Studies are unclear, but self-restraint by media could help

“The most problematic violence was overly gratuitous, lacked consequences and went unpunished.”

Jeffrey Cole is the director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School. He was principal investigator of the Network Television Violence Monitoring Project, which issued annual reports to the networks, Congress and the nation in 1995, 1996 and 1997. 

In looking for answers following 2012’s horrific shootings in Aurora and especially Newtown, we try to find a place to fix blame.

The use of guns, whether as a cause of the violence or as an enabler of the socially misfit or mentally ill, will be debated with more ferocity than we have seen in the past 20 years. And once again, the role of the mass media in creating scenes of violence that can be linked to actual violence will be just as vigorously examined.

While there are violent lyrics in some popular music, most attention has been focused on violence on television and, to a lesser extent, motion pictures. The simple question has been, does violence on screen lead to actual violence in society? The best answer is sometimes it does, but it is nearly impossible to substantiate a link between specific acts of media violence and actual acts of violence.

We know that a criminal can learn a technique or a method of committing violence from watching, but the propensity to violence is usually already there.

So the best answer to whether violence on television and in movies causes real crime is that in some cases with certain individuals it may, but usually only when some other source of frustration (depression or mental illness, financial or relationship stress, powerlessness) is already in play. It is clear that the vast majority of viewers who witness the same acts of violence that could provoke a few to actual violence bear no ill effects or lasting impact whatsoever.

The reason it has been so difficult to regulate media violence is because such links are not possible to establish. Efforts to provide some information for parents coming out of the 1990s, such as a V-Chip or content ratings, have proved largely invisible and ineffective, especially in television.

But while television violence is the most studied issue in social science, videogame violence has barely been examined.

Games are the most important way that media violence has changed in the past 20 years.

Unscientifically speaking, military or assault videogames seem to closely resemble the acts of violence that give us such concern. The repetitive acts of shooting may not only increase a shooter’s accuracy with weapons, it may desensitize the shooter as well. The U.S. military uses shooter videogames to recruit enlistees to the armed forces and to train them afterward.

It is too easy, however, to blame games by themselves, and to do so ignores the positive roles they play in teaching teamwork, cooperation and communication.

The odds are overwhelming that media and guns will be talked about over the next few months with no action following that talk. In looking at the role of the media, we believe there are two positive actions that can follow Newtown:

First, videogames do add a new dimension and new questions to the violence in media debate. The role of games should become an important new area of social science inquiry. The government and universities should fund research substantially different from that looking at filmed entertainment to understand the role videogames may play in leading to real violence.

Second, past research has made it clear that some depictions of violent media are worse than others. In leading one of the major violence-in-media projects in the mid-1990s, my team found that the most problematic violence was that which lacked appropriate context for the violence, and where the violence was overly gratuitous — far more violence than needed to tell the story — lacked consequences and went unpunished.

This approach recognizes that violence is central to much storytelling and calls on the broadcast networks, studios and videogame makers to show restraint and consider other options in when and how they use violence.

This call for self-restraint has nothing to do with government regulation, which is unnecessary and would infringe upon the First Amendment. Even without a fear or need of governmental regulation, media creators must recognize they have a part in the national conversation on violence, and owe it to the country and themselves to contribute to a better and safer society.