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Media's Responsibility To Our Society

Updated on September 17, 2010

Media's Responsibility to Our Society

I am opposed to government censorship.  Let me get that right out in the open.  I believe in the Freedom of Speech.  I believe in the Freedom of Expression.  I believe that we should all be allowed to safely and humanely let others know what we think and feel.  I believe that art needs to be protected and I also believe that art needs to be supported by the State, because preserving and encouraging cultural development is part of what makes a society strong, rich and worth living in, regardless of the State's official stance on what the art might be expressing (which is to say, the State supported art may well oppose the nature of the State itself, or the officials of the State, or may challenge the dominant beliefs of the society for which the State exists).  Those are my basic positions on the matter.

However, I believe that every freedom comes with an equal responsibility.  In some cases, there are clear legal guidelines in place to protect society.  An example is "Hate Speech."  Such expression, however "honest" it may be as a reflection of one's beliefs, is presented in a manner that can lead to direct and presumably intentional harm toward an individual or group or may (inadvertently) incite violence toward its target, and therefore is a crime — but the same thoughts or feelings can always be conveyed in a manner befitting rational, civilized beings and without promoting criminal behavior, generally by discussing the root causes of said feelings or emotions rather than preaching or promoting reactions toward chosen target.  It's usually called "taking a breath," or "thinking before you speak."  Criminality comes into play when there is time for deliberation and the choice is made to present "ideas" in the way where they will likely result in harm.

Aside from the obvious, there are other ways in which our media-driven society needs to hold the producers and promoters of media accountable for the safety and security of the People.  Because media is consumer driven, it is the consumer's responsibility to avoid, and therefore not reward, media product that is detrimental to the society.  Likewise, it is the consumer's responsibility to reward media product that is beneficial to society through active participation and promotion of such media.  Frequently there is a grey area between what is detrimental and what is not when regarding mass media, so let's take a look at some areas wherein we can see what affects our popular culture and what is positive or negative about it in the context of society.

Power of the Media

First let us address what media can do that is healthy for the greater society:
° It can create meaningful discussion
° It can educate
° It can inform society culturally
° It can bridge understandings between cultures
° It can enlighten
° It can illicit positive emotional responses
° It can raise important issues or reveal secrets
° It can encourage peace

Let us also address what media can do that is unhealthy for the greater society:
° It can generate negative stereotypes
° It can dumb down its audience
° It can mislead or misrepresent
° It can obfuscate the truth
° It can establish unrealistic or unhealthy expectations
° It can foster ignorance
° It can create a sense of fear or unease
° It can encourage violence

Basically, media can make us smarter or dumber, it can make us optimistic or pessimistic, it can encourage positive behavior or negative behavior.  Media has the power to enrich society for future generations or to dismantle social progress.  Whether or not any individual is aware of this at any moment, we are all being affected either directly or indirectly by the messages being delivered through all media platforms at any given time.  It is a kind of butterfly effect, wherein a message delivered at point A and transmitted through point B will ultimately affect the recipient at point C.  Sometimes the message may take years for the ramifications to be realized, but that does not absolve the creator or dispenser of the message.

There are many general topics that need to be considered before their inclusion in a media product.  These may have a relevant place, depending upon how they are going to be used within context and what the ultimate message taken from them will be.  The end result could be either positive or negative, but the media creator considering these elements must also realize that his or her work may also be removed from context and should therefore have a solid reason for creating it that takes this into consideration. 

A partial list of topics to consider:
° Rape or abuse
° Violence of any sort
° Child sexuality
° Promiscuous behavior
° Drug or alcohol use
° Rude or explicit language
° Simulated illegal behavior
° Explicit illegal behavior
° Unrealistic examples of a "standard of beauty"
° Religious dogma


I think it is important to understand that our society vilifies some things which are (or should be) harmless (such as nudity) while exalting some things which are directly harmful (such as violence).  One could easily understand that the only reason nudity is dangerous is because it is repressed, therefore it illicits more desire or a stronger reaction than it would if it were more acceptable.  Additionally, nudity is only sexualized as a concept because it is considered so dangerous.  However, the depiction of a healthy, loving sexual relationship potentially provides a positive role model.   The same argument cannot be made for depictions of violence.  Violent imagery is often created for the shear purpose of titillation, with the apparent support of society at large.  Yet such depictions of violence have only served to desensitize people to the effects of real violence, making it easier for them to commit violent acts in the real world.

