CSI: Guantanamo - Do Police Dramas Lower the Bar on Torture?
Much has been made about the support of regular church attenders for torture, shown in a recent survey conducted by Pew Research. A more alarming statistic shows the effect of age on support for torture. The same study found that a third of respondents over the age of 65 said torture should never be used, as compared to only 23 percent of those under the age of 65.
The result seems counterintuitive: in general, the elderly tend to be more politically conservative than young people. Having grown up in an era of racism and less cultural diversity, the elderly may be more likely than the young to harbor negative attitudes toward those from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
As a graduate student in journalism, I’ve studied mass media effects and psychology. Though frequently blamed for school shootings and other cultural maladies, the jury is still out in terms of the effect of media violence. Some studies even suggest a mitigating effect on men. Researchers have suggested that when a man watches violent programming, it may, in effect, “get it out out of his system.” Preferences for violence may also be self-selecting. I recall reading about one study of men with “criminal” personality traits that found such men consumed less media overall (regardless of the level of violent content) than more “typical” males.
That said, media violence is known to effect our perceptions of culture. As the following Onion satire hints, the danger of mediated violence isn’t so much that we’ll imitate it, but that over time we’ll modify our concept of reality, altering our beliefs and behavior to accommodate that new reality. A high level of violent media in America has created a false perception of our culture as more violent, sexualized and dangerous than it truly is. This can create a vicious cycle: the more isolated we become as a culture, the more our perception of the outside world is influenced by negative portrayals from media; hence, the more isolated we become.
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Though it’s difficult to establish cause and effect, especially when it comes to the media, my theory is that a greater tolerance for rough police tactics in law and order programming such as the popular CSI programs, programs that win awards because of their “realism,” may influence our cultural tolerance for torture. Because the high level of graphic violence in such programming may not appeal to older demographic groups, who were raised at a time with much less violence on television, it stands to reason the greatest effect will be seen in younger generations.
Likewise, regular church attenders, who often form most of their friendships within the church, may be more isolated from “secular” culture, thus potentially more influenced by negative media portrayals of culture as inherently immoral and dangerous.
A few years ago, I was a researcher for a study that entailed analyzing episodes of the CSI programs, a study having nothing to do with media violence, but which was focused on programming shown by Nielsen ratings to appeal to young audiences. Prior to this, I hadn’t been a fan of police programming for many years, though I have family members who are in law enforcement professions.
What shocked me about the programming wasn’t the violence, per se, but the police techniques. The old series I used to watch like Dragnet regularly depicted policemen giving suspects their Miranda rights. New police dramas rarely show this. Instead, they often show policemen roughing up a suspect in order to obtain a confession. My sister is a deputy DA. I hesitate to think what would happen to a case she was prosecuting if it came out in court that a confession had been obtained through such aggressive means.
In their efforts toward “realism,” police dramas portray techniques that would likely be considered unethical, even illegal, in real life. The primary characters like MacTaylor (Gary Sinise) or Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) on CSI:NY are well-developed and three-dimensional, implying that even dedicated, sensitive, caring individuals know that such aggressive techniques, though regrettable, are necessary to maintain law and order. Such a message could influence television audiences, lowering the bar of what we’re willing to tolerate as a culture in the cause of keeping us safe.
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