Thursday, January 20, 2011

Does the Mass Media Matter?

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Dunblane, Hungerford... and now Tucson. The recent, dreadful news from Arizona has energized an old debate about the root-causes of apparently mindless violent acts. The usual suspects – lack of gun control, healthcare for the mentally ill, and a caustic political environment – have all been suggested as “causes” for these terrible crimes.

And in this current debate, as in the past, the media have also not escaped blame. This time, it's the highly partisan, charged nature of the current news media that is held partly responsible, as if a lack of civility has somehow energized a clearly deranged individual. In the past, the focus has more often been on the violent content of the media, which is thought to desensitize viewers or encourage copycat acts. In both cases, the media is seen as articulating violence across our culture.

Is there any evidence to support the belief that the media can have these dramatic effects?

There's certainly no lack of research on the effects of violence in the media – the American Psychological Association claims an astonishing 3,500 research reports – but there's nothing like a clear agreement on the results. Both the APA and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, do claim that all this research does clearly show a link between exposure to violent and inciting media content and an increased propensity toward violent feelings and actions. Indeed, the link between media violence and violent behaviors has been said to be as significant as the link between smoking and lung cancer.

In all likelihood this is a gross overstatement and a wild oversimplification. I wish it were otherwise.

When the well-respected media researcher George Comstock looked across 219 examples of media violence research, he did indeed find a modest link between exposure and actions (the researchers found that the vast majority of the “3,500” reports cited above failed to meet basic methodological criteria or had not been properly reviewed or even published). However, Comstock (and later others) also pointed out that the so-called “file drawer” effect (where inconclusive or negative findings go unreported), as well as significant problems defining and measuring aggression, probably account for any remaining effect. The American Civil Liberties Union argued these points well. In other words, if there is any link between watching violence and acting violently, the link is superficial at best.

Most research suggests that the media is not as powerful as you might think, at least in terms of altering human behavior. Researchers talk about so-called “small effects” on audiences. In one example of this, dubbed agenda-setting, the media is shown to be very unsuccessful at telling people what to think, but rather good at telling people what to think about. Said another way, the media raise awareness and create a public conversation about a subject they highlight, but rarely impact actions or alter attitudes. Advertisers, take note.

Would that life be so simple that dramatically limiting violence and aggression in the media would somehow dramatically limit violence in the real world. The answers for Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Tucson are more complex and deep rooted.

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