Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Games, violence, money and the criteria of news
Galtung and Ruge wrote one of the most cited articles in media theory: Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge,"The Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers," Journal of Peace Research 2 (1965): 64-91. In this article they make a list of criteria for foreign news, and prove that the media work after these criteria when selecting news. Since then there have been a lot of different lists of news criteria, some created by researchers studying the news, some by the different newsdesks in order to ease the work of selecting "the good bits" from the stream of information flooding a desk every day, 24 hours a day.

One of the main points of Galtung and Ruge was that once a topic is over the threshold - once it is accepted as "good news" - it remains interesting.

We see this in the way media treat media panics. By now every researcher who actually know something about media theory also knows that blaming violence on the media is a too simple solution, and the connection is impossible to prove as a general rule, only under some special circumstances. There are some connections between the use of violent content in media and the tendency to use violence to the extent that people who already have chosen violence as the main problem solver will prefer violent content, and in some instances use it as an instruction manual. Thus you get the copies of fiction violence. When the karate kid movies were at the most popular in Norway, we had a period when people getting into fights in bars and country dances would kick rather than use fists, knives or bottles. This was considered very bad, as it was easier to get seriously hurt from a kick, and soon they returned to the more traditional ways and used their fists or various blunt instruments. (English marines training in Norway will use their heads, by the way, a style of drunken fighting that is not traditionally Norwegian, and it causes much grievance and outrage among the locals. Even brawls have a culture.)

Media reporters do not have this kind of understanding of the mechanisms of choosing news stories. To them the techniques of selecting a good story is rarely questioned. Or if it is, the question is: will this sell? And they know that a certain set of topics will sell, such as this, the description of a program on swedish television 4:

21:00 Dödligt spel
Svensk dokumentär från 2004. En genomsnittlig tonåring som spelar dataspel under sin uppväxt har genomfört uppåt tiotusen mord när han blir vuxen. En del av sina offer har han halshuggit, styckat, förnedrat och torterat. Om och om igen. Och varje gång har han belönats rikligt. Kan dataspel vara farligt? Kan barn bli mördare av att spela dataspel? Dokumentären tar med tittarna på en resa i dataspelens konstgjorda värld. Världsledande forskare presenterar sina senaste rön om hur dataspel påverkar den mänskliga hjärnan och resultaten är häpnadsväckande. Dessutom blir det ett besök bakom kulisserna hos världens största dataspelstillverkare.

The translation of the first sentences: "Lethal game. Swedish dokumentary from 2004. An average teen-ager who plays computer games while growing up will have gone through with approximately ten thousand murders when he's an adult. Some of his victims he will have beheaded, cut in pieces, humiliated and tortured. Over and over again. And he will be rewarded richly every time. Can computer games be dangerous? Can children become murderers from playing computer games?"

This description puts the documentary right into the middle of a media created and media maintained terror of a new medium. This fear of new media is well above the treshold of news. Television had to battle it. comics have been through it. Videomachines were sent by the devil and would cause chain-saw massacres in every home. Now the games and gamers get it. So why this terror of the new medium? I don't think it has much to do with the concern to protect the weak and feeble-minded potential murderers out there. This is all about money.

Television is one of the media which has the most to lose, as statistics show that games take time away not from people's reading , but from their "screen-time". The decline was an average of 10 minutes a day from 2001 - 2002 according to the Norwegian media barometer, but say 4 mill. times 10 minutes times 365 days, and that is a lot of money to television companies! An other matter the swedish documentary points at is childhood obesity. Interestingly enough, research has connected childhood obesity not so much with computer games as with all sedentary media habits, particularly television. Decreasing television viewing by an hour a day has more effect than increasing physical activity, because it also reduces exposure to commercials. The coke-swilling, hamburger-gobbling habits that the swedish activist blame video games for, are according to this research created by television and commercials, and maintained by the sedentary lifestyle learned in front of the screen.

Of course television have an interest in supressing this kind of information, and placing the blame somewhere else. And because new media are always above the treshold of media interest, and because media panics and moral panics are so easy to maintain and so easy to make people understand, making computer games the new big bad wolf is not just an economically strategic move, but also a very easy one. Activists trying to protect their children from the new evil will happily show up in television to be interviewed, fund research to confirm their fears and of course, make outrageous statements and claims that will push the rating back up - at least for a little while.

I will not be able to see the program in question Wednesday, but I expect it will be sent in Norway in not too long. Perhaps they have found some research I do not know about, that connects the dots and makes this entire rant meaningless. Until then, some statistics on media use, health and children:
From medialiteracy.com
From the Norwegian media barometer (in norwegian)
Culture, media and time use in Finland
Internet use In Canada
While media statistics in Palestine is concerned with totally different issues.

And the link that triggered this whole long rant came from Dennis.

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