Effects of Media Violence Can’t Be Denied

Originally posted: March 8, 2013

Jeff McCall 02The media industry wants to “make a positive contribution to the national conversation on violent behavior.” So, groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters and the Motion Picture Association of America are banding together for an “awareness” campaign to help parents manage the media consumption of kids. These benevolent characters are also developing “public service initiatives” to educate journalists about mental health terminology. Gee, thanks for nothing.

Noticeably absent from this “positive contribution” is any responsibility by the media world to restrain itself from a continued deluge of violence into our culture. So, while parents should pay more attention to their kids and journalists should report with more insight on mental health, media producers continue to create a society that swims in graphic and gratuitous violence as “entertainment.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s directives to address gun violence after the Newtown tragedy absolved the media industry of any cultural responsibility. The only thing the White House had to say about media was to recommend the Centers for Disease Control research the “relationship between video games, media images and violence.” Congress should save the $10 million being requested for the study, which is meant to stall long enough for the heat to dissipate off the media.

Mountains of studies on media violence have already been done. Telecommunications professor Andrew Weaver of Indiana University has emerged as a national expert in this area. While he says more research is always a good thing, sufficient study already exists to draw conclusions. “The violence we see on television, in movies and in video games all acts on us in about the same way. Media violence is information. We internalize it at some level, and there are persistent effects,” Weaver said, “Observing mediated violence creates a disinhibition effect on the executive centers of the brain, much like alcohol does. At a point, media violence desensitizes us.”

This is not to say that all people who absorb violent media messages will act out violence in their real lives. “Exposure to media violence is less a factor for people who otherwise have positive influences in their lives,” Weaver said, “but media exposure is certainly a key factor for people who have other risk factors, like a poor home life, or substance abuse.”

McCall Book Taking Control-212x321Weaver compares the effect of media violence to the medical risk and resilience model for an affliction such as skin cancer. “Your chances of getting skin cancer go up exponentially with each risk factor you take on. Family history, tanning beds and sun exposure are all factors in developing skin cancer. Consuming media violence surely works the same way in that it’s another factor that creates risk for real world aggression,” Weaver said.

Weaver’s research shows viewers don’t really want violence-saturated programs. “Audiences like action, special effects, conflict and interesting plots,” he said, “Violence doesn’t add to enjoyment and viewers prefer non-violent versions of shows. It is a misconception that audiences demand violence.”

Hollywood produces so much violence because it is easy and cheap to produce. “Representing conflict in non-violent ways is more difficult and more expensive. Violence is easy to create and more exportable around the world. Violence is now a part of the media business model,” according to Weaver.

Weaver’s recent research shows viewers who go to YouTube on the web are self-selecting non-violent content. Almost 70 percent of primetime television shows contain violence, but only 13 percent of content selected by viewers off YouTube has violent content. This would seem another dent in Hollywood’s argument that audiences demand violent programs.

In spite of abundant research connecting mediated violence to the real-life culture of violence, the media industry still trots out spokesmen and experts who deny any relationship. The Entertainment Software Association has released a list of “essential facts” which denies any link between video game violence and real life.

Ohio State University Professor Brad Bushman has published numerous studies defining the effects of mediated violence. He dismisses the industry’s denials as “mostly fiction.” He goes on to say, “All but a handful of social scientists believe that violent games are harmful, and this report (from ESA) cites the outliers who believe violent games cause no harm.”

Reducing violence in society will be difficult. It would be nice if the “entertainment” industry, the largest dispenser of culture, would acknowledge its responsibility and stop snookering us with flimsy “awareness” campaigns for everybody else.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall

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