Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Visual Media Undermines Basic Values

June 25, 2007

"In the ongoing saga of Western Civilization, declines continue to lead advances by a wide margin." - Caption from a cartoon

What do you think? Has the quality of moral life advanced or declined to the past few decades? According to the National Cultural Values Survey, a major study of American cultural and moral values, most Americans think so.

The survey, conducted by the respected polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates in December, 2006, drew responses from more than 2000 Americans aged 18 and above. To view the report, go to www.cultureandmediainstitute.org/specialreports.

The study, commissioned by the Culture and Media Institute, finds that large majorities of every significant demographic category of American adults believe the media are harming the nation’s moral values.

The first section of this CMI Special Report, The Media Assault on American Values, describes how 74 percent of Americans believe the nation’s moral values have declined over the past twenty years, and large majorities hold the media responsible for contributing to that decline.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans agree the media have a negative impact on moral values in this country. 73 percent feel that the entertainment industry contributes to the negative impact on moral values while only 7 percent feel the entertainment industry has a positive impact.

Most Americans blame the news media as well. 54 percent of Americans believe the news media have a negative impact on moral values in this country. Only 11 percent say the news media have a positive impact.

The power of visual imagery. A big difference between twenty years ago and now is the amount of visual imagery and stimulation that impact people's lives.

The images from photography, cinema, videocassette, interactive games, DVD’s, and television affect us directly, in an immediate way, that the printed word cannot. Nothing is left to the imagination or to the screening process of thought.

Television is entertainment. TV is escapist. It has the power to transport, delight and divert.

The visual media of TV, music videos and movies portray values of glamour, fitness, youth, power, freedom, eroticism and violence. These values subtly undermine traditional values of family, religion and culture. It is politically correct and fashionable to be inclusive, open-minded, non-judgmental and tolerant. Attempts to talk about right or wrong, moral truths and virtue are seen as squelching free speech and imposing values on others.

The average TV viewer is exposed to more than 9,000 scenes of suggested sexual intercourse, sexual comment or innuendo a year. On prime time, there is a sexual reference every nine minutes.

Direct and indirect sexual references jumped exponentially. Sex on television and in the movies is several times more likely to take place between unmarried partners than between married couples.

Negative values and situations portrayed. In commenting on this survey, media critic Michael Medved said, "Television news and televised entertainment both contribute to a sense that we live in a dark, dysfunctional, alarming world....

"By the same token, television demands constant reminders of bad news and conflict. News broadcasts ("If it bleeds, it leads") rely on violence, crime, natural disasters, scary prospects, horrifying epidemics, economic setbacks, and ecological terrors. Reassuring realities – about the steady progress for rich and poor alike, in every corner of the globe – never make it to TV reports, nor do wholesome, ordinary, functional families command much attention in media entertainments."

Medved continues, "The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy began ‘Anna Karenina’ with the wise, unforgettable declaration: ‘All happy families are the same, but unhappy families are different in dramatic and compelling ways.’ In other words, novels and sitcoms, movies and reality shows, seldom focus on normal, productive, stable, loving family units where the members obey the law, love their country and pay their taxes."

Morality gets lost amid antisocial depictions. Plots need a point and counterpoint. Popular story telling takes the side of the white hats against the dark hats, human goodness pitted against demonic evil. Writers inject salty language, sexual tension, graphic violence and voyeurism to create excitement and drama.

The antisocial elements - the glut of violence, sex and bad language - have great entertainment power. The antisocial incidents rival and overpower the underlying moral content of the shows in their ability to impact the viewers. Moral messages get lost amid the graphic and compelling depictions of evil.

Media effects debated. Media producers want it both ways. They dress up their products in alluring sexuality or riveting violence to sell to the public. Then they react in feigned innocence when the connection is made between what people see and what people do.

They endorse visual arts, literature and music as having great power to move people to think and act. Then they retreat to a position that what they show is harmless fantasy incapable of affecting anyone or anybody.

Through visual media, images are brought to our common consciousness that would not generally be there. What we used to call unusual, abnormal or immoral, we now call lifestyle and options. Instead of morality, we have moral relativity. The American public knows it - and doesn’t like it.