Avoid media ‘witch hunt’ over school violence, author says

Thursday, December 9, 1999

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First Amendment Roundtable: The Media and Violence. Archived Webcast.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Parents, schools and legislators — in a “moral panic”
over high-profile incidents of school violence — are on a “witch hunt”
to blame the media, an author and media expert says.

Henry Jenkins...
Henry Jenkins

“Moral panics are a bad basis for public policy,” said Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, at a discussion on media violence today at
the World Center. Adults have been too quick to point the finger at the
media for causing kids to take up guns, he said.

Referring to the Colorado school shooting that left several students
dead, Jenkins continued, “In the wake of Littleton, we've lived through
a period of moral panic. … There's been an enormous breakdown in the
classroom. Whole schools disconnected from the Internet. … A kid was
suspended for wearing a Star of David because his teacher thought it was
a gang symbol.” Another student was disciplined for wearing his ROTC
uniform to school because it included a long black trench coat — the
attire worn by the Littleton shooters, he said.

That atmosphere of fear and overreaction also pervades the halls of
Congress, Jenkins said, where the debate over whether or not the media
contribute to youth crime is already over. For example, he said, in
congressional hearings it's accepted as fact that watching a violent
film can provoke a student to kill someone. Children are discussed as if
there's no difference between a 4-year-old and an 18-year-old. And
important scholarly work is misrepresented and generalized to support a
foregone conclusion — that violence in the media leads directly to
violence in schools. That conclusion, Jenkins said, hasn't been proven.

Jenkins was echoing the concern of two other panelists, both of whom
have done extensive research on the effect of media violence, albeit in
two different fields.

Debra Niehoff...
Debra Niehoff

Too often, people focus on the social causes of violence, rather than
the evidence that the brain has a significant effect on aggression, said
Debra Niehoff, an author who has studied the biology of aggression more
than 20 years.

“Brain research tells us that violent behavior … is the result of a
developmental process,” Niehoff said. That's not to say that genetics
alone causes violence, either, she said, any more than culture alone does.
Instead, the brain goes through “a series of interactions between the
human being and the environment. … If [those interactions] are
positive, the neurological system then supports socially acceptable
behavior. If they're negative, we see a deterioration in behavior … an
overreaction or underreaction to threats.

“Violence is [a result of] a process. It has many causes,” Niehoff said.

Joanne Savage...
Joanne Savage

Even when behavioral studies point to a “statistically significant”
finding that media violence increased aggressive behavior, to conclude
that there is direct causation between violence on TV and violent acts
is oversimplification, said Joanne Savage, an assistant professor in the
Department of Justice, Law and Society in the School of Public Affairs
at American University.

What's much more directly related, she said, is the subject's individual
experiences — lack of social bonds, lack of control, criminal
opportunities, association with deviant peers. Those factors have been
shown time and again to have a major influence on a person's behavior,
Savage said.

For policymakers, “I would suggest they address the proximate causes
instead of giving so much attention to what is probably a periphery
cause” of violent behavior in kids, Savage said.

Joanne Cantor...
Joanne Cantor

But author and professor Joanne Cantor said, “it's important for us to
ask, 'Are we making the situation worse by adding lots of gratuitous
violence [to a child's environment]?' not, 'Does this cause violence?' “

Watching violent acts might make a child who may already have violent
tendencies more likely to lash out, she said. For example, when Israeli
children began watching U.S. television shows on WWF wrestling, the
number of play-wrestling injuries, copied from the TV show, rose
dramatically. Parents and other groups then worked to show kids that it
was dangerous to emulate the wrestlers, and the incidents went down.

“I can't hold an individual (TV) program responsible for a particular crime,
but I do think harm can ensue from a particular program [because] it
may … contribute to the way that crime is committed,” Cantor said.

The answer is education, she said. “We need media literacy. We need to
give kids the coping skills so they can understand the consequences of

Cantor also said that parents can't do it alone. “I'm not in favor of
censorship, but … parents need a convenient way to protect their
children.” Most aren't aware that the V-chip is now widely available,
she said, because the media have too much riding on advertising revenue
to promote the idea that their programs can be blocked.

She compared television companies to tobacco corporations that tried to
deny that smoking causes cancer. “And the media have greater control
over the message than the tobacco companies ever did.”

Jenkins urged parents and lawmakers to talk to teens “about (media)
culture and what it means to them” before drafting legislation or making
school policies.

He said that adults may find that the “pleasures” kids get out of
fantasy violence in video games or watching a fast-paced, shoot-em-up
movie are often innocuous:

  • “For teenagers, it's empowerment, compared to school [where they might
    be] bullied or picked on.”
  • “It's a sense of transgression in opposition to parental values,” a
    cause of many adolescent behaviors as children move into adulthood.
  • “It's an acknowledgement that the reality they're living in is darker
    than anything Barney or the Teletubbies [portrays]. … [They have to]
    acknowledge darkness in their lives [to be able to] work their way
    through it.
  • “It's an emotional intensification [that gives them] a way of escaping
    the other feelings they're having.”

These, Jenkins said, are the solutions:

  • Education.
  • Parental control.
  • And most of all, the realization that, when it comes to solutions to
    this problem, “one size does not fit all.”