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Shaving the Violence

The constant and growing Niagara of blood-drenched, corruption-basted, disaster-driven media oozing out of our newspapers, TV's and projectile vomiting from streaming video feeds actually may be a profound source of human improvement.

All this complete and completely evil coverage seems as though it simply must be terrible for the human condition - what with all the sturm, drang, angst, shadenfreud and sheer unbelievable badness of it all. Certainly something must be done to reverse irrational hypertabloidization before it kills us all from stress. Hmmm - if that were done, it might actually cost serious numbers of lives...

As you look at the media and the focus on the horror, over time you can see that these stories in aggregate assert a statistical process control pressure. The result of this pressure is fewer deaths, less mayhem and less severe consequences. Why? How? The greater the number, type and competitiveness of media outlets, the greater the media's need to compete - which is mostly accomplished by amplifying the nasty news to sustain readership, viewership, subscribers to produce profits. The continually growing hyperconcentrated and highly distilled violent news cocktail produces ever stronger reactions of revulsion and horror by the viewing public - thereby inciting in many viewers the real will and effort to prevent the evil portrayed. Once a "horror" has been "mined" for its ratings effects, the media moves on to the next most juicy morsel to titillate the public's appetite for outrage. As the media "wand" gets waved over an ill, some dedicated individuals, institutions or nations will act to right, prevent or ameliorate the wrong such that slowly, very imperfectly - yet inexorably - the greatest ills begin to get shaved down and down again so that over the decades the ill is reduced in magnitude very significantly.

So herewith, a conjectural, Speculist style formula to describe the "evil shaving" effect of horror amped media...

Iterate Recursively:

(less violence-1)*more media outlets*(faster outlets+technology)=

more power law driven news increase about less violence than the last time =

greater and greater effort to reduce the violence and increase rule of law and tech fixes...resulting in a virtuous positive feedback loop resulting in less violence, more peace, greater health and longer, safer life.

The only problem is that the effect prevents people from enjoying the improvements. In fact, if you follow the formula to the nth degree, it predicts that on the day of the last murder in history, there will be so much horrific coverage that the entire viewing population might commit suicide.


Provocative first post, Ben. I see a possible connection here with the idea that everything bad is good for you which Stephen mentioned in a recent entry. Tabloid media makes us more civil while the vast wasteland of popular culture makes us smarter. All we need is for it to turn out that carbon-induced global warming is the only thing that can save civilization from an impending ice age, and we'll have a hat trick.

Provocative, yes, but I don't think it's well reasoned. By increasing the exposure to violence, one also increases the level of violence which is tolerated.

Sadly, as long as news has to be a commercial success, the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality will persist. This was not always the case. Until the 1980s, broadcast media was required to deliver news as a public service, and the only thing they could compete on was quality and recognition. Perhaps this would be a more appropriate model to return to.



Welcome to the Speculist!

An excellent concept. Although I'd say it's probably a rough approximation of the first-order social effect of current 'infotainment', both journalistic and otherwise. I think that the effect of empathic- or "compassion" fatigue might have at least as great, possibly a greater, effect over long-term exposure to these kinds of media products.

As my friend notes in the previous comment, there are also marginal effects as, answering the psychological desire for novelty, incrementally more graphic stimuli are demanded and presented.

However, the assertion that journalistic content is, or ever was, presented in any medium "as a(n uncompensated) public service" is, however, unsupported by either socio-economic theory or good business practice.

Editors, programming directors, and other gatekeepers of content, whether in radio and television broadcasting, any of the various print media, or even current low-barrier media such as blogging, podcasting, vlogging, etc., will, over anything but the shortest possible time scales, only present the content that is demanded and consumed by their target audiences, and only if the social or economic rewards offset the cost of production.

Hey Phil - your concern about global warming is interesting. The incredible media hue and cry over G.Warming will absolutely push oil to the side in favor of electricity and diversity of fuels/energy sources. Yes, the price of oil has much to do with this as well, but in combination with the media trumpeting of our inevitable future where we'll all be treading water from melted icecaps in 2100 AD, I firmly believe a tipping point has been reached. I think this happened before when NY City was doomed to drown in horse manure in 1900...and then oil was (get this) the SAVIOR of NY. It's a hilariously funny race we belong to. Monty Python could never be sufficiently satirical to really reflect our true wackyness :-)

Mike, may I refer you to Bob Edwards' book, "Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism", page 161 wherein Edwards writes,

"Nonbroadcasters acquired the networks in the 1980s, when the FCC no longer mandated public service programming. The new owners, principally concerned with profits and share prices, ordered the network news divisions to be profitable. [ . . .] When news has to make money, the substance, character, and look of the news changes. In the public service era, the networks produced documentaries. In the profit era, documentaries have been replaced by magazine programs heavy on crime, items about celebrities, feel-good features, and the latest trendy disease."

In this case, he's referring to the news programming, although this is also when the much beloved 'test(s) of the emergency broadcast system' went by the wayside. The policy wherein broadcasters were trustees of public airways, and therefore had to provide public services such as news and balanced representation was carefully dismantled by the Reagan administration. (by contrast, the change in law which removed the cap on the number of stations a given media company could own, thereby allowing such abominations as ClearChannel to exist, was removed during the Clinton administration.)

As he was a newsman himself during that timeframe, I regard Edwards, former host of NPR's Morning Edition, as a primary source on the matter.

Jim -

I'll have to defer to you and to Mr. Edwards until such time as I might be able to refresh my memory with regard to the precise degree of Government intervention in television programming in the era between Philo Farnsworth and Laurence Tisch.

