The Impact of Media Effects and Receptionstudies on Censorship Laws

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Reception and effects studies have had varying degrees of influence in generating change to media censorship laws over the last half decade. Effects studies, in general, have proved more influential than reception studies. However, for the most part all studies have only had the capacity to instigate new, or amend old, legislation and regulation if they reflect the most prominent public opinion or correspond with the governing political party's ideology.

Around fifty years ago, effects studies did influence censorship laws. From the beginning of the 1950s, many academics including Clara Logan (1950 cited in Klapper 1960:140) believed that media effects were a matter of rational thought. "Common sense tells us crime is not for children…we should protect children from these crime programs just as we protect them from physical danger." That affirmed what the majority of the public already believed, according to a 1994 United States Gallup survey (Bogart 1956 cited in Klapper 1960:135). The survey suggested that 70% of adults interviewed at least partially blamed crime comic books, television programs and radio shows for what was seen as an ‘upsurgeance in juvenile delinquency'. Effects studies, coupled with growing public concern, inspired more research into the effects of the media. The Report of the New York State Joint Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comics (1955 cited in Klapper 1960:137) presented much anecdotal evidence on media effects, including the story of a boy with no previous record, who planned and accosted a woman, taking lead from a pocket book. The Report presented this as "…additional evidence of the link between juvenile delinquency and the publication, distribution, and sale…" of crime and horror literature, reason for tighter censorship laws.

Whilst Australia had scarce effects research of its own, foreign studies still carried significance and influence on Australian laws. The establishment of the Commonwealth Film Censorship Board in Australia in 1956, under the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations Act, (Caslon 2003) reflected the growing momentum of effects studies and the common belief that the still relatively new medium of film had the propensity to negatively effect audiences if left uncensored. It can be inferred that, as in the United States, effects studies influenced the censorship of family television shows in Australia. Charles Winick (1959 cited in Klapper 1960:41), in his book Taste and Censor in Television, noted that various family programs that dealt with controversial topics in the 1950s had the controversial material deleted, softened, or even changed to conform to sanctified, traditional views. Censorship laws allowing this were influenced by the popular belief of effects researchers at that time in the reinforcement effects of the media (Klapper 1960:39) – that presenting compliant and pro-social principles consistent with the ‘community values' and the government's societal aims would cement these morals and standards and make them a stronger influence against the increasing immorality of youth. The fact that copies of the Catcher in the Rye, intended as a gift from the US Ambassador to the Australian government, were confiscated by Customs in 1957 (Caslon 2003) indicates that reinforcement effects of the media had influenced censorship laws. J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, with its prostitute, pimp, and paedophile, would have worked against rather than reinforced the wholesome family morals considered imperative to a functioning society in the fifties. Although by 1960, Joseph Klapper (1960) and other effects researchers were emphasising the lack of empirical evidence of effects, particularly negative effects, of the media, the majority of the lawmakers of the fifties were selectively influenced by effects research that supported censorship and was aligned with the dominant, conservative community voice.

Sixties censorship legislation...
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