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Media violence

Movie ratings rated PG for "Poor Guide"

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment March 9, 2012 03:00 AM

The recent controversy over the R rating preliminarily given to a forthcoming documentary about teenage bullying clearly exposes a real limitation to the existing movie rating system. The voluntary motion picture code of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a brainchild of the late Jack Valenti, is designed to shield children from content inappropriate for their age and maturity level.

In the case of Bully, the mature rating was earned because of the frequent profanity uttered by the teens in the film. Unless either side (the MPAA or the film’s producer) relents, the rating would restrict access to Bully’s anti-violence message for the very group who would most benefit from seeing it—teenagers.

Perhaps the MMPA expects that teens and their parents will attend the film together (permitted under the R restriction). But for many adolescents, there are few things more embarrassing than being seen in the theater sitting next to their parents. Alternatively, teenagers could always sidestep the MMPA morality marshals by waiting until the film is released on DVD or on cable.

Hopefully, the ratings mess surrounding Bully will be resolved in time for the film’s release scheduled for the end of this month. Even so, there is a much larger problem associated with film ratings, as well as similar rating systems for TV and video games. Not only do rating systems fail to achieve the desired outcome, they often have the reverse effect. Ratings typically do more to attract young audiences to mature content than to deter them.


The violent video blame game

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 28, 2011 10:00 AM

In a much-anticipated decision on a free-speech challenge of a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, the U.S. Supreme Court got it right. Voting 7-2 in favor of the gaming industry, the Court majority ruled that the evidence suggesting that games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto pose a significant harm to minors is weak and inconclusive.

It can be tempting to try to implicate the mass media—especially video games—for various stunning episodes of extreme violence. A Gallup poll taken in the wake of the April 1999 Columbine massacre found that 62% of the over 1,000 adults surveyed nationwide felt that entertainment media was a major cause for school and youth violence. Moreover, 83% supported restrictions on sales of violent media to children, the very kind of restrictions that passed the California legislature in 2005.


When 911 is TMI

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment August 23, 2010 05:00 PM

Earlier this month, days after the mass shooting at a Connecticut beer distributor, I was asked by a local TV news station to analyze and comment on a recorded 911 call from the gunman that the State Police had publicly released. It was the killer’s exceptionally calm demeanor that people found so surprising. After all, he had just killed eight co-workers and was about to take his own life.

The shooter apparently wanted to explain his motives. He wanted to clarify that his actions were precipitated by what he saw as racial discrimination on the job; he wasn’t just some nut who went off the deep end. Being considered crazy would negate any legitimacy to his complaints of mistreatment.

Although I tend to question the wisdom and appropriateness of assisting a murderer in having a platform for his few minutes of infamy, there was a least some value in understanding how workplace avengers view their situation – how they typically see themselves as the victim seeking a measure of justice before exiting the world by their own hand.

While reviewing the 911 recordings uploaded to the website of a Hartford television station, I was unexpectedly mistreated to a bonus clip: the 911 call from a distraught woman who was cowering inside a closet at the shooting site and frantically begging for help. Despite her attempt to stay quiet so as not to be heard by the gunman lurking about, the terror in the caller’s voice came through loud and painfully clear. It was impossible not to empathize with her feelings of helplessness and horror, all the way through the chilling screams when the police arrived and instructed her to come out with her hands up.


Celebrity week for criminals

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment July 13, 2010 12:00 PM

It has been a big week for crime, yet a bigger week for law enforcement for bringing down elusive serial offenders.

Last Wednesday, of course, the Los Angeles police arrested a man suspected of being the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer who had evaded the authorities for more than a decade. With the capture of 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr., the police may have closed the book on 11 homicides dating back to 1985.

Then, on Sunday, law enforcement officials in the Bahamas closed in on 19 year-old Colton Harris-Moore, a young fugitive from Seattle, WA who is wanted in eight states and three countries for a two-year long string of burglaries and thefts. The various high-priced items believed to have been stolen by Harris-Moore, the so-called “Barefoot Bandit,” include luxury automobiles, pleasure boats, and as many as five airplanes. Having no formal flight training, Harris-Moore crash-landed on several occasions, but each time walked away with barely a scratch.


Suspected "Barefoot Bandit," Colton Harris-Moore, 19


Stephen King and John Odgren

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 21, 2010 02:00 PM

Stephen King was in the Woburn Courthouse today--not in the flesh, of course, but certainly in name and spirit. John Odgren, currently on trial for murder stemming from the January 19, 2007 stabbing of school mate James Alenson, was, according to those who knew him well, a huge fan of the renowned horror writer.

Odgren had adopted the moniker “Jack,” a name drawn from a Stephen King character. The date of the stabbing reflected Odgren’s obsession with the number 19, which had a central role in King’s series, The Dark Tower. On that day, according to testimony, Odgren was especially apprehensive because of a delusional association with King Crimson, the villain in that book series.

After his arrest, Odgren continued to fantasize abut his favorite author. He even thought about placing Stephen King on his jailhouse visiting list. And when his mother mentioned that there had been scores of visitors to their home in the wake of the arrest, Odgren asked if there had been any celebrities--King, in particular.


About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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