On TVNZ’s unethical public experiment with domestic violence

One of my religious studies lecturers once said not to bother with universities if you wanted to conduct psychological or social experiments in a hurry. Even a brief glance at the Otago psychology ethics page shows that academia’s ethical regulation has, in general, become much more rigorous since the days of the Milgram experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment). To receive permission to conduct an experiment, one must fill out a highly detailed application, including consent forms from all the participants, analysis of the participants’ social demographics, and details of risk of discomfort. So if you don’t want that level of scrutiny, my lecturer said, just make a reality TV show.

It turns out we don’t have to reach as far as reality TV; even publicly-funded current affairs shows are fair game for unethical experiments. TVNZ’s programme Seven Sharp recently ran an item called “Bystander Test – abuse in public: What would you do if you were confronted by a woman who’s clearly in trouble? Craig Stanaway put that to the test.” The piece can be viewed here: http://tvnz.co.nz/seven-sharp/bystander-test-abuse-in-public-video-5369156. I will add what they neglected to: a trigger warning for domestic violence and abuse.

For the benefit of those who don’t want to watch the video, the experiment was conducted twice at a park in South Auckland, where a woman actor, heavily made up to appear bruised, sat down on a bench and waited around looking nervous. After a few minutes a man actor sat down next to her and began to argue with her. She burst into tears, and he roughly dragged her away by her arm. Seven Sharp then interviewed bystanders about what they had seen. Three women were interviewed after the first trial; each expressed some dismay and uncertainty about what they should have done. The male actor suggested to the camera that the lack of reaction from the public was because “there weren’t many guys around”. The second trial of the experiment asked “So what happens when there are guys around?” In this instance a German man asked the woman if she was alright, and almost got violent when the abuser showed up. “By this stage we decide to pull a halt to the experiment; our actors appear in danger,” intoned the narrator as, astoundingly, “Smack My Bitch Up” by the Prodigy played in the background.

So, to recap, TVNZ conducted a social experiment on public violence which almost led to public violence. It’s difficult to see what the purpose of the piece is; at face value all it does is demonstrate that yes, the bystander effect exists. This is not news: the social psychological phenomenon of the bystander effect was first investigated in 1968, in response to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese (whose neighbours heard and did nothing). Even if our TV researchers were studying a new phenomenon, the psychological distress caused to this experiment’s participants is not permitted by most ethics committees. The piece thus appears to come from pundits wandering into specialised fields of study with little prior knowledge or research.

Overall, focusing on the bystander is a curious, seemingly random angle for a story to take on a statistic about domestic violence rates, since the majority of domestic violence does not, of course, happen in the public eye. As such, this piece is in fact quite casually related to the domestic violence statistics recited during the introduction. TVNZ are comparing apples with oranges, or apples with bus conductors or the moon, but presenting it as insightful commentary on a national problem. Why on earth focus the thrust of a story on what uninvolved parties should or shouldn’t do? It speaks to our cultural determination to never, never confront the causes of domestic violence. To shut our eyes to the isolation, domination and control that comes with the institutions of masculinity, the nuclear family and exclusive monogamy, or discuss how these problems are exacerbated by economic downturn and our national alcoholism.

Far from decrying the violence inherent in patriarchally-constructed masculinity, Seven Sharp revels in it. We are to celebrate the German bystander who had lost some of his teeth fighting to protect two women from public violence, and was prepared to do it again because “he has no acceptance for this shit.” The latter half of the piece implies that domestic violence can be stopped by brave (male) people who step in to fight the abuser. This is a twist on the White Ribbon Campaign, which pushes for cisgendered men to take responsibility for the violence of their gender. But while it is possible for men to stop domestic violence from happening, this is not done by trading malevolent patriarchs for benevolent ones. If it must be said again, women are not shrinking violets in need of such protection. We just want to not be threatened with violence.

This somewhat sloppy journalism is partly a result of the medium the TVNZ crew work in. Television doesn’t generally have much room to provide context and analysis, especially not in half-hour slots. Even without constant advertisements under capitalism, even within a utopian egalitarian society without violence, the medium of television must work primarily with what images and sounds are available. It does not easily lend itself to abstraction and systematic evaluation. Try imagine what it would take to turn this blogpost into a television programme for someone who is a layperson to domestic violence. How would you angle the camera, how would you include the digressions of my hyperlinks? I would be unusable for a narrator if I were a terrible public speaker. How would you reframe my story to do what television does really well–to engender an emotional response? As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, the medium is the message. If the causes of and perpetration of domestic violence are largely invisible in society, then they cannot be filmed, and thus cannot appear on television. The fragmented nature of news reporting, exacerbated by the general fragmentation of neoliberalism, 24-hour news channels and rapid-fire internet journalism, means there is no time for context, no time for continuity, no time to dismantle deeply entrenched cultural paradigms.

We can make time for brief stories, so here is mine. I was once attacked in public. A stranger on a bus slapped me in the face (the first time I remember), a working class Maori woman who appeared to be on drugs. And no, not many people helped me out. If my life were turned into a biopic it might make for a dramatic spectacle, a focal point of sorts. But what of it? At the time I was upset and cross with the bystanders, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting story, not for long. I was more concerned for her–what had gone wrong in her life that she hit out at strangers? What has gone wrong in our society that so many men are violent, and so many women die from it? Why aren’t our male TV presenters willing to examine their gender’s problems? These questions could indeed make for compelling television, if it were angled right.

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One thought on “On TVNZ’s unethical public experiment with domestic violence

  1. Also, re the three female bystanders, they may have feared being hurt themselves if they go involved. I can’t see this as anything other than a stunt.

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