This thing that the media is doing in regards to violent media being the main problem in all of the murders we have in this country needs to stop. At worst it’s a craven and manipulative way to avoid the actual problems which are guns, lots of guns and even more guns And at best it just shows how lazy the media is. Note the appropriate response when the Wayne LaPierre President of the NRA speaks is some mixture of derisive laughter and pointing. Better yet, just ignore him altogether. That’s what’s supposed to happen to crackpots and their arguments. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s been happening. Or at least, it hasn’t been happening enough.
I happen to consume quite a bit of all of those categories of entertainment. For example, last year I spent a fair bit of time watching shows like the Walking Dead and playing games like Mass Effect 3. For the uninitiated, those are two of the most violent pieces of entertainment out there. And don’t even get me started on some of the music I enjoy. Yet despite these facts, I have somehow managed to NOT go on a kill-crazy rampage. Mom would be so proud. So it’s hard to fathom how much media types just don’t get it. I honestly don’t know how they get from A to B on this point. But maybe I’m letting my own anecdotal evidence color my perceptions. Matt Lewis from the Daily Caller and The Week.com collected a few choice bits from Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough from Morning Joe on MSNBC. I’ll let them ramble on for a bit:
It started when Mika Brzezinski cited a 2001 study called “The Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior,” which says that “exposure to violent video games increases physiological arousal as well as aggressive thoughts, emotions, actions, and decreases positive social behavior.”
“These video games are frightening,” Brzezinski averred, “because if a child is socially isolated and grows up into teenage years and even early adulthood, they’re also sexually frustrated. And they’re trying to figure themselves out alone. They sit in a room, and they watch these violent games and they basically simulate mass killings. It is… a form of release or arousal for them.”
Now here’s Joe Scarborough himself tagging in on how movies are the problem.
I think you need to bring people like Harvey Weinstein around the table,” Scarborough continued, “and just say, ‘this is no longer socially acceptable. It is no longer socially acceptable after Newtown for you to give Quenton Tarantino money to make movies that glorify slaughter, murder, rage, than it would be, Harvey, for you to give somebody millions of dollars to make a cheap porn movie.'”
This is about as sophisticated as the conversation gets regarding media violence leading to actual violence. I’ll get to the study cited in a moment but their basic argument seems to be this: There’s been a horrible massacre with guns, let’s not eliminate those things. Let’s censor video games and movies instead. Brilliant, right? Well, no.
Here’s problem number one with this line of thinking: We’ve managed to have huge helpings of violence in this country without movies or video games to blame it on. You know stuff like rape, murder, and slavery. But you know what, maybe that’s too broad. If you wanted to make the case linking media violence to actual violence here’s how you’d do it.
Let’s take a particular time frame say 1980-2012. It’s easy to show that the movies and video games are more violent today as opposed to back in 1980. The top ten movies from 1980 included two violent films and the top ten films from 2012 included eight. There were barely any video games in people’s homes in 1980 so it’s an even easier comparison. So we’ve established that both movies and video games are more violent now then they were back in 1980. Then what you’d want to do is trace the homicide rate from 1980 till now. If the whole media violence is the cause of all our death and destruction like these people want you to believe, there should be a positive correlation between the murder rate and those movies and games. That is, as games and movies became more violent over time, we should also see an escalation in the murder rate over that same time. Here’s the Washington Post on homicides over the years.
The national homicide rate for 2011 was 4.8 per 100,000 citizens — less than half of what it was in the early years of the Great Depression, when it peaked before falling precipitously before World War II. The peak in modern times of 10.2 was in 1980, as recorded by national criminal statistics.
To be clear, our current homicide rate is less than half of the modern peak set in 1980 and less than half what it was during the Great Depression. You know, back when jazz music was to blame for all societal ills. With statistics like these one could actually make the assertion that violent media actually prevents homicides. After all, as violent media increased in American society violent crime has actually gone down. It’s almost as if these people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. And it’s not just the homicides, overall violent crime is on a downward trajectory. Unless they’re willing to make the argument that the murder rate in 1980 was due to Pac-Man and Asteroids they should STFU. But they want to cite some research, so let’s go there. Let’s get into the studies themselves.
