The Media and Violence Juncture: Where Ideology Creates an Empirical Science Myth

 

A review of

Media Violence and Aggression: Science and Ideology

By: Tom Grimes, James A. Anderson and Lori Bergen

Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications, 2008. 268 pp. ISBN 978-1-4129-1441-3

 

Reviewed by

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

 

Online Publication Date: May 23, 2008

Journal of Media Psychology, V 13, No. 2, Spring, 2008

 

 

Professor Harold Hill is the fictional, early 20th century traveling salesman and charming charlatan in the Meredith Willson musical, The Music Man.  Hill persuades the good people of River City, Iowa that their children are being corrupted and possibly turned toward the devil’s mischief because of vices of pool, popular culture, and the print media, i.e., pulp novels and humor magazines like Capt. Billy’s Whizbang.  

When Professor Hill sings the wonderful song Ya Got Trouble, in the span of several minutes of unleashed, foreboding, electrifying lyrics, Hill inflates parental fears for their children’s wellbeing, and then, like the savvy social psychologist that con men often can be, he offers the solution to this hair-raising, dreaded teenage fall into “degggg-ra-dation”--learning to play an instrument for the River City Boy’s band.  The parents breathe a sigh of relief.  Morality will be preserved. Evil temptation vanquished.

The media takes a beating in this fictional town in Iowa, and for rather devious reasons—to get parents to buy uniforms and instruments for their “at risk” children.  Professor Hill’s bamboozling formula is rather simple: Arouse fear. Create a villain.  Offer a solution. Look like a hero.

Actually, popular culture and the media have taken a beating, in one form or another, at least since Plato saw the arts as a source evoking emotions and acts of imitation, acts which violate the moral, ethical standards of the Republic (sound familiar?).  Throughout western history, every new media innovation has had concussive impact on the populace and power elites. This has been a consistent patter, from Gutenberg’s printing press to the popularization of all forms of sound recording and films, to radio, the paperback, and television to the new media kid on the block, the Internet. All have raised fears in adults of youth (or the underclass in general) succumbing to blandishments of drugs, sex, aggression and/or rebelliousness.  

Once the cry of concern is raised, elected officials, at one level or another, gallop to the rescue, legislative remedies in mind or in hand.  But just as often the agenda of media danger is set by politicians and non-governmental religious leaders for their own political, fund raising, or power-grabbing, power-holding “Fallwellian” ends.  In modern times, most municipal government or religious institutions have, at one time or another, raged against the machine of media influence. Media innovations have frequently been seen, directly or indirectly, as real or potential despoilers of minds.  Prof. Hill’s bamboozling formula has worked just as well in arousing the public’s media fears in real life as it did in the musical, The Music Man.

The seemingly contagious, sometimes almost hysterical fear of media violence effects is explored in the book under review, Media Violence and Aggression: Science and Ideology, and explored in some enlightening detail.   The authors, Tom Grimes, James A. Anderson and Lori Bergen, label as examples of “moral panic,” the social distress reactions to purported media effects and the endless calls for censorship.  

The history of censorship moves against the entertainment media in the U.S. did indeed involve the threat of government censorship and calls by the Catholic Legion of Decency to boycott offending sexual or violent movies.  From the 1930s on the message is, in effect, young minds must be protected from their dispositions toward swallowing the brew of images and messages cooked up by the multifarious media.

On the matter of protecting children, the authors make the bold and long overdo argument that the societal perception of childhood as a psychologically and media- vulnerable state is both alarmist and exaggerated, and fed by social, academic, and political agenda-setting influence groups.  In effect, they contend that allegations of elevated levels of media anxiety are often more than a little overwrought (recall, for example, Janet Jackson’s Superbowl “nipplegate.”) and they viewed as fanciful the fear that the event might traumatize unsuspecting child viewers.  (Incidentally, no data has ever been adduced to support injurious fears over “nipplegate”). 

