Death is one broad subject that the American media can seem to never get right. Though research and investigation can be expensive for American media companies, they consistently report stories about death in a distorted way. One might argue that this is a result of a death-denying culture that we currently live in. But the American media does not ignore death out of an aversion to reporting it. Instead, the American media utilizes death symbolically as propaganda while avoiding the grieving and the physical corpse.
There seems to be contradictory views of American media’s attitude towards violence. When-it-bleeds-it-leads and I-don’t-want-to-see-that-at-the-dinner-table are contradictory statements. The television itself shows a great deal of death and violence. While we sometimes watch death-filled programming, we have mostly avoided death in the recent past. For instance, we have mostly avoided passing laws regarding the disposal of corpses and the rights that a body has. This ignoring of the corpse is highlighted when 334 bodies were found scattered about Ray Brent Marsh’s crematory property (McIlwain, 2005, p. 15). What is significant about this is not that one man disregarded his duties as a cremator. Rather, it was amazing that nobody noticed the 338 bodies scattered about. Twice, a delivery truck driver reported the bodies to authorities and they completely shrugged it off (McIlwain, 2005, p. 17). The once living bodies were completely ignored, as if everyone wanted to blot their existence from their minds.
But in many ways, the attention on death is increasing. There has been an increase in academic writings about death, an increase in death-related debates over abortion, euthanasia, cloning, stem-cell research, cryogenics, a discussion over when life should begin and end, an increased attention on nursing homes as places where people go to die, away from the eyes of youth, and an exploration of death through popular culture (McIlwain, 2005, p. 19). While many of the academic discussions seriously contemplate death, popular media is experienced more frequently by more Americans than academic discourse. But most mainstream media lacks an interest in reflecting upon death and instead uses death for its entertainment value.
Since Americans live in such a death-denying culture, why do they want to see violent television at all? What is the point of bringing explosions, flying bullets, and sudden death into the family living room?
One reason for the large volumes of violent content in the media is that violence has a sensory appeal. This brings to mind fireworks and the exploding asteroid in
Armageddon. Fireworks show that explosions can be beautiful. Americans gather around every 4th of July to watch colorful explosions in the sky. The asteroid in
Armageddon showed that destruction can have beauty, despite the fact that Bruce Willis had to be sacrificed to achieve such an effect. In addition to the beauty of destruction, some find gruesome scenes of bloodshed to be visually appealing (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 75). Mainstream media appeals to this not by showing the aftermath: a field of decomposing corpses, but by instead emphasizing the bloody violence that led to the death. In
Scarface, we are not shown the decomposing corpses and the long-term bereavement of those that Al Pacino’s character Tony Montana mercilessly murdered, but we are shown the shooting, blood, and death that comes before the mourning, funeral, and decomposition.
Much of the beauty in violence comes from the complexity in which destruction often happens (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 76). We are just as amazed by the way glass shatters and the way buildings collapse as we are of how a waterfall falls. Quick movement is appealing to the eyes.
Another appeal that violence has is to the novelty of the situation (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 77). Most people experience death on a regular basis, but violence is an unusual occurrence. Day-to-day life can often become mundane and watching sword and gun fights on television is thrilling because they rarely happen in real life. But of course, the reason why television goes through different trends is likely because sword and gun fights become mundane when shown on television day-in and day-out.
But sometimes, the appeal of the violence has little to do with the violence itself, but rather the characters involved in the violence. We develop a connection to these individuals. We find ourselves aligning with the characters and the violence becomes all the more significant when we worry about the safety of our heroes (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 77). There is also a reason why fiction presents us with despicable antagonists. Emotions run high when we wait for these characters to be put to justice.
Violence might also be used to help viewers vicariously experience their subconscious desires to be free of social constraints (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 79). The viewers can learn to identify and/or sympathize with characters, even if these characters engage in what is generally considered socially unacceptable behavior. We would normally feel uneasy to see someone murder, steal, or destroy private property. But when we know that these actions are carried out for a good cause, we have an easier time vicariously experiencing these events free of guilt. It is amazing what the hero can get away with when he is racing to prevent the end of the world, as if the character is given a get-out-of-jail-free pass for the duration of the film.
