The news over the last few days has been full of discussion about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney ‘won’ the first of the televised debates of the American presidential election. With the result of the election still seen as being ‘too close to call’ both candidates were hopeful that their performances, and subsequent media coverage, would win over undecided voters. The presidential candidates, and their election machinery, are in no doubt as to the power of the media to influence views and behaviour.
The power of the media to affect behaviour should certainly come as no surprise to us. From supermarkets selling out of cranberries when Delia Smith used them on television to the drama Mad Men bringing the styles of the 1960s back into fashion, the media helps to create and reinforce our outlook on life.
And yet, despite this undoubted power of the media, for many years broadcasters have justified their more questionable output, telling us that what they produce is entertainment and has no effect on those who consume it. Whenever I see such claims I am reminded that it was not that many years ago that cigarette manufacturers were also denying that their products could harm consumers.
Of course, like many powerful forces, the ability of the media to influence behaviour can be used to both good and ill effect; in the last few days more women have found the courage to report the abuse they suffered during their childhoods since media reports of allegations that Jimmy Savile abused teenagers during the 1970s and 80s.
But the effects can also be negative, and society ignores this reality at its peril. Repeated exposure to extreme and negative behaviour, whether violent or sexual, can shape and reinforce attitudes and behaviour. As children we learn to make sense of the world and develop our response to it by observing the behaviour of those around us. The current generation of children are the first to be raised who have almost unlimited access to a diet of extreme violence and pornography via both television and the internet.
As a society we are conducting a huge experiment on our children and the long term effects are barely beginning to be understood. Taking the cigarette analogy one step further we are currently allowing our children to smoke 40 Woodbines a day whilst turning a deaf ear to the chesty coughs. We want to protect our children’s health and to get society to ‘wake up’ to the powerful influence that the media is having on the way children perceive the world and treat themselves and those around them.
This is why our campaign for a responsible media has never been more important.