Reading the authors’ disquisition on this subject reminds one of Helen Keller’s observation concerning parents and their institutional surrogates trying to shield or protect children from life’s truths, and the folly to which such intents are heir: "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all." - Helen Keller

The authors meticulously explore and question what they label as the media violence/social aggression myth (or what I like to call the elusive media-violence connection), i.e., the fairly universal belief, both inside and outside of academia, that viewing violence portrayed in the mass news and entertainment media contributes directly (and sometimes even linearly) to violence and aggression in society by virtue of viewer arousal and copy cat impulses to act aggressively.  The authors find the causal or causationist arguments pervasively overstated and empirically and theoretically burdened.  These same arguments are creatively and refreshingly examined from a variety of historical, logical, methodological, epistemological, political, values, and empirical perspectives.  The authors effectively frame, for example the issue of the relationship of media violence and real life violent behavior historically, in essentially three ways:

1. Theopolitical: governmental bodies and religious or citizens’ groups point to media’ portrayals of criminal or violent behavior as contributing to anti-social behavior.  But it may actually be an issue of the violation of religious-moral standards, not scientific evidence about viewer aggressive behavior which is the real source of outrage and oft-accompanied veiled or less veiled threats of censorship.

2.  Politicians’ factual inability or simple political reluctance to either address or correct social forces which are the demonstrable and principal etiological or causal factors in so much antisocial behavior (e.g., poverty, neighborhood crime, gangs, birth control, unemployment, etc.).  Instead, politicians focus public attention away from social conditions and onto the media --an oft-used political sleight-of-hand strategy!  The authors encapsulate this strategy in symbolic political theory, where what the government purports to be doing (looking at crime and violence data and trying to find and attack root causes) is symbolically as important as actual declines in aggressive or criminal behavior. 

No surprise then, that there are periodic hearings on media violence.  Free speech, First Amendment issues notwithstanding, ultimately little is actually done to control media fare.  In fact, violent sounds and images have been increasing across all media venues and platforms.  

Follow the money, as the saying goes.  It is often stated that the media are plum scapegoating targets for social violence problems because they have no natural constituency.  This overlooks the fact, however, that the media do have lobbyists and huge cash reserves for political contributions.

3. Government and religious organizations work in tandem with a third force, academic researchers who provide the “data” to back up criticism of media-portrayed violence.  Through the mechanism of grants, this data reportage encourages further research and resultant data. Sincere or cynical academics find a funding home by endlessly looking at destructive media effects, year after year, after year, with the same or similar paradigms.  The end result:  Hundreds of “academically respectable” studies all converging and pointing in the same direction, offering a formidable war wagon against media producers and their First Amendment supporters, and easily arousing public support for the idea of containing or censoring media violence.  It is a comfortable cycle.

But, as the authors note, the convergence argument rises or falls on the construct validity of such methodological matters as operational definitions of aggression (throwing a rock vs. throwing a tantrum) across the wide number of studies frequently cited or used heuristically to advance media violence theory, research and predictive hypotheses.

The authors take strong issue with the notion of convergence as it concerns media violence research and painstakingly examine the major pitfalls in extrapolating results from experimental settings to real world behavior, especially e.g., mass murder and myriad and other acts beyond after-school rough housing and aggression in competitive sports.  They make persuasive cases for the poor or inconsistent predictive value of so many of the most hallowed aggression hypotheses and find operational definitions of aggression often risible, e.g., blowing puffs of air in an adversary’s eye.  They also lay out a strong case for why any truly meaningful social policy cannot be derived from the extant literature on media and violence.

It is persuasively noted, in line with what psychologist Fritz Heider once called naïve psychology, that many people, academics and non-academics alike, after listening to dire warnings about media-portrayed aggression, reflect on their own developmental experiences with media violence and conclude that the glove doesn’t fit.  That is, they are not ready to convict the media as readily as are some inside and outside of academia who see media violence as a major and direct cause of aggressive behavior. 

