American Academy of Political and Social Science Death in Prime Time: Notes on the Symbolic Functions of Dying in the Mass Media Author(s): George Gerbner Reviewed work(s): Source: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 447, The Social Meaning of Death (Jan. , 1980), pp. 64-70 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/1042304 . Accessed: 02/01/2012 20:34 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . ttp://www. jstor. org/page/info/about/policies/terms. jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] org. Sage Publications, Inc. and American Academy of Political and Social Science are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. ttp://www. jstor. org ANNALS,AAPSS, 447, January 1980 Death in Prime Time: Notes on the Symbolic Functions of Dying in the Mass Media By GEORGEGERBNER ABSTRACT: The cultural (and media) significance of dying rests in the symbolic context in which representations of dying are embedded. An examination of that context of mostly violent suggests that portrayals of death and dying representations functions of social typing and control and tend, serve symbolic of on the whole, to conceal the reality and inevitability the event.
George Gerbner is Professor of Communications and Dean of The Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. He is a principal investigator, along with Larry Gross and Nancy Signorielli, also of The Annenberg School, in the Cultural Indicators research project studying television drama and viewer conceptions of social reality. He has been principal investigator on international and U. S. projectsfunded by the National Science Foundation, U. S.
Office of Education, UNESCO, the International Sociological Association, the National Institute of Mental Health, The Surgeon General's Scientific advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, the American Medical Association, the HEW's Administration on Aging, and other agencies. He is editor of the Journal of Communication, and a volume on Mass Media Policies in Changing Cultures. 64 DEATH IN PRIME TIME 65 D YINGin the massmedia-both news and entertainment (a distinction increasingly hard to make) -has a symbolic function different from death in real life but investing life itself-with it-and particular meanings.
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We can begin to consider what these might be by reflecting on the nature of representation. A symbol system is an artifact par excellence. It is totally invented to serve human purposes. It can serve these purposes only if those interpreting it know the code and can fit it into a symbolic context of their own. They must share the rules of the invention and the interpretative strategies by which it should be understood. Symbolic narrative, a story, has two basic elements of invention: fictive and selective. Selective invention is factual narrative such as news.
Presumably true events (facts) are selected from an endless stream of events. A narrative is invented to convey some meaning about the selected facts as interpreted in a previously learned framework of knowledge. Fictive invention is fiction and drama; the "facts" are invented as well as the narrative. (Selection is of course involved in both. ) The function of fictive invention is to illuminate (literally to embody and dramatize) the invisible structure and dynamics of the significant connections of human life. It is to show how things work.
Invention that can only select events but not create them must be more opaque; it can only show what things are but rarely why or how they work. The full development of the connections between events and human motivations and powers requires the freedom and legitimacy to invent the "facts" in a way that illuminates the otherwise hidden dynamics of existence. In this totally invented world of and fictivesymbols-selective without some purnothing happens pose and function (which need not be the same). Let us use as example the world of television which we have studied for some years. This discussion also applies to other media and cultural forms, with the difference that television is the generally non-selectively used universal storyteller of modern society. It is, therefore, more a symbolic environment than a traditional medium. People are not born into the world of television. They are selected or created for a purpose. The purpose is usefulness to the symbolic world (called news values or story values) that the producing institutions and their patrons find useful for their purposes.
More numerous in both news and drama are those for whom that world has more uses-jobs, power, adventure, sex, youth, and all other opportunities in life. These values are distributed in the symbol system as most resources are distributed in the society whose dominant institutions produce most of the symbols: according to status and power. Dominant social groups tend to be overrepresented and overendowed not only absolutely but also in relation to their numbers in the real population. (For example, men outnumber women at least three to one in television and most media content. Minorities are defined by having 1. The long-range project was first described in my article on "Cultural Indicators: The Case of Violence in Television Drama" in the Annals, Vol. 388, March 1970. The most recent report, including a description of methodology, appears in George Gerbner, Larry Gross, Nancy Signorielli, Michael Morgan, and Marilyn Jackson-Beeck, "The Demonstration of Power: Violence Profile No. 10," Journal of Communication, vol. 29 (Summer 1979). 66 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY less than their proportionate share of values and resources.
In the world of television news and drama, this means lower underrepresentation numbers, less usefulness, fewer opportunities, more victimization (or "criminalization"), more restricted scope of action, more stereotyped roles, diminished life chances, and general undervaluation ranging from relative neglect to symbolic annihilation. DEATH IN NEWS AND DRAMA Death in such a context is just another invented characterization, a negative resource, a sign of fatal flaw or ineptitude, a punishment for sins or mark of tragedy.
It is always a reminder of the risks of life, cultivating most anxiety and dependence for those who are depicted as most at risk. In other words, death is one feature of the more general functions of social typing and control. Obituaries are the Social Register of the middle class. Even a "nobody" of modest status and power (i. e. a person of no symbolic existence in the common culture) becomes a "somebody" if the flicker of his or her (and it's mostly his) life can leave its final symbolic mark of existence in the obituary column.
