A panic of biblical proportions over media violence

Monday, August 21, 2000

Two lawyers have asked the German government to place the Bible on the
national “not for children list” because it is too violent. This book
contains a “gruesomeness difficult to exceed,” said lawyers Christian
Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel in a letter to Germany’s family minister.

“It preaches genocide, racism, enmity toward Jews, gruesome
executions for adulterers and homosexuals, the murder of one’s own children and
many other perversities,” they wrote.

In these days of panic and political pandering over violence in the
media, it’s difficult to know whether these lawyers are serious or just trying
to make a point.

Certainly, the American Bar Association’s Division for Public
Education was serious last week when it announced the publication of a new
guide to help teachers address violence in television programs, movies, video
games and the Internet. The division quoted Mary A. Hepburn, professor emeritus
of social science at the University of Georgia in Athens, as saying that media
violence is “a powerful ingredient” in violent youth behavior. And
the ABA group cited “an increasing number of studies linking media
violence” and “violence in the classroom.”

This is just the latest professional group to trump reason and science
with political rhetoric about media violence as a cause of real violence.

Late last month,
four major
health groups issued a joint statement endorsing the scientifically dubious
claim that media cause violence. They announced their conclusions at a
political “summit” organized by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a leading
proponent of the idea that violence in the media translates into violence in
the streets.

Later, a spokesman for the American Medical Association conceded (1.)
that the groups issued their joint statement at the request of Sen. Brownback,
(2.) that members of the AMA board had not read any of the studies they were
citing, and (3.) that a report on the issue actually hasn’t been written

These groups are not the only ones who came to a conclusion before
they came to a thorough study of the evidence. In this case, however, it’s
difficult to understand how they arrived at this particular conclusion when
there are so many serious questions about a causal connection between media and

Yet they trot out in the joint statement the tired claim, “At
this time, well over 1000 studies … point overwhelmingly to a causal
connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some

It would be most difficult for these groups to produce a list of more
than 1,000 studies on media violence. It would be even more difficult to
produce a list of 1,000 studies that focus primarily on children and violence.
It would be impossible to produce a list of 1,000 studies that state an
unequivocal causal link between media and “aggressive behavior” in
children, let alone violent acts by children.

Yet this “fact” has been tossed about so often by
politicians and activists that even professionals and scholars feel safe in
using it. That is just one example of the loopy nature of this debate:
Political leaders exaggerate and distort what studies do exist, their rhetoric
gets written into legislation as reality, experts adopt and cite the
“official” position, and in turn are quoted by political leaders in
proposing yet more legislation to solve the problem by limiting expression
containing violence.

All of this takes place in an environment where terms are ambiguous
and agendas are numerous. Definitions of “violence” as depicted in
entertainment media frequently are broad and vary from one pronouncement to
another. They conflate all so-called “violent acts” into one negative
or harmful category, with little or no regard given to content or context or
whether the depiction is fact or fiction, virtual or real.

A few studies do suggest a connection between television violence and
“aggressive behavior” in a small percentage of the individuals
studied (the causal link for other types of media is generally assumed since
few non-TV studies exist). The reality is that there are significant scientific
hurdles to overcome in demonstrating that media violence actually causes
violence, no matter whether the research takes place in a laboratory study, a
field study, a longitudinal study or a combination or variation of those

The methodological challenges are nearly insurmountable. Researchers
are bound ethically not to produce actual violence among their subjects, so
they must rely instead on measuring “arousal” or testing for
“aggressive behavior” — responses that often are modeled or
sanctioned by the studies or researchers themselves and sometimes cannot be
distinguished from the emotional reactions to the medium itself rather than the
content of the programming.

Those who cite these carefully qualified studies suggesting a
connection between media and violence ignore the reality that there is
absolutely no way of predicting with certainty whether a so-called violent
depiction will produce a positive, negative or neutral result in a given

They also ignore the word of criminologists, sociologists, biologists
and others that media violence is not even a significant factor in determining
the causes and interventions for violence. The real causes of violence, in
fact, are well known and securely documented: poverty, drugs, gangs, guns,
broken families, neglect and abuse, harsh and inconsistent discipline, peer

These problems, however, don’t lend themselves to easy solutions or
easy rhetoric.

So the political appeal of the idea of media violence causing real
violence is such that many are unwilling to search for real solutions, which
would be too complicated and expensive and take too long to yield results.

But policy-makers are not the only ones who deserve blame for allowing
the nation’s attention to be diverted from the real causes of violence and
expending time, energy and resources on false solutions.

There is plenty of blame to go around among:

Health professionals, for lending their authority and
credibility to this delay and denial.

Child advocacy groups, for letting others hijack their
campaigns for addressing children’s real needs.

Scholars, for failing to set the record straight when their
studies are misrepresented, exaggerated and harnessed to a political

And the rest of us, for allowing all of that to go on while
our children still wait for answers.

There is an inevitable line of logic that must issue from the
assertion that media cause violence: We must censor TV, the movies, the
Internet, music and video games. Gloria Tristani of the Federal Communications
Commission even endorses the idea that violence can be treated as obscenity and
banned accordingly.

There is a reason, of course, that violence as obscenity or the
concept of “copycat crimes” have not taken hold in the courts, where
evidence and reason trump assertions and wishfulness, and where freedom of
expression is a constitutional mandate rather than a political irritant.

But it isn’t in a court a law where this story is playing out. It is
in the court of public opinion, and right now rant and rhetoric are winning out
over science and reason. In such an environment, it’s only a matter of time
before the Bible winds up on the censored list.

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