Correctively, the authors discuss the need to view media effects in a social context.  For the vast majority of people, they note, it is the non-violent response that is far and away the most likely reaction to viewing media portrayed violence.  They advocate research which separates out the normal response to media violence/aggression from the demonstrably infrequent, pathological, deviant, abnormal aggressive response, responses affected less by media images and more by personality, social expectations of peer groups or even self-radicalizing dyadic forces, as exemplified in the case of the Columbine High School massacre by teens Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  

The recent launch of Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA) provides a case in point.  Video games like GTA may be offensive, brutish and violent, but there is little if any reported evidence of game players resorting to violence as a direct result of playing such games, particularly on any long term basis, as script theory of learning aggression would have it.  Yet reportedly, social scientists in this country and England are, in the absence of any supporting evidence, persuaded that indulging in such entertainment literally “ruins” the brain wiring and “warps” the personality. 

The authors also recommend that instead of using the same flawed and fatigued research designs which provide the same corroborating but constructively questionable results, researchers should utilize research paradigms that separate out an adrenaline high from watching exciting action and/or exciting violence from the excitation concomitant with pre-existing chronic anger states or track records of violence jags, conditions present while watching or gaming the material in products like GTA. 

All is not perfect in the book, however.  Its strong stress on normal vs. what they describe as behavioral pathology (reacting to media violence with personal violence) might be too strenuous a dividing line and too abnormalizing of much productive or anti-social reactions to, for example, threat.  It’s entirely likely that reacting aggressively to external stimuli subsequent to observing media violence may likely be more of what psychologists like Walter Mischel would describe as a matter of person variables (traits, experiences and related cognitions, perceptions and expectations) as compared with allegedly eliciting stimuli such as media content per se.  In other words, it’s likely that it is the perception of the stimulus, not the stimulus per se, which is the important moderating variable in whether any sort of stimulus, but especially aggressive ones, will be seen as a call to action or a call to benign reaction or a just response to a life threat. Pathology might motivate or mediate some aggressive behavior, but certainly not most.

Perhaps the authors’ most comprehensive assault on critics of the media and advocates for its censorship lies with what the authors believe to be the radical change in the media landscape and the ways in which people self-expose to media content.  By this they mean the explosion of cross-platform availability of information or programming originating in one medium source, like TV, but available readily on other platforms and venues like telephone- or Internet- connected PDAs.  The authors make three points about the impact of these technologies on media use:

1.                          It is no longer possible to address the contemporary situation from studies conducted as little as a decade ago since the mediascapes in which those studies were temporally and technologically located effectively no longer exist.

2.                          It is no longer possible to address the effect of any particular medium or any medium delivering some specific content since in reality such separability rarely exists.  Increasingly, programming from one medium is repurposed and found on other media thereby bypassing most point of entry screening strategies.

3.                          It is no longer possible to actually “control” media content.  Media content can be removed from programming or relegated to cable or subscription channels but the same or equivalent material is available in other venues, even in countries as state-controlled as China or Saudi Arabia.

 

The authors offer a more plausible hypothesis regarding the media-violence connection: “Exposure to media violence cannot, itself, induce aggression.  There must be both the presence of social-environmental variables that interact with a psychological predisposition to aggression as well as the absence of suppressor variables (such as internal and external behavioral control variables) for the relationship between exposure and aggression to appear.” (p 201) 

The authors of Media Violence and Aggression: Science and Ideology, Tom Grimes, James A. Anderson, and Lori Bergen, are determined to leave no stone unturned, no perspectives unexplored, no names left unnamed of those in the field with whom, on both empirical and theoretical grounds, they strenuously disagree.  It is an engaging book that needed to be and is up close and personal.  In so doing, they have produced what may be the most comprehensive critique and rebuttal to date of the omnipresent media-violence and aggression argument.

 

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