However, I'll offer the following as a first essay at arguement by contra-example:

While the general style or method of presenting news items may have evolved or even radically changed over the period spanning the deregulation of the 1980s, the tendency to cater to the baser instincts of the viewing public had already been well established long in advance of that time. For example, the grand dame of all magazine-style news programs, CBS's "60 Minutes", was first broadcast in 1968.

Relating to Ben's thesis, I'd say that it is just this sort of programming, "playing to the groundlings", less than any government-mandated 'public service' programming, that has, by dint of its sometimes-excessive fascination with the less savory aspects of life, exercised an influence over collective behaviors and attitudes.

The news, and mass media in general, is a cultural positive (in the engineering sense) feedback mechanism. It amplifies cultural change by bringing the change to a large number of people simultanenously. If that feedback mechanism amplifies the level of violence to which society is exposed to, it amplifies the level of violence with which society is comfortable. This was my original point.

Certainly such media must play to the groundlings, as you say, and no, I don't think TV news was ever exempt from this rule. I was referring to the lack of balance and lobotomy of content and/or context in modern news, more than anything else.

Since the media is a cultural feedback mechanism, I suppose we have only ourselves to blame for the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality, but the FCC did, as I said, used to require certain standards of broadcast media, and did require that a certain percentage of broadcasting be for public service, which most stations read to be news.

In any case, the law you're looking for is the Communications act of 1934. There's a fine article on wikipedia on that piece of legislation.


Jim - In part you said "If that feedback mechanism amplifies the level of violence to which society is exposed to, it amplifies the level of violence with which society is comfortable. This was my original point."

You are right of course, but I think this may actually support Ben's contention...as the media raises the marginal attention threshold by inuring the public to a previous level of violence, the collective media must jump a higher violence hurdle rate to get attention - and such horror inflation will continue to drive the "shaving" effect.

I fail to see how the inflation of the level of horror it takes to get someone's attention will somehow decrease the level of horror in the world. Quite the opposite.

There is a shaving effect, as described, and that is that politicians see all this horror on TV and use it as justification to further restrict individual freedoms and authorize further government invasiveness. They are not the dedicated individuals described. These are cynics using the sensationalistic violence to sell their changes in the law to the public. This, coupled with an increased tolerance - and appetite - for violence does not seem like a positive trend. Fear makes people easier to manage. Fear and violence makes them dangerous.


Jim and Dave,

I must respectfully disagree with you and agree with Ben.

It would seem common sense that people will become more violence-prone if they are exposed to violence in the form of sensational news programming. But, in this case, common sense appears to be quite wrong.

If you were *subject* to violence every day then you would have to learn to adapt - quite likely by becoming more violent yourself. But media exposure does not appear to have the same effect: not only is violent crime way down from its peak in the 1970s but a wide variety of research has cast doubt on the idea as well (not counting politicized research from the anti-video game lobby).

I think Ben captures things pretty well when he says that the conclusion of most people is that they do *not* want to contribute to the violence they see. They have the luxury of this decision because, in fact, violence is extremely rare for almost all of us in the West.

It is almost as if the media has become the "bad Uncle" who, by the example of a degenerate and failed life, becomes the reference point for what to avoid in one's own life.

While the human race has been around for a good long time, its only the last three or four generations that have lived an existence that is largely free of famine, plague and a host of many other real problems.( those of us in the Capitalist west that is...)

Our ancestors once strugged for millenia after millenia just trying to stay fed, clothed and housed; yet modern man find himself in the presence of more food than we can eat, more creature comforts than we can even catalog, yet its modern man that acts as if this were the last days of life on earth.

Just to illustrate my point, I often hear people where I work complain about the horror of their awful office jobs and when they do I always think back to my coal mining ancestors who could expect to be dead in as little as 10 years once their work in the mines started. My great grandparents generation routinely had over 7 kids per generation, but only half of that generation survived to reach maturity. And yet, I constantly hear people compare their lot in life as 'worse now than ever'.

Compared to when? I say in retort.

Pick any epoch in the existence of humanity, and this one is by any metric the best living conditions that we have ever seen to be experienced by the majority of mankind. We live longer, we have more choice, more freedom, more of everything, yet the suicide rate remains high and there is a general dissatisfation with modern life and a romanticism to the conditions of the past, as if we somehow subconciously believe that its all about to come crashing down.

Why is this?

I think that after 6 million years of evolving to adapt to hardship and struggle of day to day life, we are now having a hard time adjusting to a life of plenty. It's possible that underneath it all, that psycologically we react to not having a threat to our life, that we simply make one up. We make up the 'threat of chlorine' in our water, because we live in a generation where we believe against all evidence that its our plumbing that is a greatest threat to water quality and not the host of diseases that were once common place but are no longer seen - precisely because of the great "evil of cholination of our water" and sanitation.

While im sure that many reading this comment will try to argue the line that chlorine really is in fact a 'big problem' many people in the third world often wonder if weve simply lost our minds to think that chlorination is anything but a true blessing.

"clean water to your home? how wonderful" they say. We in the first world of course rush to our 24 hour superstores to buy bottled water by the case because were convinced that what comes from our taps is nothing short of toxic waste and sewage. The people of the third world who's experience with water borne disease is recent and vivid, know better than to accept such delusions as reality.

We know how to live in fear, and when fear is removed, we create one to take its place. We exaggerate the most minute picayune of issues into soul crushing nightmares, precisely because the major ones have been so sucessfully removed.

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