Looking at the above list, the various topics should be examined to learn how or why they may be incorporated into a media project in a worthwhile fashion. 

Rape or abuse: The litmus test here is the titillation factor.  Is the offender being portrayed in a manner glorifying his or her actions?  Is the offender appearing to be a stronger and therefore more desirable character?  Is there a context within which to understand the offender's actions?  While these questions must be considered, the actual presentation of the act must be examined.  An act of rape is a horrific violation — if it is presented in a manner which reduces the victim to a sex object for the viewer (or reader), that creates a situation where the consumer of the media is identifying positively with the violator and therefor breaking a boundary between a healthy and respectful perspective that abuse is bad and the unhealthy perspective that maybe it's okay sometimes.  Perhaps the larger danger looming here is that such representations of this behavior may actually desensitize the audience with regard to the violence and violation.  Such desensitization leads to a willingness to turn the other way rather than confront the crime, it also creates a framework from which victims may be more likely to accept their abuse.  In a way, mainstream media has been grossly irresponsible with regard to the the sexualization of abuse: whether it is the vocabulary of hip-hop music, slasher movies or fashion spreads, not to mention the bottom-feeders of reality television, young girls are fed a diet of misinformation that they should be complacent in order to be desirable or popular.  One need look no further than the "Twilight" movie franchise to see sexy and appealing tutorials on how to be an enabler in an abusive relationship.

Violence:  Physical and mental violence are often the driving force in drama, and certainly offer a visceral way for an audience to connect to the action of a story.  Glamorizing violence becomes a tenuous exercise, whether in the vein of "Scarface," "Natural Born Killers" or the plethora of horror franchises populated with under-developed characters being led to the slaughter on the movie side, even if the end result is supposed to be an indictment of a violent lifestyle.  Too often the message is lost because the delivery melds into pop culture, segments getting removed from context, or the product itself aspires to be considered "cool."  Novels tend to force violence into the greater context of their narrative, but there is plenty of short fiction and so-called documentary reporting that exists for little reason beyond stimulation.  In many ways, violence is the more acceptable pornography, readily available for consumption, freely handed over to young males with spiking testosterone levels.  Gone, however, are the days of violence being hard to watch — it seems like the violence and gore on television at the start of the second decade of the 21st century exceed what was available in R-rated films just ten or twenty years earlier.  While that may not be entirely true, it is safe to say that violence has become much more acceptable in all forms of media since "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" ushered in the "need" for the PG-13 rating.  Hollywood cannot ignore a moneymaker, and an R-rating would have cut the profits from that sequel dramatically, so the PG-13 rating had to be conceived to allow an ostensibly R-rated kids' movie to get released as it was rather than simply edit out two minutes of unnecessary film.  The PG-13 rating was heinous trickery and ushered in a slew of overtly violent (though often bloodless) movies that could be targeted directly at children without recourse.  After a few years, however, "Terminator 2" managed the unthinkable: to target an R-rated movie almost exclusively at fourteen year old boys.  It wasn't really unthinkable, of course, because audiences had been desensitized enough that no one blinked and "T2" became a huge blockbuster.  Meanwhile, legitimate films with heady moral lessons that refused to glamorize their sex and violence were slapped with tougher and tougher ratings, culminating in the brazen but non-explicit "Bad Lieutenant" getting an NC-17 rating in 1992 while R-rated fare such as "Reservoir Dogs" began showcasing Tarantino's obsession with violence as beauty and comic gag, "Basic Instinct" made the probable killer and sex object pointlessly interchangeable, and Steven Segal brought a new level of sadism to his "heroics" in "Under Siege."  The bottom line, the only entry from this list that would turn the viewer off of violence was the openly moral tale from "Bad Lieutenant," whereas violence was merely a turn-on in the others.  The worst of the bunch, the ludicrous "Under Siege," actually placed its "hero" in a position to be respected for gleefully going overboard in his lustful but supposedly justified killings.  Whether the cartoonish nature of over-the-top violence is more detrimental than a realistic scene where someone is slapped around remains to be seen, but there are plenty of characters doing that in film and television without repercussion, and the results for the viewers are always going to be cumulative.

