Viewing Violence: Audience Perceptions of Violent Content in Audio-Visual Entertainment

Viewing Violence: Audience Perceptions of Violent ...
01 Sep 2008

This qualitative research explores audience perceptions of violence in audio-visual entertainment. The conception and planning of the study was informed by several significant earlier studies, including UK researcher David E Morrison’s useful research to define what audiences mean by ‘screen violence’. Some of the terminology developed by him and his colleagues has been used or adapted for use in the present study.



The overall aim of the research was to better understand public attitudes and tolerance levels towards violent content in audio-visual entertainment. Violent content in news, current affairs or documentary programmes, and in computer games was excluded.

The specific research objectives were to explore:

• levels of adult comfort/discomfort with violent depictions in audio-visual entertainment

• whether different sections of the community have differing tolerance levels towards violent depictions

• perceptions of harm, if any, caused by violent depictions

• teenagers’ levels of comfort/discomfort with violent depictions in audio-visual entertainment

• whether specific contexts of, and information about, violentdepictions influence the responses of sections of the community.


  • Conducted from March to May 2008 with 117 participants
  • Complementary qualitative research methods:

          - online bulletin boards, for teens aged 14–17 and adult men and women aged 18+

          - focus groups, for male and female adults aged 18+ in specific locations

          - in-depth interviews with teenagers aged 14–17 in selected locations

Key Results

Similarities across participants

  • Rated the degree of violence in each of the 13 clips they viewed consistently across age, gender, ethnicity and regional location
  • Perceptions of what constituted low, medium, or high levels of violence were similar to academic and legislative definitions
  • The current New Zealand classification systems used by the OFLC and broadcasters largely met participants’ expectations

Demographic differences

  • Women tended to base their assessment of each clip on the degree of empathy they felt with the characters involved; more likely to perceive harmful effects, to themselves or to children, from viewing the clips
  • Men were more likely to ‘step back’ from the clip, viewing the content as simply entertainment, and discuss it in that context
  • Younger teenagers (14–15) lacked the critical analysis skills to understand the context of the violence in a clip, or did not understand the sexual nature of the violence
  • Older teenagers more likely to feel they were able to make adult decisions about what they viewed, and strongly in favour of their freedom to view

Perceptions of harm and offence

  • Thought there were emotional and psychological harms, for young people from viewing material not suitable for their age range and potential for changes in attitude or behaviour
  • There was little perception that any of the research clips were offensive, provided appropriately labelled

Applying warnings and classifications

  • Made clear distinction between what was appropriate viewing for mature and informed adults, and what was not appropriate for younger, less mature, audiences to view
  • Felt that as free-to-air television was the most accessible format, it needed more careful classifications, warnings and monitoring than other formats that are less accessible
  • Adult and teenage participants considered warnings and classifications to be part of the information they needed to ensure they could make informed viewing choices

Freedom to view

  • Adult participants considered freedom to view to be an important part of being an adult
  • Few felt that the clips selected for this research warranted cutting or censoring in any way
  • Censorship was considered necessary only for extremely violent and disturbing material
Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018