Death in the news is a tightly scripted scenario of violence and terror. Murders, accidents, "body counts" and catastrophies scatter a surfeit of impersonal corpses in ghoulish symbolic overkill across the pages of our family newspapers and television screens. By the time we grow up, we are so addicted to this necromania of our culture (and we are not alone), that its constant daily cultivation seems to add to a morbid sense of normalcy. Yet it is all well (if unwittingly) calculated to cultivate a sense of insecurity, anxiety, fear of the "mean world" out there, and ependence on some strong protector. It is the modern equivalent of the bloody circuses in the Roman empire's "bread and circuses" that were supposed to keep the populace quiescent. At the center of the symbolic structure of death is the world of stories invented to show how things and drama. The most work-fiction massive and universal flow of stories in modern society (and history) is of course television drama, most of it produced according to the industrial formulas developed to assemble large audiences and sell them to advertisers at the least cost.
That is a world in which practically no one ever dies a natural death. Assembly-line drama generally denies the inevitable reality of death and affirms its stigmatic character. Violent death, on the other hand, befalls 5 percent of all prime time dramatic characters every week, with about twice as many killers (many of whom also get killed) stalking the world of prime time. The symbolic function of death in the world of television is thus embedded in its structure of violence, which is essentially a show of force, the ritualistic demonstration of power. THE STRUCTURE OF VIOLENCEAND POWER
Dominated as it is by males and masculine values, much of the world of prime time revolves around questions of power. Who can get away with what against whom? How secure are different social types when confronted with conflict and danger? What hierarchies of risk and vulnerability define social relations? In other words, how power works in society. The simplest and cheapest dramatic DEATH IN PRIME TIME 67 demonstration of power is an overt expression of physical force compelling action against one's will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing.
That is the definition of violence used in our studies of television drama. Violence rules the symbolic world of television. It occurs at an average 10-year rate of 5 violent incidents per hour in prime time and 18 per hour in weekend daytime children's programming-a triple dose. Violence as a demonstration of power can be measured by relating the percent of violents to the percent of victims within each social group. That ratio shows the chances of men and women, blacks and whites, young and old, to come out on top instead of on the bottom.
Conversely, it shows the risks of each group to end up as victims instead of victors. Table 1 is a summary of these "risk ratios" based on annual samples of prime time and weekend daytime (children's) programs major dramatic characters, a total of 3,949, from 1969 through 1978. It shows for each of several demographic and dramatic groups the ratio of violents over victims (including killing) and of only killers over killed (or the other way around) within each group. It also shows the percent of characters in each group involved in any violence as either violents or victims (or both).
For example, of the 415 children and adolescent characters studied, 60. 5 percent (65. 0 percent males and 49. 1 percent females) were involved in violence. Of the males, victims outnumbered violents by 1. 69 but killers outnumbered killed by 3. 00. In other words, for every 10 child and adolescent violents there were about 17 victims, but for every 10 killed there were 30 killers in that group of characters. Overall, 63 percent of all characters were involved in some violence. For every 10 violents there were 12 victims, but for every 10 killed there were 19 killers.
However, as we have just seen, involvement in violence and its outcome-as with values and resources-is not randomly distributed. Some features of the distribution of violence as a demonstration of power can be illustrated by selecting a few risk ratios from the Table, showing how these victimization rates define a hierarchy of risks within which the depiction of dying (and killing) is embedded. A hierarchy of risks Combining prime time and daytime characters, we find that victimization rates define a social hierarchy of risks and vulnerabilities.
For every 10 characters who commit violence within each of the following groups the average number of victims for white men is ................. nonwhite men is ............. lower class women is ......... young women is ............. nonwhite women is .......... old women is ................ 12 13 17 18 18 33 If and when involved in violence, women and minorities, and especially young and old as well as minority women characters, are the most vulnerable. Now let us look at dying (and its dramatic counterpart, killing) in that context.