Child Sexuality:  Nowhere is this a more prevalent issue than in tween-oriented product.  The Disney Channel and it's shows like "Hannah Montana" and others appear very chaste on the surface and in fact never involve any sexual interaction, but they are sometimes rife with innuendo and certainly style their lead characters in glamorous and "sexy" outfits that are befitting much older characters.  Ever since the rise of Madonna in the music scene of the 80s, younger kids, especially younger girls, have tried to emulate the fashions that they think are popular or "hot."  Oftentimes this means dressing in highly suggestive clothing whether the kid wearing it realizes this or not.  Watching a video of six and seven year old girls dancing around in suggestive costumes to the song "All the Single Ladies" during some competition immortalized for the world on YouTube drives home the disconnect that so many people appear to have.  These are children.  They are not meant to be sexy to anyone.  They have not even approached puberty yet.  Let them be kids.  Instead, we live in a world that even post-JonBenet Ramsey still has people who insist on treating their little girls like fashion dolls.  Beauty contests for children still force their contestants to parade around in bathing suit competitions, which serves no conceivable purpose beyond forcing a little girl to learn how to please others as a subservient object.  Such events are little more than training platforms for these kids, but it is a lesson that may not serve their best interests or their future safety.  While I have nothing against beauty contests for adults aside from their innate pointlessness, I believe that they should be reserved for adults or at least that the types or style of competition remain "age appropriate."  The subjective nature of this has changed severely over the past fifty years, one might think based upon the images we find on television and in progressively younger music acts whose album covers and music videos portray seductiveness at virtually any age.  Of course, it does not hurt to remind us that Shirley Temple was sold on sex appeal and radiated an adult charm in her "harmless" flirtations with leading men in her movies.  In fact, there were sexy nymphets in the silent film era, so this is nothing exactly new.  What is new, however, is the overt nature of the sexuality being presented by teen, tween and pre-teen actors, musicians and models.  It is not a question of whether the film "Lolita" or its literary source go too far in expounding upon the sexuality of a young girl — it is a question of fostering an attitude in society that young girls ought to aspire to create sexual longings in older men, much less boys, before they are of an age where they would naturally feel compelled to do this for themselves.

Promiscuous behavior, Drug or alcohol use Rude or explicit language, Simulated illegal behavior and Explicit illegal behavior:  These items seem fairly obvious.  The film industry has taken it at least partially upon itself to police the occurrences of cigarette smoking in movies and television.  There are rules about drinking alcohol on network TV, use of profanity and certain other activities.  However, it seems there are no rules on vulgarity, especially with regard to comedy shows.  It could be argued that there is a decided lack of "class" in our society today as a result of the anything goes mentality of rude, vulgar, promiscuous and often just plain stupid behavior put forth in the name of comedy.  While some of it may be outright funny and occasionally have an intelligent and meaningful point behind it (such as in "There's Something About Mary"), crassness tends to take the lead and overshadow any underlying themes.  The introduction of more obviously crass, lowbrow humor has led to a proliferation of junk from "Jackass" down to "Three and a Half Men," where fart jokes reign supreme and a  masters course could be taught in idiocy.  It is no surprise that these types of programs have been popular: our media has been working hard to dumb everyone down for many years because it makes it easier to sell to a wider audience.  The sad truth is that bad behavior sells.  And the wider it sells, the more acceptable it becomes.  Beyond that, the behavior becomes mandatory as emulation leads to expectation.  It is not a far stretch to suggest that our media is breeding petty criminals, addicts and jerks.  At the very least, our media is a breeding ground for too many reality show aspirants, people who act as though they are participating in one of their favorite shows about losers even when there are no cameras rolling.  Series like "The Hills" or "The Jersey Shore" may seem like they are worlds apart, but they share the common denominator of showcasing people who do not deserve either our attention or our respect, yet these programs insist on glamorizing their subjects and turning them into hollow celebrities.

