Censorship, Guns and the Media*

Each time our country undergoes the turmoils of domestic tragedy, the airwaves and newsstands rumble with questions about guns and violence. It happened after Columbine, again with Aurora, and it’s happening now, in the aftermath of Newtown and Lone Star College.

And with the argument over gun rights comes a sister argument over media rights. From what I’ve noticed on social media and in reading the news, many of those who want to divert blame from weapons instead want to attract blame to the media. I read Facebook post over post and tweet after tweet about the media’s role in causing the Newtown and Lone Star shootings. People blame newspapers, magazines, TV, video games, movies; the list goes on.

It was interesting to hear PBS president Paula Kerger’s opinion on violence in the media today. She talked about PBS being, for the most part, a safe place in the media for children–away from the violent themes that she said are often found in other TV channels like FX.

At the same time, Kerger encouraged the group to listen to a variety of perspectives, telling us to “grapple with the balance” between free speech and prevention of violence in culture.

When examining this subject, some arguments I have seen even go so far as to propose the limitation of the media–censorship, in other words–in order to prevent media’s dissemination of violent messages.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, proposing any form of government regulation on the media becomes a slippery slope. When we give the government the freedom to regulate the messages given by the press, we take away the very thing that the freedom of the press was created to do: Allow the populous free exchange of ideas and a means to criticize those in power.

We also touched on the issue of gun violence in the media in our meeting with Marcellus Alexander, executive vice president of television, at the National Association of Broadcasters. He cited gun violence as one of the top three most important issues in broadcast right now. Alexander explained that raising awareness about how to approach guns in entertainment media, as well as how to approach issues of mental health, are impactful questions with which the industry must grapple.

Alexander also touched on the current governmental regulation that broadcast media undergoes, speaking briefly about the issue of indecency after playing a clip of some of the congressional reactions to the infamous Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction.”

My initial feeling after hearing Alexander touch on the issue and watching the film clip was one of frustration. I had a couple of questions: First, why does the US feel the need to regulate media in the first place, when media is most often driven by the people, and, in theory, legislation (including media regulation) should be driven by the people? In other words, don’t people cast their vote regarding what they find appropriate or inappropriate by what media they choose to consume? Second, why is our society–or at least a segment thereof–so afraid of the media?

I understand that the media can affect how people think and what people do. I’ve studied many of the theories and read many of the studies. But what I can’t understand is why so many in our society have pulled personal responsibility out of the picture. In other words, why are we blaming the media for kids being exposed to violence in video games when the only people responsible are those children’s parents? In other words, why are we trying to blame guns or the media when the only person responsible for the Newtown shooting was Adam Lanza?

Yes, the media can do something to help. The media can limit the amount of violence/negativity/sexuality/etc. it disseminates to the public. But then we have to ask what we want for the function of the media. Do we want a media that reflects our culture, which can often be violent, negative, sexualized, etc., or do we want a media that paints for us a pretty picture of a world that doesn’t exist?

*On use of the phrase “the media” (because otherwise Jim McPherson will give me a hard time): MW gives a second definition of “media” in which it may be used as a singular when referring to the mass media. I use the phrase in this way.

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