Sylvia Estafan is Program Specialist for the Hollywood, Health & Society program at the Lear Center
As President Obama gears up for a new term in office, he's vowed to tackle the important and timely issue of gun control. The tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut quickly became the unfortunate impetus for a conversation about gun violence in the U.S., in which the President outlined several approaches to address the complex issue. Among his points, Obama mentioned the impact of exceedingly violent images that have become mainstream in our nation's culture. The President said the country needs to tackle a "culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence." Although most of us tend to see violence as a criminal justice issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have long recognized violence as a serious public health problem in our country.
The public health community has a number of evidence-based tools under its belt to address violence. It's not unusual to see a complex problem approached using a multi-faceted intervention. Indeed, violence is one of these complex issues. Improving access to mental health services is an important component, but changes in healthcare clearly take time. How about gun laws? Those certainly won't change overnight either. But what if we want to use our momentum to make an impact sooner rather than later? Luckily, the framework is already in place for a large-scale intervention to begin now. An educational instrument exists that has the potential to change the public's knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors in regards to violence. In fact, this tool already reaches millions of Americans each day. What is this highly sophisticated instrument? It's your television.
TV audiences are being regularly exposed to violent images not only during news coverage, but also during their favorite
shows. In an analysis of health content in popular television programs aired between 2009-2011*, the HH&S TV Monitoring Project found that slightly less than half (45%) of all episodes in the study's sample of top-rated scripted prime time shows included violent storylines. Of these storylines, homicides were by far the most frequent act of violence being depicted. Three out of every four violent storylines featured a homicide. The data demonstrates just how frequently viewers are being exposed to violence in scripted TV shows.
Whether or not we're aware of it, we learn from watching TV. In the public health world, this strategy is known as Entertainment Education. It's a way of informing and educating the public about health-related issues by incorporating accurate and educational messaging into popular entertainment content. Entertainment Education successfully increases knowledge, changes attitudes, and ultimately motivates people to change their behaviors.
TV dramas and comedies serve a critical health education function when they provide accurate, timely health information in their storylines. The CDC and Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) partnered with Porter Novelli on a nationally representative survey, which looked at general media habits. The survey showed that nearly two thirds (64%) of respondents reported regularly watching of primetime dramas or comedies two or more times a week. Almost six out of ten (58%) of these viewers reported learning something new about a health issue from a TV show in the past six months. The weekly formats of TV dramas and comedies can have a strong influence on audiences. As regular viewers of a TV show, we become familiar with the regular characters; we identify with characters we find to be similar to ourselves. Behavioral scientists have found that this type of identification enhances both learning and prevention. Based on the experiences of characters they have come to know, TV viewers are motivated to model desirable behaviors and avoid undesirable behaviors.
So what's the big deal if people are exposed to violence on TV? Are we really being influenced by it? Let's look at the Bobo Doll experiment, conducted by well-renowned psychologist Albert Bandura in 1961 and 1963. Bandura found that children exposed to aggressive behavior modeled by an adult were more likely to act in a physically and verbally aggressive way. As a result of his research, Bandura developed the widely-used Social Learning Theory, which states that we learn behavior from what we see around us. If we see violence, we learn violence. So how do we begin to undo this? We start by changing the images show on TV.
The Hollywood community is already making moves to change violent images. Gun scenes have been cut from marketing promotional spots for Tom Cruise's new movie Jack Reacher. In addition to reducing violent images, TV can also highlight alternatives to violence. HH&S continues to educate writers on issues like violence. In addition to connecting writers with experts on violence, HH&S offers research trips for writers on different community health issues. The inaugural trip in January 2012 looked at violence as a public health issue. The trip explored the various forces that play roles in violence, and highlighted programs and activists working to reduce violence in their communities. Students are being taught Transcendental Meditation as an effective violence-reduction technique, which they practice daily at school. Various violence reduction nonprofits participated in L.A.'s Gun Buyback, where people received gift cards for anonymously turning in their guns.
In a country that hungrily consumes media in all its forms, what better way to change culture than through television? With a proven ability to teach, TV is a powerful tool for changing the culture of violence. If violence is learned, then alternatives to violence can also be learned. TV can be that teacher.
*The data reflects the 2009-2011 TV seasons, for Nielsen's general audience, 18-49 demographic only.