George Gerbner; Studied TV Culture

Associated Press
Monday, January 2, 2006

George Gerbner, 86, a researcher who for decades studied violence on television and how it shapes perceptions of society, died Dec. 24 of cancer at his home in Philadelphia.

Mr. Gerbner, who was dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communications, studied television for more than three decades. He founded the Cultural Indicators research project in 1968 to track changes in television content and how those changes affect viewers' perceptions of the world. Its database has information on more than 3,000 TV programs and 35,000 characters.

Mr. Gerbner said that people no longer learned their cultural identities from their families, schools, churches and communities but instead from "a handful of conglomerates who have something to sell."

He coined the phrase "mean world syndrome," a phenomenon in which people who watch large amounts of television are more likely to believe that the world is an unforgiving and frightening place.

"Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures," he testified before a congressional subcommittee on communications in 1981. "They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television."

Born in Budapest in 1919, Mr. Gerbner intended to study folklore at the University of Budapest but was forced to flee fascist Hungary in 1939.

With the help of his brother, filmmaker Laszlo Benedek, he came to the United States. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a journalism degree and worked briefly at the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined the Army in 1942 and served in World War II.

He was a professor and researcher at the Institute for Communications Research at the University of Illinois from 1956 to 1964, when he accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania.

After leaving Penn in 1990, he founded the Cultural Environment Movement, an advocacy group working for greater diversity in media.

He also taught at Temple University and Villanova University in later years.

His wife of 59 years, Ilona Gerbner, died Dec. 8. Survivors include two sons and five grandchildren.

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