior to its introduction, video games that did not fit within the MA15+ category or below were ‘Refused Classification’, falling into the same regulatory net as child pornography and extreme violent pornography—a principle that also extended to certain political texts and media that could be considered ‘instructive in the matter of crime’. The change in classification resulted in popular video games being released unedited to the Australian market under the R18+ classification in early 2013.
In spite of the emphasis on potentially negative consequences of the relationship between media and violence, in 21st century Australia, traditional and emerging forms of media, such as social media, have also played a fundamental role in energising public debate and education about the complexities of violence in relation to important social issues, such as alcohol-related street violence—for example, the deaths of Thomas Kelly in 2012 and Daniel Christie in 2014, and the associated ‘coward punch’ debate—and racial violence—such as media commentary on the violence against Indians in Australia in 2009–10.
In 2012, traditional and social media— including Facebook and Twitter—played a significant role in bringing the disappearance, rape and murder of Jill Meagher to prominence, prompting public marches and critical reflections on broader community concerns towards violence against women. The following year, the News Limited tabloids the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph launched their respective ‘Take A Stand’ and ‘Man Up’ campaigns, which urged their readers to confront family and domestic violence in their communities. The same year, Sunday Age journalist Nicole Brady won the Gold EVA at the Eliminating Violence Against Women Media Awards for her ‘Lifting the Lid’ series on family violence.
REFs: M. Brown, The Portrayal of Violence in the Media (1996); W. Jarred, Violence in the Mass Media (2001); http://www.mindframe-media.info.