Yet another reason for our lure to violent fiction is the release from tension we feel when a character manages to escape a horrible situation. We sit frozen in our seats as we watch the heroine cling to the ledge with a 200 foot drop beneath her. Unless we despise her, we’ll feel a rush of relief when she is finally pulled from the ledge to safety (Voerderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 82). This creates the feeling of release and happiness that a mother feels when discovering her missing child in a grocery store.
Why did I say heroine instead of hero? Why does the idea vulnerability immediately conjure up the image of a helpless woman? More often than not, the protector role is ascribed to a male character, while the protected is ascribed to a female character (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 84). These have been the prescribed gender roles for men and women across thousands of years of known history. Recent television and film has played around with these roles with films such as
Kill Bill by casting a female warrior
. But the majority of films still like to put the sword or the gun in the man’s hand. This gives fiction the ability to reinforce gender roles.
Violence can drive viewers away from television and film if the viewers have emotional or ethical reasons for not wanting to watch violence. But many violent films have other content that makes viewing the film worthwhile. For movies with particular topics, violence is an integral part of the setting in which the violence is contained. An example would be a film set in WW2 Britain. It would be unrealistic to not have references to violence, since violence would be all around the setting. Many viewers simply avert their eyes from the violent images, and this seems to be enough for many people (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 77). Therefore, violence might be necessary in order to maintain the authenticity of the setting.
Violence might also have therapeutic value. Those who feel violence and aggression over life might be able to release that aggression by viewing violence or playing violent video games (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 82). But it is unclear whether or not aggressive people are drawn to violence, or inspired to violence by the images they see. It is also uncertain whether or not such violence provides any real release.
Though generally having a negative connotation, desensitization might have a therapeutic value as well. While we might worry that the child who was exposed to violence will develop a lack of compassion for the suffering of humanity, we can also see the positive benefit that desensitization can have on those without control of their fears (Vorderer & Zillman, 2000, p. 83). A common treatment for phobia patients is to expose them to their fears. Maybe the intense horror that we experience from viewing horror films can have an impact on our ability to manage our own fears.
We clearly desire violence to be in the fictional realm. Those who die do not actually exist. We might develop attachments to particular characters in a story, but we cannot fully grieve the dead in the same way that we grieve the deaths of those who really do exist. Violence in film plays a different role than violence in the news. According to Matthew Kieren, “Violence in film calls upon viewers to partake in a fantasy, even if the fantasy involves something undesirable,” (Kieren, 1997, p. 122). But violence in film can be dismissed as simply fictional, while violence in reality must be ignored or confronted.
Television has the potential to devastating and horrific. David Campbell (2004) explained how death can be used to bring about positive social change in his article “Horrific Blindness.” By showing poverty, suffering, and death on the television screen, viewers can be driven to speak out against atrocities, or at least donate to charitable causes. But according to Susan D. Moeller (1999), excessively showing violent images can lead viewers to a dangerous state called compassion fatigue. Thus, Moeller (1999) indicates a potential danger in depicting death and suffering.
Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon in which the audience of mainstream media becomes desensitized to atrocity and fails to feel compassionate towards those suffering. While some individuals might be naturally apathetic, the mainstream media can play a large role in increasing this apathy.
How does the media cause compassion fatigue? The media does so by overwhelming the senses with pitiful, suffering eyes that pull at the heart strings of American viewers (Moeller, 1999, p. 7). American viewers are then jerked by other tragic images from completely different parts of the world all with the same problems and the same sad eyes. Americans may be moved to act initially, but even the best-off American citizens have limits to their wallet sizes.
With the need to produce new news, media often turns to less tragic news stories after having covered a horrible atrocity for a week. Since a massacre has less of an emotional impact than a widespread genocide, Americans feel that these disasters are lessening. Then, when the more horrible atrocities are reported again, Americans begin to feel that these horrors will continue on and on in an endless cycle, regardless of what they contribute to charitable causes (Moeller, 1999, p. 11). This leads to discouragement, which leads to American citizens safeguarding their wallets and emotions from Save the Child charity organizations.
