By Laurie Trotta Valenti, PhD
I believe in the power of media, for good or bad, and I’ve dedicated my career to getting people to think about how entertainment impacts us.
And what better place than the Norman Lear Center to look at these issues? I attended a TV Academy event a while back titled “An Evening With Norman Lear.” On the stage of the Montalban Theatre in downtown Los Angeles sat five talented and successful African American artists and executives from the hip-hop realm – Touré, Common, Steve Stoute, Russell Simmons and D-Nice. Each man reflected on how Norman Lear’s work on such shows as “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” had influenced and helped shape them into the men they are today.
So many studies have documented the effects of media, particularly on young viewers, but nothing was more powerful than hearing someone like Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Recordings, talk about how he loved watching George Jefferson wearing a three piece suit and mouthing off to everybody in his high-rise building; and about how George Jefferson helped him realize that a powerful African American entrepreneur had something to say on American TV. Musician Common, who grew up in the same Cabrini-Green housing complex as the family portrayed on “Good Times,” reminisced about how the series told honest stories of life in the Chicago projects... it was an amazing evening that spoke to the heart.
I did not get the opportunity to discuss with Norman Lear his thoughts about that night, but it must have felt wonderful. He was getting first-hand knowledge of the profound positive impact his work had on real live people – successful people I might add.
But the majority of individuals who work in the entertainment industry seldom have the opportunity to hear how their work affects their audiences. Not just the high profile actors, writers and producers, but the many people who together help to create the films, TV shows, games and music videos we all consume every day.
If you’re say an editor working on low budget indie films, struggling to make the next mortgage payment, you are perhaps not thinking about how your edits affect viewers – you are just trying to tell your story… If you are a costume designer on a sitcom, or a casting director working under deadline pressure to find the perfect actor for a role, you perhaps are not considering the social stereotypes your choices may be planting in the minds of children watching your show… and yet, this work is affecting them.
Audiences are taking in all of the subtle social and cultural cues embedded in the stories we watch. Research shows that these choices made by our creative professionals do matter, as viewers model behaviors and attitudes and accept as normal what they see in the media.
My work in the past two decades has been to create awareness and dialogue among people in the creative community about the power of their work not simply to entertain, but to INFORM, and dare I say to INFLUENCE.
This is nothing new to Madison Avenue, which has been selling sugary cereal to kids for a long time now.
There have been many studies that explore the prosocial effects of positive role models as seen in entertainment characters.
Others explore the power of the narrative story lines to stimulate emotions, and how emotional responses influence learning and behavior.
Still others explore the negative influence of glamorizing violence or drug use to promote negative behaviors in viewers.
At the Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, we study the impact of news and entertainment on viewers. Our goal is to prove that media matters, and to improve the quality of media to serve the public good. This work has been my mission. I look forward to sharing with you in upcoming posts.