People throughout the United States were deeply shocked on March 24, 1998, when two boys—ages thirteen and eleven— were accused of deliberately ambushing and shooting at a crowd of students at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and firing high-powered rifles, the two attackers killed four students and one teacher. In attempting to come to terms with this tragic and baffling event, Mike Huckabee, the governor of Arkansas, said, “I don’t know what else we’d expect in a culture where children are exposed to tens of thousands of murders on television and movies. It’s a cultural disease.”
Huckabee’s statement is representative of a long-standing tradition of criticizing violence in the media. During the nineteenth century, educators and others warned about the effects of lurid dime novels and newspaper crime stories on the young. In the early twentieth century, motion pictures and radio were both viewed as significant social threats.Today, concerns are expressed about violence in computer games, popular songs, and on the Internet. Throughout the evolving changes in media technology, some fundamental questions have remained the same: Do depictions of violence in the media somehow contribute to real-life violence such as the Jonesboro tragedy? Are viewers of media violence encouraged to commit violence themselves?
Since the 1950s, television has been at the center of the debate over media violence. There are several reasons for the focus on television. It is pervasive: 98 percent of American households have at least one television set. It is heavily watched: Studies have estimated that children and adolescents watch television for twenty-two to twenty-eight hours a week. Finally, television shows are frequently violent. In one 1982 study, researchers who analyzed 180 hours of programming counted 1,846 acts of violence. The net result of television’s popularity and violent content is that the average American child witnesses eight thousand murders and one hundred thousand other acts of violence by the time he or she finishes elementary school.
Many argue that exposure to such quantities of violent depictions damages children and contributes to violence in real life. In particular, critics claim that television violence promotes aggression, teaches children that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, and fosters a fearful attitude by leading viewers to think that the world is more violent than it really is.
Opponents of television violence cite both scientific studies and anecdotal evidence to back up their claims. Psychologists and social researchers have performed hundreds of scientific studies of the effects of television violence. Critics of television violence point to investigations such as a 1956 experiment that found that children who watched violent cartoons subsequently engaged in more disruptive and destructive behaviors than those who watched nonviolent cartoons. Another noted study tracked the lives and viewing habits of a group of children over a period of twenty-two years; it found that those who viewed the most violent television programs as children were more likely to become violent criminals or exhibit other problems as they grew into young adulthood. Leonard Eron, coauthor of this study, concluded that watching television violence was the best predictor of violent behavior later in life. “There can no longer be any doubt,” he told Congress in 1992, “that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime and violence in society.”
In addition to the scientific evidence, opponents of television violence argue that many anecdotal stories suggest a connection between media and real-life violence. A nine-year-old who shot up a building in New York City explained to a police sergeant how he learned to load his automatic weapon: “I watch a lot of TV.” Mark Branch, a nineteen-year-old Massachusetts youth, stabbed to death a female college student and then killed himself; his room was found to contain ninety horror movies and the machete and goalie mask made famous by a character in the Friday the 13th film series. “Ask any homicide cop from London to Los Angeles to Bangkok if television violence induces real-life violence,” writes journalist Carl M. Cannon, “and listen carefully to the cynical, knowing laugh.”
However, other commentators question both the scientific and anecdotal evidence linking television violence with real-life violence. Children in research situations who exhibit aggressive behavior shortly after watching television do not necessarily demonstrate how television affects viewers in the real world or over a period of years, these critics contend. Others argue that finding a correlation between television violence and violent behavior does not prove that television violence causes such behavior. Psychology professor Kevin Durkin concludes that even if one accepts the most compelling research demonstrating a link between television violence and aggressive behavior, “the relationship between viewing and aggressive behavior is a weak one. Nobody has ever demonstrated otherwise.”
Many also question the persuasiveness of anecdotal stories linking specific crimes to media depictions such as the Friday the 13th series. Again, a key point is that a correlation between a certain violent motion picture or television show and a particular crime does not prove that one caused the other. For example, instead of being inspired by Friday the 13th to commit murder, Mark Branch could have been drawn to watch the series because he was a violent person by nature. “I’ve seen Friday the 13th and I haven’t killed anyone,” writes journalist David Futrelle. “Why do we imagine that others react to images like Pavlovian dogs?” To suggest that motion pictures “induce” people like Mark Branch to commit murder, Futrelle argues, “is pushing the concept of ‘anecdotal evidence’ well past the breaking point.”
Blaming the media for violence, some believe, diverts attention from the true roots of violence. “Anyone looking for the causes of rampant violence in American society,” Futrelle asserts, “would do better to stick to a familiar list: poverty, racism, parental violence, the ready accessibility of guns.” However, as historian Todd Gitlin argues, “There is little political will for a war on poverty, guns, or family breakdown.” Instead, Gitlin contends, “we are offered a crusade against media violence . . . a feel-good exercise, a moral panic substituting for practicality.” Gitlin and others assert that political leaders exploit public concern over media violence to avoid dealing with more pressing social problems.
Whether television violence leads people to commit violent acts is one of several controversies investigated in Media Violence: Opposing Viewpoints. Differing opinions on the harms of media violence and the proper societal response are examined in the following chapters: Is Violence in the Media a Serious Problem? Should the Government Restrict Media Violence? How Should Society Respond to Media Violence? Does Media Violence Have Artistic Value? The authors featured in this volume express diverse views about the morality, aesthetics, psychological effects, and social implications of violence in the media.