No Consensus: The Lingering Controversy in the Media Violence Debate

The New York Times recently ran an editorial by forensic psychiatrists Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam, and H. Eric Bender asserting: “There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior [1].” The editorial makes reference to four studies and posits that most psychologists are reaching an agreement over the controversial question of whether or not media violence leads to people committing violent acts in real life [1]. However, the assertion that a link between media violence and violent behavior is now a consensus opinion does not adequately describe the status of a controversial debate over this topic.

The editorial’s depiction of the current status of the debate is not an adequate representation of either public or scholarly opinion. The piece uses as its starting point the recent controversy surrounding the film Kick-Ass 2, which actor Jim Carrey declined to promote after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Mark Millar, creator of the comic book on which the film is based, criticized Carrey’s decision based on his belief that media violence does not cause violence in real life [1] Pozios, Kambam, and Bender argue: “While Mr. Carrey’s point of view has its adherents, most people reflexively agree with Mr. Millar [1].

The editorial is correct that Millar’s opinion is a mainstream one, an opinion that the Supreme Court supported in its Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association in 2011, which struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children [2]. Part of the reasoning behind the Court’s decision was: “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively [2].” It is understandable that, opposing such a view, the authors of the editorial would try to correct it.

However, the claim that the majority of Americans hold the view that media violence has no effect on real acts of violence is a generalization that obscures the extent of the debate on this issue. Joanne Savage and Christina Yancey’s 2008 study “The Effects of Media Violence on Criminal Aggression: A Meta-Analysis,” asserts that the opposite viewpoint, that media violence leads to actual violence, “has been reified in the popular press and has most influenced policy initiatives,” citing the American Medical Association’s 1993 opposition to media violence as an example [3]. For a more recent example of the mainstream nature of this opinion, one need only look at NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s statement on the Newtown shooting, in which he blamed real life violence on violent movies such as American Psycho (2000) and Natural Born Killers (1994), a film that actually criticizes and satirizes media depictions of violence [4].

In addition to mischaracterizing public opinion, the editorial also generalizes the nature of the scholarly debate on the issue of media violence as more unanimous and less controversial than it is. Even one of the studies that the editorial cites in support acknowledges the lack of consensus in the debate, describing one of the key points of contention as the question of “whether children develop behavioral problems because they watch people behaving violently on television or whether children with antisocial tendencies prefer to watch violent programs [5].” Scholars such as Ferguson and Savage have raised concerns that many studies about the relationship between media violence and real acts of violence have serious flaws, such as the methods of measuring aggression and controlling for other factors in the study [6].

Furthermore, Savage and Yancey’s meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between media violence and violent crime came to the exact opposite conclusion of the New York Times editorial, concluding, “A review of both aggregate studies and experimental evidence does not provide support for the supposition that exposure to media violence causes criminally violent behavior [7]. They even claim, “The study of most consequence for violent crime policy actually found that exposure to media violence was significantly negatively related to violent crime rates at the aggregate level [7]. Contrary to the claims of the editorial, this is not evidence of a consensus.

To be fair to the editorial, its authors do back away from claiming that there is a consensus around the idea of causation, citing both the practical and ethical concerns with determining if media violence causes specific violent acts [8]. Their main conclusion is that more evidence is needed before people make decisions about this issue. The problem with this conclusion is that the authors undermine it with their use of the world “consensus.” “Consensus” suggests that the debate is already over, that the experts have already come to an agreement. At the least, it suggests the beginning of the end of debate, rather than the start of a search for new evidence. A call for new evidence should examine the lack of consensus and argue for new research to be done in order to bring about consensus.

Kick Ass 2 is an easy target for this kind of editorial, given its general panning [9] at the hands of critics such as Ali Arikan [10] and Tasha Robinson [11] for both its violent content and its attitude toward that content. However, the film’s R-rating does designate it as a film not meant for children. It would be much more interesting for the authors of the piece to examine content that is directly aimed at children and is typically bloodless and free of consequence. It would also be interesting to examine whether or not it makes any difference for a child to view a violent program with an adult who is able to provide the child context for the violence. Pozios, Kambam, and Bender are correct in that the “debate over media violence stirs up strong emotions [8]. For that reason alone, they should present a larger amount of evidence before making sweeping generalizations about the violence debate.

References

  1. Vasilis K. Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam, and H. Eric Bender, “Does Media Violence Lead to the Real Thing?”  The New York Times, August 23, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/opinion/sunday/does-media-violence-lead-to-the-real-thing.html?_r=0
  2. Supreme Court of the United States, Brown, Governor of California, et al v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al, June 27, 2011.
  3. Joanne Savage and Christina Yancey, “The Effects of Media Violence on Criminal Aggression: A Meta-Analysis,” Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35 (2008) http://www.sagepub.com/isw6/articles/ch15savage.pdf: 772
  4. NRA: full statement by Wayne LaPierre in response to Newtown Shootings,” The Guardian, December 21, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/21/nra-full-statement-lapierre-newtown
  5. Lindsay A. Robertson, Helena M. McAnally, and Robert J. Hancox, “Childhood and Adolescent Television Viewing and Antisocial Behavior in Early Adulthood,” Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, February 18, 2013 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/02/13/peds.2012-1582.full.pdf+html: 440
  6. Christopher J. Ferguson and Joanne Savage, “Have recent studies addressed methodological issues raised by five decades of television violence research? A critical review,” Aggression and Violent Behavior, December 6, 2011 http://www.tamiu.edu/~cferguson/TVreview.pdf: 132
  7. Joanne Savage and Christina Yancey, “The Effects of Media Violence on Criminal Aggression: A Meta-Analysis,” Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35 (2008) http://www.sagepub.com/isw6/articles/ch15savage.pdf: 786.
  8. Vasilis K. Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam, and H. Eric Bender, “Does Media Violence Lead to the Real Thing?”  The New York Times, August 23, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/opinion/sunday/does-media-violence-lead-to-the-real-thing.html?_r=0
  9. “Critic Reviews for Kick-Ass 2,” Metacritic http://www.metacritic.com/movie/kick-ass-2/critic-reviews
  10. Ali Arikan, “Kiss-Ass 2 Movie Review & Film Summary,” RogerEbert.Com, August 16, 2013 http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/kick-ass-2-2013
  11. Tasha Robinson, “Kick-Ass 2,” The Dissolve, August 15, 2013 http://thedissolve.com/reviews/134-kick-ass-2/

Nicholas Kelly is a senior at the George Washington University majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in Contemporary Cultures and Societies. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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