Unrealistic examples of a "standard of beauty":  While this is a constant staple of daytime talk shows on television, these same programs are filled with the type of advertising that undoes their message, however cynically presented.  It is true that there are disproportionate numbers of young women and girls with eating disorders as a result of body image issues that are tied somewhat to media imagery.  And though this issue has been highlighted more aggressively in recent years the reaction from the media has often been to create ever more unrealistic or unattainable images.  Computer manipulation creates "perfection" that is simply unnatural.  Celebrity use of plastic surgery is commonplace and the practices more accessible to younger patients.  And our media generally celebrates this "beauty" as it totally ignores the prospect of inner-beauty that is unfortunately non-visual and therefore harder to sell.

Religious (and political) dogma:  This one is more insidious than the others in the way it can help foster hate and fear, as with the Christian Conservative Right and their political messages.  Media plays a strong role in enabling, creating and decimating these messages.  Certainly there are many religious topics and ideas that can be presented in a positive and socially beneficial manner.  But dogma, by its very nature, is oppressive and can subtly influence many aspects of a person's life.  Without dogma, there are no religious hate crimes.  Dogma actually creates conflict between belief systems and forces perspective changes upon formerly objective information.  In news publications and broadcasts it is easy to pinpoint how "spin" effects the flavor of the news, whether it instills fear or hope or neither.  Fear sells, that is an unfortunately accepted part of the news business.  And our media embraces this understanding, generating a fearful populace as much as possible in order to sell papers, magazines and television programming.  When the mind is frightened it is also somewhat less rational, which allows for the absorption of dogmatic ideals, even if only temporarily.  This can be seen in any example from modern history where a country has pushed toward war.  The media creates the environment for war to be acceptable, then obligatory, even if it involves being at war with a country's own people.  On a lesser, but more common note, messages sway individual actions and even minor cues can lead toward major actions in the susceptible.  A media producer or creator must understand what he or she is capable of and weigh the results of pushing particular buttons.  Whether an unintentionally inspired hate crime results or a completely intentional attack transpires is only a matter of degrees.

There is still room for all of these things, inside of some reasonable context.  One cannot create truly philosophical works if one is limited in terms of subjects on which to ruminate.  However, even keeping in mind commercial considerations (as we all strive to profit from what we create), there must be a way to balance profit with responsibility.  There is no excuse for forcing inappropriate imagery upon an audience that does not want it.  There is no excuse for polluting the psyche of a developing mind.  Unfortunately, especially in urban centers, there is virtually no way to prevent a child from media exposure.  So the media itself must take some part in cultivating an environment that is going to foster a positive society without reducing our freedom of expression.  Although we are all free to say hurtful things, most people will generally think better of it most of the time.  It isn't about being censored, it's just about biting one's tongue at the appropriate time and being a constructive member of a community.  Media producers, creators and distributors need to act the same way.

Does media need tighter regulation?

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      For the love of God, keep writing these arcielts.

    • Jeffrey Poehlmann profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Poehlmann 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      I just stumbled across this essay, which quotes the work on this page:

      It's always a nice surprise to discover that you have been quoted as a respectable source.

    • profile image

      Jimmy Jam 

      7 years ago

      Okay, at first I thought I was reading something by a conservative whacko, then I got to wondering if this was just liberal gibberish gone wild... but by the end I was thinking, okay, this is just reasoned thinking. Imagine that. It makes sense and I am totally re-evaluating how I let my kids experience the media around them. I'm sure as heck going to talk to them about everything they see on TV.


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