A few key concerns are commonly associated with media’s possible role in perpetuating violence: Imitative behavior, especially among the impressionable (children) and disturbed; and coarsening the culture by glorifying bloodshed and desensitizing society to its effects.
Yet there are subtler and more troubling ways the media contributes to our gun-obsessed culture, albeit by influencing a less obvious constituency.
Simply put, America is immersed in guns. Citizens own a tremendous number of them, in part for hunting, but also for personal protection. And the reason so many feel they require such safeguards — and think they’ll be effective in thwarting criminals — owes a sizable debt to both news and popular entertainment.
Let’s address the “need a gun” aspect first. While the science on viewing violence triggering antisocial behavior is at best correlative — allowing for other factors, it’s hard to establish a causal link for kids roughhousing after watching “The Three Stooges” permanently becoming more aggressive — research regarding attitudes about the likelihood of being victimized is more convincing.
One popular theory — known as “mean world syndrome,” coined by media scholar George Gerbner — posits that extensive exposure to media violence heightens impressions of the world as a scary place, causing people to feel at greater risk than empirical evidence suggests.
Gerbner’s contention that a steady diet of mayhem via TV news, movies and series featuring a weekly serial killer “reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia” has considerable merit. And such anxiety translates into less trust of others and the taking of various precautions, from guns to gated communities.
Moreover, these perceptions become so deeply ingrained in our psyches as to trump real-world data about declining crime rates, especially when high-profile cases tapping into our deepest fears — like child abductions — dominate the news.
The second part of the media’s influence — that guns will ward off attacks — was neatly articulated by NRA’s Wayne LaPierre during his rambling press event a week after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” LaPierre said, “is a good guy with a gun.”
Certainly, the notion of a one righteous (and in modern cinema, often heavily armed) person saving the day is as deeply rooted as any popular trope in entertainment. Examples of this ideal also include the “Death Wish” movies, and Clint Eastwood’s early career. It’s no wonder Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character became a Reagan-era symbol, encapsulating this modern cowboy, law-and-order mentality. The deep roots of the politics were visible in the polarized responses to the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a concerned citizen convinced he was doing his part to protect the neighborhood.
Of course, those pushing the guns-as-remedy argument — issuing calls to arm teachers since Newtown — tend to ignore later additions to Eastwood’s filmography, especially “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino,” which convey the horror of violence and propose that killing really isn’t neat, easy or simple.
Assuming these arguments are valid, the media’s primary contribution to violence within society has less to do with prompting it than stoking collective fears, which yields its own unfortunate consequences.
The ironic twist in this view of media’s corrosive effect is those most likely to blame TV, movies or videogames (as the NRA did, rather transparently to deflect attention from itself) do so for the wrong reasons. People “cling to guns,” as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama notoriously said in 2008, because the world seems like such a threatening, inhospitable place — and having guns so readily available leads to more high-profile killings, helping fulfill the prophesy.
TV news and entertainment have thus done their jobs a little too well — and have themselves to blame, in part, for the public-relations headaches they face. The net result is an America armed to the teeth, worried about what horrors lurk outside, and in some quarters, just waiting for somebody to go ahead and make their day.