Compassion fatigue might be part of the reason why America feels deadened to charity causes and to the rest of the world. This deadened feeling is the enemy of charitable organizations, as they struggle to revive interest in the next looming famine by dramatizing it. If the media finds that this disaster is interesting enough to lure in viewers in, only then will they jump in and report what’s going on (Moeller, 1999, p. 13). But as a result, Americans learn about disasters and atrocities far too late to do anything about them.
Not only does the mainstream media fail to report atrocities until they reach their most horrible state, but when the media finally does get around to covering a horrible event, they often do more harm than good. Instead of making an effort to report the events as they actually happen, the media falls into the trap of trying to force the story into a Hollywood-style formula in which the good guys take on the bad guys. These violent formulas that work so well in fiction do not translate well to the evening news. We often expect to see the same thing on the news as we see in our favorite movie. Since we’re all so used to seeing the good guys win, the idea of the real world having messy, irresolvable conflicts seems almost incomprehensible. As a result, many Americans eventually learn to shut out the widespread death and suffering outside America. The media has picked up on this and has chosen not to report very often on the majority of the death that occurs in this world (Moeller, 1999, p. 14). The result is a lack of coverage of death and a lack of public interest in atrocity.
There was once a time when lynchings were photographed, placed on postcards, and distributed through newspapers. Gruesome images such as those were taken by white supremacists (Campbell, 2004, p. 1-2). But these postcards were eventually used against the killers as public opinion turned against lynching. In more recent times, the horror of James Byrd’s mutilated corpse was enough for the jury to convict Bryd’s murderer King and sentence him to death (Campbell, 2004, p. 5). Images such as these clearly have an impact on an individual’s ability to feel compassionate about a particular violent event. But the media avoids showing such images to the general public.
This lack of coverage of death has affected public opinion towards modern wars. Today, violence against journalists in the field, the banning of filming particular events, and media’s unwillingness to report is leading to a lack of coverage of the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan (Campbell, 2004, p. 6). David Campbell (2004) explained that, “images of terror can foster an environment in which terror is no longer tolerated.” According to Campbell, horrific images do not lead to compassion fatigue, but rather to increased donations (Campbell, 2004, p. 7). If this is the case, what is the real reason why the media refuses to cover death and suffering throughout the world.
For Cynthia Carter and Kay C. Weaver (2003), the true goal of the media when covering death can be seen by way of how they actually depict violence and death. According to Carter and Weaver, “Most journalists operate without a well-developed ethical framework for covering violence,” (Carter & Weaver, 2003, p. 22). Violence is portrayed as: irrational rather than as the result of unresolved conflicts, one side as good and another side as evil, reduced to a conflict between two parties, inevitable, violence without a cause, death without mourning, violence without any previous escalation, violence without any peace proposals, violence without reconciliation and compromise (Carter & Weaver, 2003, p. 23). Violence and death are seen as the result of a horrible aggressor forcing an innocent group into battle. If the media is in favor of the war, the war is sanitized in order to maintain popular support for the war (Carter & Weaver, 2003, p. 24). The only time that atrocities are discussed in full is when they are carried out by the enemy. But while the violence committed by the “good guys” is sanitized, some of the worst crimes committed by the “bad guys” are completely fabricated. For instance, during the Gulf war, the media claimed that Iraqi babies were being thrown into incinerators. But no images of these events have ever surfaced because these events never actually happened (Carter & Weaver, 2003, p. 26). In an effort to place one group in the role of the heroes and another group in the role of the villain, the reality of violence and death is completely avoided.
Death is used rather than depicted. In fiction, death has its own entertainment value, while in the news, death can be used to spread propaganda. But the realities of death are rarely depicted accurately. This results in not only the distortion of the relationship of death in our lives but this also robs death’s ability to enact social change. Though popular opinion is often against the real-life depiction of death, this aversion to death should not give the media the license censor the rest of the world. Yes, few people want to receive the bad news. But the bad news must be known and faced. If not, the problems that lead to death and suffering will never be solved.
Campbell, David. (2004). Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media.
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Kieren, Matthew. (1997).
Media ethics: An ethical approach. Praeger.
McIlwain, Charlton D. (2005).
When Death Goes Pop: Death, Media, and the Remaking of Community. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
Moeller, Susan D. (1999).
Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. Routledge.
Vorderer, Peter and Dolf Zillman. (2000).
Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.