Sophia is in 10th grade and this is her first year in Journalism. She works in catering and plays soccer. She hopes to visit Germany, where she was born.
Are We Desensitized to Violence?
December 8, 2022
Violence is a very common trend in the news, and the tendency is that the more it is reported, the less we are likely to treat it as a tragedy. Many reports of murders and mass shootings in the news only focus on the numbers, and not the actual people it affected. When you look at headlines today, you might see “Three shot dead” or “COVID deaths hit 6 million.” However, you often have to dig deep into an article to find actual names of the dead. The result is that we are becoming desensitized to violence. When we see reported deaths and murders in the news, we tend to shrug and treat it like an everyday occurance–because it is.
According to sciencedirect.com, desensitization is “a psychological process by which a response is repeatedly elicited in situations where the action tendency that arises out of the emotion proves to be irrelevant.” Desensitization can be used to treat phobias and other mental health disorders. It can help train your brain to remove the anxiety or fear that accompanies a fear-inducing situation. However, when it comes to violence in the news, our brains are producing that same reaction, and it gets to the point where our brains no longer produce a dismayed reaction.
When we get the full story of a tragedy from a real person, we can empathize with them because we see them as real people facing real trauma. However, when news sites focus on statistics instead of names, it’s harder to care about the victims. We often find ourselves just scrolling past the tragedies because violence is everywhere. It can be accusations posted on Twitter, repeated coverage of the same story, or true crime podcasts (which are especially popular among young adults). We consume the same news, the same violence, over and over again.
Many young people, including children, are also exposed to violence daily right in their homes through movies, TV shows, the internet, and in music lyrics. According to apa.org, the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior was formed in 1969 to assess the impact of violence on the attitudes, values, and behavior of viewers. The resulting report, and a follow-up report in 1982 by the National Institute of Mental Health, identified these major effects of seeing violence on television: Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, may be more fearful of the world around them, and may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.
There is no question that younger generations’ lives have been consumed by tragedy and loss, again and again, on all forms of media–real and fictional– and that this has desensitized our society overall to violence. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. So what can be done about this? Here are some things which both individuals and journalists could do to combat this trend of desensitization:
- Lead with the “who” – Journalists have a tendency to focus on the what (“15 people killed”) rather than the who (“Victim of massacre shares story”).
- Be careful with wording – Often, journalists focus on the method used to kill someone rather than the person who did it. For example, some media critics talk about the “SUV effect,” noting that frequently, a news story lists the type of car used to kill someone rather than the driver. One example in pbs.org, read “Multiple people killed by SUV in Waukesha Christmas parade” as if a driver-less car was to blame for the damage. The article only mentions the SUV, not the person responsible for driving it.
- Focus on victims, not the killer – There are many examples of how the media in general does just the opposite, the most recent being the Dahmer series on Netflix, which follows the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and shows how he acquired his victims, as well as how he treated them. It rose to #1 the Netflix chart, and stayed there for three weeks, but the series has been criticized for showing no compassion for the victims or their families. Many people, including relatives of the victims, became upset at Netflix, and Lionel Dahmer (Jeffrey Dahmer’s father) even considered suing Netflix for glamorizing his son’s crimes.