Pilot study into community attitudes to higher-level media content

11.98 In order to better inform itself about community standards relevant to classification, the ALRC commissioned Urbis Pty Ltd to conduct a series of forums to assess community attitudes to content that falls within higher-level classification categories. This involved recruiting participants for a one-day forum where they would view and respond to content that ranged from MA 15+ to RC.

11.99 The final report, Community Attitudes to Higher Level Media Content: Community and Reference Group Forums Conducted for the Australian Law Reform Commission, can be accessed from the ALRC website.

11.100 This pilot study was qualitative in nature, involving consultations with a total of 58 participants across four forums, conducted over October–November 2011.

11.101 Two forums involved community participants and two involved stakeholder representatives and others with an interest in the classification field. The community group (CG) forums involved 30 participants, while the reference group (RG) forums involved 28 participants.

11.102 Participants were recruited from across Australia, with a sampling methodology used for the community groups to ensure their representativeness of the broader community. The final sample of 40 community participants who formed the basis of the final 30 participants (two CGs of 15) were selected from more than 1,000 applicants, who responded to newspaper advertisements throughout Australia, as well as notification through the web or social media. Selection criteria included demographic characteristics (gender, age, parental status), occupation, representation of all States and Territories, metropolitan, regional and rural representation, and attitudinal indicators nominated by applicants.

11.103 The 28 RG participants were recruited by the ALRC on the basis of people who were representative of a community group or advocacy organisation, people who have publicly engaged with classification issues, people representing a relevant industry sector, or having established experience or academic expertise in matters related to media classification and media audiences.

11.104 Each forum took place over one full day at the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department Classification Branch in Sydney, with participants from outside of Sydney being flown in for the day. A full list of the RG participants, as well as demographic information on the CG participants, is available in the consultant’s final report.

11.105 Participants were informed prior to involvement in the groups about the confronting and possibly offensive nature of the material that would be shown and that it would include RC material. Counsellors provided a briefing to participants before the event and at its conclusion. Participants were also advised about the availability of post-forum counselling services available to them.

11.106 Although the forums involved the screening of RC material, it was decided to exclude material that may have generated the highest levels of risk, such as child abuse material or abhorrent content. Given the risks associated with showing people higher-level media content of types that they may never previously have seen— particularly in the RC category—the consultants felt the need for some caution in exposure to material that would be potentially at the highest levels of offence or impact.

11.107 Material from across the classification categories and across media platforms (films, television programs, computer games and online content) was shown to participants, who responded using coloured cards or ‘traffic lights’ to indicate offence, in addition to completing a survey instrument and engaging in small group discussions of the content. Participants were also asked whether the discussion had caused them to change their opinions on banning or restricting the material both which were recorded on the survey questionnaire.

11.108 The findings from the two CG forums were compared to the findings from the two RG forums in order to obtain an assessment of how closely evaluations of content correlated within the framework of the prototype methodology.

11.109 The primary aim of this study was to develop and test a prototype methodology to determine broader community standards with regards to classifiable media content, including films, computer games, television programs and online content. The view was taken that findings from public submissions commenting on the National Classification Scheme would be usefully augmented by an empirical study that engaged a broad cross-section of the community with actual relevant content across classification categories (themes; sex; nudity; violence; drug use; coarse language) and across media platforms.

11.110 The study was not an assessment of classification decisions made by the Classification Board or any other entity. Participants were not provided with information on classification guidelines in advance as the intention was not to ‘test’ material against classification criteria.[134] Rather, the purpose of the study was to gauge responses to particular items of content in terms of offence and potential impact.

11.111 Some of the key findings arising out of the pilot study were:

  • Responses between the community groups and the reference groups were broadly comparable. There was a high degree of consistency between the opinions of CG and RG participants in relation to the degree of offence taken to the material found to be most offensive and least offensive, as well as considerable agreement about whether particular material should be banned or restricted. This was despite the RG being comprised of people, who in a number of cases, were selected on the basis of known strong views on the current classification scheme, in contrast to the more randomised selection of community participants.

  • The content that registered the highest levels of offence included both scripted drama and material involving actual criminal activity. The two items of content that registered the highest level of offence with both CG and RG participants were a scene from the film A Serbian Film and a recorded online solicitation of a child for apparently sexual purposes.

  • The content that registered the lowest levels of offence included material involving drug use and graffiti. Both the CG and the RG viewed the items of content depicting drug use (both fictional and real) to be the least offensive and impactful. There was also a view among both CG and RG participants that material depicting graffiti activity was low impact, and should not be banned.

  • Most of the screened violent material from computer games was not considered to be offensive. In three of the four items of violent and/or sexual computer game material screened, a majority of both CG and RG participants found the material not to be offensive.

  • Responses to explicit sex and fetish material were broadly similar between the two groups, and varied according to the nature of the material. Both CG and the RG participants had varying responses to the explicit sex and fetish material that was shown based on the item in question, but their responses to each item were broadly similar. In particular, the greatest level of offense was registered towards material where some degree of coercion may have been implied.

  • A majority of participants in both groups found terrorism material offensive. A majority of both CG and the RG participants found material promoting acts of terrorism to be offensive, although opinions varied as to whether it should therefore be banned.

11.112 A detailed analysis of the findings is provided in the consultant’s final report. This also includes information about the content that was viewed and the methodology that was used in the pilot study. It may provide the basis for ongoing research into community attitudes to higher-level media content—including research that may be conducted or commissioned by the new Regulator.[135]

[134] As in the case community assessment panels which are sometimes used by the Attorney-General’s Department to test whether Classification Board decisions are consistent with community standards.

[135] See Ch 14.