The Representation of Violence In The Media

Many of the issues surrounding the violence in the media debate arise not from what is represented but how it is represented. Media-makers have many choices when it comes to representing an event, or the aftermath of that event, and critics of violent media say that it is the manner of representation which can have a bad effect on a viewer. Violent actions can be represented as cool, glamorous, easy, or justified, thus inspiring copycat behaviour. Violence can be gratuitous and overemphasised, with the effects of cultivation or desensitisation. Victims and perpetrators of violence can be depicted in a manner (eg the victim a young and beautiful woman)which reinforces stereotypes. Therefore media-makers must take a certain amount of responsibility for the way in which they show violence - and, some say, responsibility for its subsequent effects.

Technical Codes

There are several key technical codes which affect very powerfully the way that violence is represented.

Music — music can change the mood of the visuals - can suggest pain, or triumph, or connote justification, or humour.

Sound Effects — extra (or lessened) sound can enhance the meaning of a scene - extra gunshots, squishing heads etc. The work of the foley artist is very important in tweaking scenes in film post production, and much time is spent developing the sound effects for computer games.

Camera Angles — emphasis and power can be given to certain characters through the use of low angles. Victim status can be increased through high angles. Sympathy can be generated for any character if the camera continually takes their POV. Which end of the barrel of the gun are the audience looking down? This is particularly important in computer games, where the audience nearly always identifies with the perpetrator of violence.

Editing — the pace and style of editing can have a large impact on the way in which a text is read by an audience. Editing can give emphasis to a moment by holding a particular shot, or create enigma by cutting quickly to the next one.

Slo-mo — Violent acts are usually swift ones, of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. Onscreen, a punch, or a stab, or an explosion, or the firing of a gun can be telescoped out in time, the event of a split second made to linger on the eyeball for much longer. This emphasises the moment, while at the same time detracting from its reality, and often taking away the sense of danger and confusion that would surround such a moment in real life. The extension of violent moments is the source of viewing pleasure (and the basis of films like The Matrix or 300) as it allows us to see what we could not in reality, allows us to see inside the violence and look at what really happens when a gun goes off. Advanced photography techniques can allow film-makers to work with 12,000 frames per second (as opposed to the usual 24) so they can totally re-present time, to dramatic effect.

Look at this battle scene from 300 that uses a range of techniques described above.

Realism and Violence

'Realism' in media describes a particular style of representation which aims to record reality and present it to the audience with a minimum of interference and editing. Stylistically, this involves long takes and deep focus shots (where a lot of action can take place without a changing camera perspective), and editing which avoids montage or constant cross cutting between shots. Realism is aimed for in media because 'real' implies authentic, believable.

Onscreen violence can be criticised for being represented unrealistically. It can also be criticised for being too realistic. With advances in technology, the realism present in computer games and film special effects is increasing all the time, and therefore the way in which violence is depicted can become (media-makers still make choices)increasingly realistic. The opening of Saving Private Ryan is a good example of a text aiming for total realism (Spielberg followed shot for shot some of the news footage obtained by WW2 war photographers) - yet it is still edited, with sound effects dubbed in. And of course, as it is a fictional text, none of the violence is real. So it does not have real consequences, and we, the audience, watch it safe in the knowledge that no one really got hurt.