People have always been drawn to spectacles of violence. As Sissela Bok points out in her book Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, the ancient Romans forced slaves and convicts to fight wild animals to the death before roaring crowds as a matter of public policy. “Violent spectacles kept the citizenry distracted, engaged, and entertained and . . . provided the continuing acculturation to violence needed by a warrior state.”
In comparison to the ancient Romans, modern Americans seem far less bloodthirsty. After all, writes Ray Surette, author of The Media and Criminal Justice Policy, “We do not kill real people in public spectacles.” Nevertheless, warns Surette, the level of fictional Violence in American culture is staggering: “We have eased the access to fantasy slaughter far beyond anything the Romans dreamed of.”
According to researcher George Gerbner, “Never was a culture so filled with full-color images of violence as ours is now.” Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators project, which has monitored TV violence since 1968, estimates that the average American child views more than 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television during the elementary school years. A 1992 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the typical American child will witness 40,000 on-screen murders by the age of eighteen.
Concern about violence in the media predates television—in the nineteenth century social critics warned that juveniles were mimicking the violence they read about in newspapers, and in the 1920s there was considerable outrage over what was considered “rampant” violence and lawlessness in the movies. However, the most extensive research on media violence has focused on television violence, beginning in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson convened the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence and commissioned Gerbner to analyze the content of television shows. Gerbner’s research was influential in the landmark 1972 Surgeon General’s report on media violence, which found evidence of “a causal relation between viewing violence on television and aggressive behavior.”
Public outcries against media violence are closely tied to rising levels of violent crime. For example, levels of violent juvenile crime peaked in 1995. Calls for government action to curb TV violence followed a similar trend, and in 1996 Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which, among its provi- sions, required the TV broadcasting industry to develop a voluntary ratings system. The act also required that by the year 2000 all televisions manufactured in the United States would include the V-chip, an electronic device that would allow parents to block out programs with violent content.
But just as the furor over media violence seemed to be fading, however, another trend in youth violence captured society’s attention: a wave of school shootings, in which middle and high school students killed their classmates and teachers. On October 1, 1997, sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham killed two students in his Pearl, Mississippi, high school. On December 1 of that year fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal killed three students and wounded eight others in West Paducah, Kentucky. On March 24, 1998, thirteen-year-old Mitchell Johnson and eleven-year-old Andrew Golden killed four students and one teacher, and wounded fifteen others, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. And on May 21, 1998, fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel opened fire in his high school in Springfield, Oregon, after murdering both his parents the previous night.
After all these tragedies, the nation was further horrified by the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado: On April 20, 1999, eighteenyear- old Eric Harris and seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold, armed with semiautomatic weapons and explosives, killed thirteen people before committing suicide. Evidence that the two students had extensively planned their shooting spree, and in fact intended to kill far more than fifteen people, left the country searching for an explanation of what could have driven Harris and Klebold, as well as the other perpetrators of school shootings, to such violence.
Attention soon turned to the types of entertainment these students had immersed themselves in. Some cited the music Harris and Klebold listened to, which included shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Others noted that many of the school shooters played violent “first-person shooter” video games such as Doom, in which the player’s goal is to literally shoot anything that moves. Others argued that movies and TV in general glamorize violence, citing, for example, 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character graphically fantasizes about going on a shooting spree in his high school.
But beyond these specific examples of violent imagery, critics of media violence once again returned to the 1972 Surgeon General’s report and all the other research that has been done on the link between fictional and real-life violence. As Arnold P. Goldstein explains in his book, Violence in America, many of these studies have found a link between the viewing of violence and three longterm effects: 1. The copycat effect. A minority of viewers will mimic the violence they see on the screen. For example, the 1995 movie Money Train portrayed a killer who set fire to subway booths, killing the attendants inside. In New York in December of that year, two youths copied the crime.
2. The desensitization effect. Audiences eventually adapt to a certain level of on-screen violence, and ever-more graphic depictions of violence are nec- essary to shock them. A classic example is action or horror movie sequels, which almost always feature more gore and a higher “body count” than their predecessors.
3. The “victim effect” (which George Gerbner has also described as “Mean World Syndrome”). Elizabeth Thomlan, of the Center for Media Literacy, explains that constant exposure to violence in the media may lead people “to believe that violence is everywhere and that they must be afraid.” Many critics feel that this is the most insidious effect of violence in the media, since it conceivably affects everyone, not just those individuals who go on to commit violence. “Heavy viewers [of TV violence],” writes the Atlantic Monthly’s Scott Stossel, “tend to favor more law-and-order measures: capital punishment, . . . the building of new prisons, and so forth.”
However, while most social scientists accept the correlation between media violence and actual violence, many dispute the idea that exposure to fictional violence causes people to become violent. In this view, those who “copycat” crimes they have seen in movies are prone to violence to begin with. And it may be that instead of people being made violent by entertainment, violent individuals may simply prefer violent entertainment. “There is no convincing, in fact, no substantial evidence that television violence affects aggression or crime,” writes psychology professor Jonathan Freedman.
Many commentators have specifically rejected the notion that Eric Harris’s and Dylan Klebold’s exposure to violence in the media caused them to become killers. “The reason the Colorado shootings became news around the world,” writes Joe Saltzman of USA Today, “was the rarity, the unusual how-could-thishave- happened nature of the story. . . . Logic dictates that, if movies, television, video games, and the Internet are responsible for this kind of behavior, then why is it so unusual?”
But critics of media violence respond that although violent video games or movies were obviously not the only antisocial forces at work in the killers’ lives, the violent entertainment they were so obsessed with certainly could not have been healthy. In this view, violent entertainment is only one part—along with guns and the American tendency to value competition and individuality over cooperation and community—of a “culture of violence” that afflicts America.
One symptom of America’s “culture of violence” is that the United States has the highest levels of homicide of all the industrialized nations in the world. The authors in Violence in the Media: Current Controversies debate what role violence in entertainment plays in contributing to the level of violence in society in the following chapters: How Serious Is the Problem of Violence in the Media? Does Violence in the Media Make Children and Teenagers More Violent? Should Children’s Access to Violent Media Be Restricted? How Should the Problem of Media Violence Be Addressed?