Letter: myths about guns and violence (2)

November 17, 2000

Your feature, "It really was murder at the office today, darling" ( THES , November 3) was disturbing. It described the professionalism, sensitivity and seriousness of two researchers who cited Hitchcock horror films as a way of understanding non-fictional violence. The photo used was bloody and sensationalist: a doll's head smeared with and lying in a pool of blood lies face up with an axe beside it.

In 1983, my mother was violently killed by a stranger. At the time I was engaged in criminological research and had previously interviewed victims of violent crime for a Home Office project. I understand that it is hard to balance personal and professional responses.

Given the huge popular appetite for disaster and crime, academics may feed it when the results of their work adopt a populist language and tone. It is crass for academics to claim to be non-sensationalist (indeed, to emphasise their own problems in coping with the emotional demands of working with murderers), but to choose horror movies to illustrate everyday violence.

So it is even crasser to claim a moral professionalism, but to deploy fantasy violence as a textual and visual hook: ethical research requires researchers to be personally clear on the boundaries between fact and fantasy.

My second objection is to the journalism: the feature is tone-deaf to its setting. No one could object to The THES providing a human-interest angle on unusual research. What is at issue is humane as opposed to brutalising interest.

Spicing up a "serious" account of a difficult topic has several effects: it invites readers in at one level, and ambushes them at another. At best, it trivialises serious content, at worst, it indicates that its seriousness is a surface mannerism. When academics such as Mark Griffiths (Letters, THES , November 3) are gearing up for a higher media profile, the need for informed debate is even greater.

Jon Willmore

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