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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Influencing Our Attitudes and Perceptions

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

If we needed reminding that TV is not "real," there's another study out, this one from the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Researchers watched a whole season of the network medical shows "ER" and "Chicago Hope," as well as 50 episodes of "Rescue 911," looking for how those shows treated cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Not surprisingly, they found a rather unrealistic treatment of this important medical procedure.

On TV, the short-term success rate of CPR was 75 percent -- nearly twice the "real life" rate of 40 percent. The long-term success rate (where patients fully recover) was 67 percent on the TV shows, but only 30 percent in real life.

We should not be surprised by this.

CPR is a dramatic and exciting procedure. It photographs well. It looks exciting, frantic, and literally life-saving (which it is). It's no wonder scriptwriters use it often and make it so successful. It makes for good TV.

The only danger comes if we start believing too much of what we see on television, if we start believing that nearly anyone can be resuscitated -- or that if we clunk a guy in the back of the head with a heavy object, he'll pass out for a few minutes but be back (ready for action) an hour later with a slight headache rather than a serious concussion (or worse). It's dramatically exciting and useful, but not medically accurate.

I mean, we all know rationally (if we think about it) that TV isn't real, but sometimes attitudes or beliefs just somehow slip into our unconscious mind without us ever realizing it. And TV has the power to silently shape so many of our perceptions.

I remember reading a study years ago where researchers asked people some pretty mundane questions: What would you say is a "reasonable" wait in a doctor's office? How many kids are in the average high school English class? What are your chances of becoming the victim of a violent crime? Then they correlated people's responses with how much TV they watched.

Not surprisingly, people who watched a lot of Marcus Welby or Ben Casey thought they shouldn't have to wait very long in a doctor's office at all -- after all, the patients they saw on TV every week never waited in a waiting room. They also expected their doctors to take an interest in or even get involved in their personal lives -- again because that's what they had been led to believe that doctors did.

Heavy TV watchers thought that 10-15 kids in a class was about right. After all, that's about the number Kotter and Mr. Novack and the teacher on "Head of the Class" had. And after watching violence and muggings and rapes and such every night on TV, heavy TV watchers thought that their chances of being a victim were MUCH higher than they really were.

Remember, we're not talking about loonies here -- not about those folks who think that Marcus Welby is a real doctor or that Gabe Kaplan is a real teacher. We're talking about people like you and me -- people who KNOW that TV is entertainment, that it's unreal. But these perceptions slip slowly and silently into our heads as well.

And THAT'S part of TV's awesome power. It's subtle, but it's the power to shape our perceptions of so much. Most of us have never been to war. Never been a cop. Never lived in a ghetto. Never been or done or seen or felt a million things -- except through television. Our perceptions, our judgements, our attitudes, and our responses about all of these things (and a million more) are shaped by the tube.

Yet often what we see on TV is shaped not by reality, but by the mechanics of storytelling and narration, the need to keep things exciting and personal and interesting. TV classrooms are kept small not to try to distort our view of reality, but simply because a smaller cast lets us identify with the major characters so much easier and faster. Police dramas are full of action not because that's the way it is, but because that's what makes an exciting story. CPR works wonderfully well on TV not because it's medically accurate, but because we all like to see somebody brought back to life.

Part of the tremendous power of television lies here -- not so much in the content of the stories it tells us, but in much more subtle ways, in how it can affect our perceptions and our expectations of things where we have no direct experience. This distortion of reality is often a narrative necessity rather than a conscious attempt to manipulate opinion, but that makes it no less dangerous.

Watching TV is one thing. Believing too much of what we see there is quite another.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.