"Fake news" has renewed a discussion as old as TV itself: How might the media we watch influence our behaviors and decisions? TV has certainly changed with the times, but how much has media kept up with an evolving America?
If you're worried that the media influences the way you and others make decisions, then you probably hope everyone's favorite networks and shows share your values. You likely don't want your kids acting like an offensive cartoon character, and you might worry if your neighbors are making their political choices based on that questionable newscaster's latest rant. How does TV reflect our beliefs, and how do we expect TV to uphold what we believe in?
In this project, we asked over 1,000 people from various generations to rank what they found most offensive on TV. Are people more offended by sex and violence or poor representation of minority groups? Who does that scene at the strip club upset, and who thinks that parody of the president is offensive? Our findings show the way our generation and political affiliation affect our perceptions of what is and isn't taboo on TV, and whether we think TV influences us for worse or for better.
How We're Each Offended
As the times change, so do the things we find offensive: Scenes that once made your grandmother blush might be the norm on HBO these days, and a joke you've been telling for 30 years might suddenly upset your younger colleagues. When we asked our survey respondents to rank a list of offensive content, their responses varied by generation, but there was one thing everyone seemed to agree on: Every generation was most offended by sexual violence.
A recent study in the Journal of Psychology of Popular Media Culture demonstrated that people were most likely to consider media content "offensive" if it showed "inhumane" acts that made them feel empathy for the victim. This might be one reason people were more offended by sexual violence than by scenes with nudity or profanity – perhaps they can imagine the violence happening to themselves. The #MeToo movement has also drawn more attention to the way sexual violence is a systemic problem in the U.S., and many people are pushing to change the way this violence is represented on TV.
Beyond this, the generation gap is clear. Gen Zers were most offended by poor representation on TV. Gen Zers were the least likely to be offended by most content on our list, but it's clear they're upset by "token" characters or jokes about race, disability, and identity. Gen Zers expect the media to authentically represent diverse characters. So far, diverse representation on TV has been good for business, so Gen Zers likely reflect a trend that will only continue to grow as America becomes more diverse.
On the other hand, baby boomers were offended by most things, but they were less concerned with content that offended younger generations, including poor representation and jokes about politics.
The Politics of What's Offensive
We then divided our list of offensive TV content by political affiliation and found members in support of each political cohort find different things more offensive. In general, Republicans were the most offended by the most things – especially by content including sexual violence, nudity, and genitals. On the other hand, most Democrats didn't seem to be as offended when TV characters got naked as when diverse TV characters were poorly represented or stereotyped.
Our earlier data show younger generations are more concerned about representation in the media, which makes sense due to younger generations more likely being Democrats and older generations more likely being Republican.
Offended by the News?
"Fake news" has been a major newsworthy topic since the 2016 election. A recent study by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that the majority of Americans believe "fake news" is causing confusion about the facts, and Republicans and Democrats are equally concerned with the way the news media is affecting American politics. Unsurprisingly, nearly half of respondents reported being offended by TV news.
Our participants' politics definitely affected which news sources they considered most offensive. Democrats were most offended by news outlets that are considered to be more conservative, especially Fox News. Just as liberals were offended by conservative media, Republicans were most offended by perceived liberal news outlets, including MSNBC and CNN.
Most of our respondents found news offensive because it "misrepresented reality," far more than those who were offended by violent or graphic content. Republicans and Democrats both seem to think the other side's news is biased and inaccurate, which makes them more suspicious of "facts" that seem "fake" when watching rival networks.
Why Are Others Offended?
According to our data, Republicans and Independents thought the main reason others were offended was that they were too sensitive. A similar study by the Pew Research Center showed Democrats were less likely to think people were too easily offended, but they were more likely to be worried that people should use language more carefully because it might offend others.
Another study showed that more than half of millennials polled believe the government should be allowed to censor speech that is offensive to minorities. Just as younger generations seem more concerned about representation, perhaps there is also a growing trend of concern for language that offends a more diverse America.
Most Offensive TV, Ever
When we asked respondents to write in what they considered the most offensive TV content, the majority agreed "South Park" was the most offensive TV show of all time. Since "South Park" came on the air more than 20 years ago, this cartoon about foul-mouthed fourth-graders has viewers debating whether it's offensive or progressive satire.
What is clear is that "South Park" does its best to offend everyone, whether it's making fun of religion, politics, race, sex, gender, disability, violence … if you can name it, "South Park" has mocked it. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have written controversial episodes on topics likely to offend any viewer from any demographic, and they've even created episodes specifically dedicated to using specific profanities as many times as possible.
When asked which TV character was the most offensive, most respondents also agreed on the infamous Eric Cartman from "South Park." Cartman is an 8-year-old with little regard for the feelings of others, and he's often the character causing the most controversy on the show. Cartman actively flouts political correctness and is known for evil antics like promoting the genocide of red-headed "gingers" and feeding a rival classmate a chili made of the boy's parents.
The character rated second-most offensive was Archie Bunker from "All in the Family." While "All in the Family" was considered a progressive show when it aired in the 1970s, its legacy is now tainted by the patriarch, Archie Bunker, who's notorious for his bigotry. Archie's constant racial slurs and longing for the "good old days" were meant to confront taboo topics of the time, but today's younger, more diverse audiences feel he simply reinforces the bigotry he's meant to parody.
The Relationship Between TV and Temperament
So we know what people are offended by on TV today, but what do people think of the impact that TV has had on our lives? We asked our respondents whether they had a positive or negative outlook on life and whether they thought TV had a good or bad influence on viewers. Folks who claimed to have a negative view on life were more likely to have negative thoughts about TV and say it should be watched with caution. Conversely, people who claimed a positive attitude toward life also had a positive attitude about the way TV influences us.
Like most things in life, it seems that what you find offensive on TV depends on your perspective. You might be affected by the decade you grew up in or the issues that concern you. It makes sense that you would expect TV to reflect your views, and luckily, there's a show out there to represent everyone's interests, no matter how varied. What our data do ultimately show is that the more positive view you have of the world, the more positively you'll feel the influence of what you watch on TV.
We collected 1,082 responses from American TV watchers. Fifty-two percent of respondents identified as women, and 48 percent identified as men. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 89 with an average age of 37.7 and a standard deviation of 12.6. Respondents reported their political affiliation as follows: 46.1 percent were Democrats, 30.5 percent were Independents, and 23.5 percent were Republicans.
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