There are basically two studies that are always referenced when the subject of violent media in relation to actual violence comes up. They are both problematic. The first is the one that Ms. Brzezinski brought up. First of all, that study consisted of looking at other studies and articles from newspapers. Even the study itself uses terms to describe some of its references as “methodologically flawed” and “not published in peer-reviewed journals.” For those who don’t know, having a study not published in a peer review journal is scientific equivalent of I heard this in a bar. Additionally, the actual conclusion states
Although many youth who engaged in violent school events were video game players, most also had maladaptive personality traits and characteristics (3). With over 90% of children exposed to video games of some kind (4), it is likely that any single school shooter has played video games. However, since most individuals exposed to violent video games do not display assaultive or lethal violence in the real world,
other factors are probably have [sic] causative effects. These may include a stressful, disrupted, and/or abusive family life, poverty, negative peer group influence, and bullying.”
So the primary study that everyone likes to bring up to prove their point about violence in video-games causing real life violence actually says it’s probably something else (coincidentally, a handful of other social issues that are typically scorned as fluff by conservatives and treated as serious challenges by liberals). Again this shows utter lack of professionalism in the media. Clearly, she has never actually read the study — which you’ll find, if you click the link above, is not dense reading. It seems to be somebody’s grad school thesis and is only about 11 pages of content, excluding references and tables. But why be bothered to read the actual study when you can just forward a popular meme?
The second study most often cited is even more problematic. This study, “Does playing violent video games induce aggression? Empirical evidence of a functional magnetic resonance imaging study” (no link, but it’s in the January 2006 issue of the Journal of Media Psychology if you’re interested) mapped the brains of its participants with MRIs while they played violent video games and did find a “short-term causal link,” which sounds oh so very scary until you learn that this study only used 13 test subjects. And even this study found proves the opposite point.
Although there are probably more positive effects of playing all types of video games and even violent video games, such as socializing with peers or improving cognitive and physical abilities, it is important that we continue to explore this causal relationship we have shown in this research.”
Let this be a lesson to anyone who hears about a study. The person on TV explaining the study’s results probably doesn’t understand what the study actually says and they definitely didn’t read the thing. Let’s check the scoreboard. To date there are no reputable studies that show a positive link between violent media and actual violence. Despite the recent tragedies in Newtown and Aurora, homicides are at historic lows. Other modern countries see the same movies and play the same video games as we do. The biggest difference between the United States and other modernized countries is access to guns. Put this all together and what does the media give you? Apparently, we must return to the idyllic time before violent media when the murder rate was more than twice its current level.
What a plan.
I’ll leave you with a final thought about the relationship between violence and entertainment. In 1959, Heinrich Pommerencke raped and killed a bunch of women. His reason? A movie made him do it. The horrible violent movie that filled his head with such depravity was…The 10 Commandments.
He explained how he had watched a showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, seen the licentious women dancing around the golden calf, and decided that he “would have to kill.” It was his mission.
I wonder why the pious crusaders never wanted to ban that movie? Oh yeah, because that’s crazy. That would be like banning pet dogs right after the Son of Sam was apprehended. Lots of pointless effort in pursuit of the exact wrong so-called problem.
Let’s sum up. There are three things that the media is apparently asking us to track in these situations: violent entertainment provokes a mentally unstable individual to get a dangerous firearm and go kill people. Liberals and conservatives are at a wary point of agreement on point #2. We have an incredible amount of research and data that points to the fact that point #3 — widespread and easy access to GUNS — has a direct positive correlation to violent death due to guns. (go figure). The media would like us to believe that there is some equal or comparable amount of research on which to stand point #1, as a counterbalance for policymakers to consider — but this research doesn’t really exist. It’s a couple of loosely tossed together studies based on kitchen-wisdom hypotheses that their authors even admit don’t pan out in the end. And yet we must hear, time and again, about how awful violent entertainment must be — with not one valid data-based argument to support the thought — at the expense of actual shit that is really going on in the world.
C’mon, mainstream media. Step up your game. You may not hear it often anymore, but you have an important role to play in this big, short-attention-span democracy of ours. And you’re really falling down on the job.