Academics to FCC: Ratings Revamp Must Be Balanced

Say jury still out on causal link between media and violence

More than five dozen professors are sending a letter to the FCC signaling that not all academics are in agreement about the causal link between violent TV content and harm to children and that such a supposition should not drive any potential TV ratings reform.

That was the premise of an earlier joint letter to the commissioners from a different group of professors/researchers calling for TV ratings system reform, arguing that “research has...documented harmful effects of violent content" on children.

Various groups, most prominently the Parents Television Council, are calling for a TV ratings overhaul, including this week with an online petition and a new call for action from the FCC and Congress.

But in a letter that is being sent to the FCC this week, according to one of its co-drafters, a "we are the world" collection of professors from Harvard to Yale to the universities of Adelaide, Rotterdam and Copenhagen are telling the FCC that, while they are OK with examining and improving the ratings system, they don't want it based on "a false scientific premise that may do more to misinform than inform parents and viewers."

"[T]here is a concern that hearings held under false scientific pretenses may result in more problematic ratings than helpful ones," said Christopher Ferguson, of Stetson University, and one of the original drafters of the letter being sent this week.

They take issue with the previous letter's assertion that "[r]esearch has also documented harmful effects of violent content; indeed, this is by far the most thoroughly researched area of media effects.”

Instead, writes the latest group of professors, "although we agree that research into media violence is prolific, we disagree that harmful effects have been well documented.  Increasing evidence has suggested that media violence effects are minimal and are often exaggerated by a vocal group of scholars."

They even go even further, saying that some studies "suggest that the release of violent media corresponds with immediate declines in societal violence."

And while they say that there may be legitimate areas for improvement in the ratings system, and they believe a reevaluation could be a positive step, they say that step must rest on solid research grounds, which they argue is that the results are mixed as to the real-world harms of media world violence.

They said ratings based on the presumption of harm would be invalid given that unclear picture. They also advise that if scientific advisors were to be employed to help revise the system, they must represent all views regarding the effects of media given "difficulties our field too often has in representing our own data clearly and honestly."

Asked who organized the letter, Ferguson responded: "No one in the media industry has seen our letter or had any input in it."

The Parents Television Council says that for the first letter, it reached out to Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University, about the issue "and he offered to reach out to peers to co-sign a joint letter."