As a professor who teaches media ethics, I am constantly inundated with friends' criticisms of 21st century media-I hear incessantly about the acceleration of incidence of gratuitous violence, invasion of privacy, Internet pornography, consolidated media ownership, tabloid sensationalism, infotainment, libel, plagiarism, sexploitation, primitive talk-shows, and a host of similar problems.
To be sure, the concerns should be taken seriously. George Gerbner's research has suggested that heavy viewers of television are more likely to fear they will be the victims of assault than are non-users. Gerbner further noted that there is a higher body count of corpses in action film sequels (such as Rambo II) than in earlier films (such as the original Rambo). Recently I counted the number of individual acts of violence, shots in which blood appears, and moments of shock in the Gus Van Sant remake of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece thriller Psycho. As is typically the case, the remake had inserted more blood, slasher shots, and momentary audience trauma than the original. It does not take a Ph. D. in communication, nor quantitative research methods to note that there is far more "flash, slash, and trash for cash" on television in many countries today. Nor must one be a senior citizen to observe that over the decades there has been a morbid striptease-in which more and more body parts (many of them dismembered) have been exposed to audiences in horror movies, thrillers, and other dramas and even some so-called "comedies." However, the cumulative research of sociologists, psychologists and other experts suggests that the effects of all of this mediated violence and shock should be taken seriously, rather than be seen as therapeutic, ambiguous, or cathartic as was once thought to be the case.
What can be done about all of these concerns? There are many laudable external efforts to change the media overload situation. In the U. S., for example, groups such as Peggy Charron's Action for Children's Television, Liz Thoman's Media and Values campaign, Hubert Jessup's Mediascope, and many others seek to bring awareness, civic responsibility, and informed action to various sectors of society. At various points in their history, media themselves-the early BBC, 1950s CBS, Donald McGannon's Group W, innumerable Asian media concerns, the Christian Science Monitor, and now Time Warner, among others-have implemented specific pro-social values and upgraded their commitment to ethics. Moreover, numerous colleges and institutes such as the Poynter Center, the Freedom Forum, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, the Silha Center at the University of Minnesota, and others train students and professionals alike to examine both how the media work and how to debate which options will bring creative change.
However, the external commitment to "more"-more regulation, more awareness, more education, more debate, and more ethicists and lawyers-seems insufficient, albeit important. Indeed, some regulatory controls of violence and titillation, if implemented by government, may be a harmful threat to freedom of expression-in the United States the threat is even to the First Amendment. Although the many efforts which do not threaten free expression are to be applauded, there seems to be a strong need for a companion approach, one which is internal rather than external.
If I wish to minimize the effect of the supermarket tabloids' presentation of salacious reports, should not I also stop gossiping and listening to the sensational rumors of my neighbors? I have no credibility to tell a child to stop smoking if I am puffing a cigarette. Similarly, as a society we have no authority telling our media to minimize violence if we are busy killing each other. If the violence is inside us, it will surely be magnified on a screen.
In this kind of a situation, less is more. If I show personal control, and control with my own children, such restraint has implications further afield. Individual responsibility is an important companion and precedent to social responsibility. Who do the media reflect and amplify after all, if not society itself, that is to say us, and ultimately, me?
If I am known for sniping at my colleagues and neighbors, I doubt I have much moral authority complaining about snipers in the Middle East or in Rambo XXIII. I am not suggesting there is a direct causal relationship between nuclear war and whether my own nucleus is peaceful but how can there be a nuclear war, or a fascination with killing on screen, if all of us love and express inner peace? Ultimately, Gandhi made great sense in saying "I must be the change I wish to see in the world."