We can compute a lethal pecking order by relating the number of killers to the number of killed within each group. Unlike violence in general, killing eliminates a character and must be used more sparingly, either as curtain-raiser or as the "final solution. " Therefore, in most role categories, there are more killers than killed. "Good" men, the TABLE 1 RISK RATIOS': MAJOR CHARACTERS IN ALL PROGRAMS (1969-197 ALL CHARACTERS INVOLVED IN VIOLENCE VIOLENTVICTIM RATIO KILLERKILLED RATIO MALE CHARACTERS INVOLVED IN VIOLENCE VIOLENTVICTIM RATIO K N N
All Characters Social Age Children-Adolescents Young Adults Settled Adults Elderly Marital Status Not Married Married Class Clearly Upper Mixed Clearly Lower Race White Other Character Type "Good" Mixed "Bad" Nationality U. S. Other 3949 415 813 2212 106 1873 987 269 3549 131 3087 360 2304 1093 550 3100 264 63. 3 60. 5 64. 5 59. 8 47. 2 65. 6 45. 5 59. 5 63. 4 69. 5 60. 1 55. 0 58. 4 61. 4 88. 0 58. 1 73. 5 -1. 20 -1. 60 -1. 36 -1. 12 -1. 15 -1. 23 -1. 27 -1. 38 -1. 19 -1. 25 -1. 19 -1. 33 -1. 29 -1. 22 1. 00 -1. 20 -1. 31 +1. 90 +3. 00 +2. 00 +2. 07 -1. 75 +1. 90 +1. 67 +1. 50 +2. 07 -1. 11 +1. 97 +1. 69 +2. 93 +1. 3 +1. 84 +2. 06 +1. 31 2938 297 539 1698 80 1374 626 182 2650 106 2235 280 1659 807 471 2263 203 68. 4 65. 0 69. 6 65. 7 50. 0 69. 7 52. 9 67. 6 68. 3 73. 6 65. 1 61. 1 63. 7 65. 8 89. 4 63. 2 80. 8 -1. 18 -1. 69 -1. 23 -1. 12 +1. 07 -1. 18 -1. 27 -1. 26 -1. 17 -1. 20 -1. 16 -1. 27 -1. 24 -1. 21 -1. 01 -1. 16 -1. 29 + + + + + + + + - + + + + + + + 1Risk Ratios are obtained by dividing the more numerous of these two roles by the less numerous within eac violents or killersthan victims or killed and a minus sign indicates that there are more victims or killed than violent victimsor killersor violents or killed.
A +0. 00 ratio means that there were some violents or killersbut no victims or k killed but no violents or killers. DEATH IN PRIME TIME 69 male heroes of prime time drama, are at the top of the killing order. For every 10 "good" men killed, there are 38 "good" men killers. Next are young men and American men; for every 10 young males killed, there are 22 young male and American male killers. The killed-killer ratio of all white males is only slightly lower: 21 killers for every 10 white males killed.
In other words, if and when involved in some fatal violence on prime time television, "good," young, American and white males are the most likely to be the killers instead of the killed. They kill in a good cause to begin with or are the most powerful, or both. Women do not fare so well. Their most favorable ratio is 20 killers for every 10 killed, and that goes to foreign women. The second highest female kill ratio goes to "bad" women: they kill 17 characters for every 10 "bad" women killed. Next are middleaged women who kill 16 for every 10 killed.
Thus women who tend to kill, kill much less than men, have relatively more lethal power when they are foreign, evil, or past the romantic-lead age, than when they are "good," American, young, and white, as is the case with men. Their killing is more likely to be shown as unjust, irrational, and "alien" than is killing by men. At the very bottom of the lethal pecking order are old women who get involved in violence only to get killed and "good" women who get killed 16 times for every 10 killers. Old and "good" women get into violence mostly as sympathetic (or only pathetic) victims, rousing male heroes to righteous (if lethal) indignation.
Next in line are lower class men, lower class women, and old men. For every ten killers in each group there are, respectively, 11, 10, and 10 killed. Unlike those of greater ability to survive conflict or catastrophy,older and lower class characters pay with their lives for every life they take. Provocation and retribution In general, then, as can be seen on the Table, the pecking order of both mayhem and killing is dominated by men-American white, middle class, and in the prime of life. At the top of the general order of victimizers are "bad" women, old men, and "bad" men, in that order.
The presence of evil at the top of the power hierarchy suggests the dramatic role of villains provoking heroes to violent action. Heading the ranking of killers over killed are "good" and other majority-type males. We can begin to discern not only the provocative role of the "bad" but also the retributive function of the "good" and the strong. Lowest on the dramatic scale are women, lower class, and old people. Of the 20 most victimized groups (both total violence and killing), all but three are women. Old women are at the bottom of the heap of both the battered and the killed. Good"women are among the charactersmost likely to be both general and fatal victims of violence ratherthan the perpetrators. "Good" men have power as indicated by their heading up the killer-killed list; "good" women, on the other hand, end up near the bottom of the power hierarchy. When it comes to violence, "good" are the strong men and the weak women of the world of television. Dying on television is a violent retribution for weakness, sin, or other flaw in character or status. It is part of the social typing and control functions of centralized cultural production.
Our research has found that heavy viewers (compared to light 70 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY viewers in the same social groups) derive from their television experience a heightened sense of danger, insecurity, and mistrust, or what we call the "mean world" syndrome. It can be conjectured that the symbolic functions of dying are part of that syndrome, contributing not only to a structure of power but also to the irrational dread of dying and thus to diminished vitality and self-direction in life.
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