May 28, 2007

Celebrating the Scholarship of George Gerbner

To say that I have been profoundly influenced by the scholarship of George Gerbner would be an understatement. I first learned about it doing a literature review for my doctoral thesis at OISEUT. I was thrilled when George agreed to be my external examiner in 1995. It seemed entirely appropriate that my defense be followed by a public lecture at the University of Toronto on initiatives underway for the Cultural Environment Movement Founding Convention at Webster University in 1996, that I agree to chair the Working Group on Violence and, following the Convention, serve on the CEM Steering Committee for the next five years. Before my book, MIND ABUSE Media Violence in an Information Age, was published in 2000, I was able to incorporate many CEM objectives and initiatives into the concluding chapters and recommendations.

Gerbner’s testimony before the Royal Commission on Violence In The Communications Industry, in 1975, was instrumental in shaping my own perspective on policy problems in Canada. In the early 1990s, the CRTC turned its attention to the problem, under Keith Spicer’s leadership. Along with Ron Cohen, chair of the newly minted CBSC, he attended and spoke at the CEM pre- Convention summit on Broadcast Standards. We’ve had mixed results since. Cohen continues to chair the Council, which has built up a considerable body of jurisprudence on the basis of various complaints brought before it since 1993 but continues to lobby against any attempts to strengthen the Broadcast Act to more effectively address the issue of violence on TV. In December, 2004, using Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators Model, researchers at Laval University in Quebec reported that, despite the watershed hour for children of 9:00 p.m. established in the 1990s, acts of violence on Canadian television had risen 286 percent in 10 years with 81 percent before 9:00 p.m. This is an example of why, as George used to put it, self-regulation of industry never has and cannot work without a little help from government and the rule of law.

At the CRTC, things have taken a turn for the worst since the newly appointed chair, Konrad von Finckenstein announced last week that advertising would no longer be regulated by the CRTC. Finckenstein has ignored legislation in the province of Quebec which bans ads to children 13 years and under on the basis of research showing harmful effects, similar legislation in a number of European countries and its adoption in January of this year in the U.K. in response to the growing obesity crisis among youth from the marketing of junk food.

George’s emphasis on how our contemporary storytellers still enlighten, entertain, and occasionally even challenge us, but only if their stories fit marketing strategies and priorities and on “teaching images” inherent in this process which he called the “hidden curriculum” has always made good sense to me. Unfortunately, widespread enthusiasm for media literacy in schools still lacks George’s attention to the heavy reliance on the cheap industrial ingredient of violence in the production of cultural commodities because it translates easily into any language and sells well on a global market.

He has made it easier for us to understand, but no less painful to endure, increasing evidence of how cultural commodities, driven by advances in communications technology have led to societies around the world becoming detached from physical reality and any responsibility for it. Personal and community values are eroding. As he predicted, we also have evidence of diminishing self esteem, media absorption of more and more time, political alienation and increasing levels of fear and insecurity - part of what he called “the mean world syndrome”. Although hand wringing over poor voter turn outs and rising levels of youth gang violence continues, the dots remain unconnected.

Gerbner warned us that as economic forces gather momentum, they encourage neglect of vital cultural and social systems and lead to the silent crumbling of democratic infrastructures. Numerous examples surfaced in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre last month. Prior to the shooting spree, followed by his suicide, English senior, Cho Seung Hui, sent an explanation for his behavior to NBC Television News, correctly anticipating the widest possible publicity for his actions. Amid the yards of ink and endless repetition of images from this tragic event on television news screens, with emphasis on it being the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, there were musings about how much better the media are at reporting tragedies than preventing them. Two days later USA TODAY actually rated the performance of journalists who rushed to the scene of the crime and TV anchors who provided wall to wall coverage.

But soon, it was difficult to tell the difference between ads on CNN promising a two hour weekend special on “the inside of a killer’s mind” and the usual fare of entertainment blood and gore on the continent’s film and TV screens. Indeed, it is difficult to see anything particularly remiss in the chilling signs of Hui’s preoccupation in drama classes with narratives involving chainsaw massacres. How else is an ambitious, English major to get a good job as a screen writer in Hollywood these days? At a conference sponsored by Common Sense Media in Colorado on the responsibilities of industry and government beyond prime time, televised on C-SPAN in February of this year, FCC commissioner Michael Copps said the recent increase in fines for excesses in programming do not scratch the surface of what needs to be done. He didn’t not elaborate then and hasn’t, to my knowledge, since.

Clearly the CEM Founding Convention documents are as timely and urgent today as they were in 1996. In celebration of Gerbner’s scholarship, a committee should be set up immediately to review and update The Peoples Communications Charter, the Viewers Declaration of Independence and the Agenda for Action. The objectives of the CEM can and should be more closely interwoven with growing concerns over climate change, environmental devastation and the coming energy crisis. It is a given, that consumer driven, materialistic lifestyles must change. This is no longer a case of only cleaning up the cultural environment, it is a case of ecological survival. Permit me, in closing, to bring to your attention a book being published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield,, in which Chapter 26 is mine. It is entitled: The Cultural Environment: Implications for Public Health, Human Rights and Ecological Sustainability. The title of the book, itself, is: Sustaining Life on Earth: Environmental and Human Health Through Global Governance edited by Colin Soskolne et al.

Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication