Reflections of American media violence
On Wednesday I visited an Austrian grade school in a town called Neustift, a ski-resort town 20 minutes outside of Innsbruck. I helped a teacher at the school present American mass media and film to a group of 12- and 13-year-old girls. (A lone boy sat quietly on the far side of the classroom.)
After the initial introductions we discussed American television, in particular the countless news programs that keep Americans informed. We then asked the students to create their own news program and to perform the show in front of the class.
The first presentation featured the murder of Monica Lewinsky by former President Bill Clinton. The anchors of the second group narrated the shooting of a teacher in New York by an American boy whose hatred of math motivated his actions.
Initially, the students' inquiries into the English words for murder and gun surprised me. I had not expected violent ideas to come from the mouths of adolescents around the same age as my sister. However, their imaginary shows simply imitated the programs that they watch each day on Austrian and American channels like CNN.
The activity also highlighted the students' conception of the United States and evidenced the increasing presence of violence in the classroom in both Austria and the United States. News programs and American cop television series have led many Austrians to liken American city streets to war zones. Movies laden with crime and drugs also contribute greatly to this impression. With the world-wide coverage of the recent school shootings, American classrooms have also developed a similar reputation.
I questioned both the teacher with whom I worked at the school, Mr. Wolfgang Bilewicz, and my advanced language professor at Innsbruck, Professor Sylvia Mayr, who also teaches at a local school, concerning their reaction to the recent school shootings and the presence of violence in Austrian schools.
Neither was shocked by the news of another school shooting in the United States. Both linked the violent actions of the young perpetrators to the easy availability of guns in the United States. Unlike many Americans, Austrians do not associate the possession of a gun with freedom and therefore have no understanding of the free flow of arms throughout American cities.
Weapon laws in Austria make the acquisition of a gun incredibly difficult. Citizens must first register with the police and present reason for obtaining a weapon. Most guns are generally owned only for occupational purposes.
A difference in culture helps to explain the European conception of American cities. As Professor Mayr explained, in Austria the topic of crime remains taboo. Discussions concerning sex in the public forum and the confrontation of sexual ideas in advertisements and other media occur frequently in everyday life.
In America and in American films crime exists as a drama open for public portrayal and discussion. Sex remains taboo. This reversal undoubtedly heightens the impact of the violence that the Austrian students view in movies and sitcoms and perhaps leads them to imitate the actions of the personalities, real and fictitious, in the media.
While an actual shooting in an Austrian school has occurred on only one or two occasions, Professor Mayr noted an increase in harsh verbal language and in instances of Austrian students bringing toy guns and gas pistols to school. The prevalence of conflicts between native Austrian gangs and groups of Turkish immigrants has also elevated in recent years.
The increasing presence of violence in Austrian schools leads to the ongoing debate concerning the mass media. Do the news programs on CNN simply report reality that movies and television in turn imitate? Or do the news shows, through their designation of stories to report, create a reality whose truth film and television then support?
In Innsbruck and the surrounding communities, students do not experience violent crimes, particularly those involving guns, as part of their daily lives. The children's conception of murders and shootings derives from their depiction in the media. Gas-pistol wielding students here undoubtedly imitate television and film.
As I listened to the students' news programs, I was forced to confront the effect of the subject of my discussion, the American mass media, on their mentalities and ideas. I wondered to what extent the media has made the children accustomed to the idea of crime — an entity to which they should not be desensitized, since they do not experience it in their daily lives. I considered the harm to which that desensitization might lead in the future.
Yet at the same time Americans and Austrians cannot ignore the crime that does occur on city streets. They cannot disregard violent actions and deny their existence in the public forum. A solution does not follow the ignorance of a problem. And so the final question stands: Can the media address violent crime publicly without fostering it?
Joanna Mikulski is a sophomore who is currently spending the year in Innsbruck, Austria. Her column appears every other Friday.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, March 30, 2001