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Guelph Mercury Editorial

Improve the world: Help pull the switch on TV violence

I don't own a television anymore and had controlled exposure to it as a kid. We had a black and white RCA but my older brother had to climb up on the roof and twist the aerial around to make the picture clear so we could watch the single channel. Unless it was Hockey Night in Canada or the Tommy Hunter Show, we played checkers, went outside or read.

I don't own a gun either. Never have. And I can say with certainty I never will. When I was young, my dad had what he called a duck hunting gun, and a former boyfriend had a Boy Scout marksman badge that he was rather proud of. But that's about it for real guns in my world. They don't seem to be my thing.

After seeing the Michael Moores film, Bowling for Columbine, I understand how guns and television are connected, and why I'm glad I've had little exposure to either in my life.

Moore skilfully takes the audience through his interpretation of the American attachment to owning guns. He boldly weaves the real-life story of the two Columbine High School students who went on a shooting rampage around the beliefs of the National Rifle Association and the role played by U.S. television media. The result is a perspective that is both understated and refreshing in our gun-filled world. And, I would add, worthy of our consideration.

Americans have a heighted fear of becoming the victim of violent crime even though violent crime is on the decrease in their country. Seems the average American isn't hearing about that decrease. Instead, Joe and Jane America sit in front of their television to watch the daily news and what they invariably see are reports of violent crime and its results. Jane and Joe are left with the impression that not only is crime increasing, it's lurking on every street corner and about to get them. They no longer feel safe in their own home or neighbourhood.

Out of fear they decide that their only recourse is to protect themselves. And so they head off to Wal-Mart to buy personal handguns and ammunition. Back home, guns loaded and within easy reach, Jane and Joe try to relax in front of the tube. More brutal news flashes before their eyes and, before too long, they are back at the store again. It appears that Jane and Joe are caught in a very vicious cycle that is being fed by a number of sources, one of which is American television.

So if violent crime is on the decrease, then why would news reports not reflect that reality? It all boils down to the daily news mix and the reality that not all news gets reported. Which leads to the question, how is it determined which news makes the cut?

One of the newscasters interviewed in Bowling for Columbine answers that question without remorse. He explains that foot chases and police takedowns make for exciting footage. So do highschool cafeteria shootups. Violence catches the viewer's attention. And television depends on high viewer ratings for its economic health. Drownings, housefires and white-collar crime make for dull TV. No one wants to watch dull TV.

So if the broadcaster favours this high-drama news mix, what Jane and Joe see is an unbalanced report.

I believe that feeling safe is a basic human need. A person who feels safe is more likely to realize their full human potential and make a positive contribution to the overall good. Ongoing fear paralyzes constructive possibility and good judgment and spreads to create panic. When fear spreads, it doesn't stop at city limits or borders. Given that we all share this planet, feeling safe should be a state that we encourage in everyone.

So how do you inspire a feeling of safety in Jane and Joe America? Perhaps Michael Moore is offering a subtle solution by showing us the problem.

What would happen if we stopped watching any American television that showed violent crime in mind-blowing detail? Just clicked to another channel or commit to watching CKCO instead. Our living-room protest could impact ratings and ratings would impact programming. If programming became more balanced, perhaps our American neighbours would calm down. Heck, why not take it one step farther - refuse to watch any violent television programs. Take a week off and see how it goes.

I realize that the Canadian viewer is a drop in the ratings pot for U.S. networks. But even if our collective viewing embargo doesn't have an impact on U.S. media giants, perhaps it will impact you and your family. Less visual violence has got to be better for you than more. And if there is anything to Michael Moore's notion, that would explain why I feel safe and sound in my world.

Sue Richards is a social entrepreneur, artist and cultural animator. She is also a member of the Mercury's Community Editorial Board. Check out her Guelph Photo Blog.

Contact Sue Richards at [email protected]

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