Getting the facts straight on media violence

Thursday, April 9, 1998

Following closely on any tragedy involving human violence will be the inevitable procession of experts and officials placing the blame on violence in the media. To gauge the reach of this phenomenon, consider the reaction last week after a teen-ager was accidentally shot to death by a friend in the northern French town of Tourcoing.

“I don’t want America to export its civilization of violence,” intoned Claude Allegre, minister of education. “Freedom of creation is fine, but America cannot impose this on us. We are not a country of cowboys, we are not a country of gangsters.”

After reflecting on the shooting horror in Jonesboro, Ark., the French newspaper Le Figaro added: “What happens across the Atlantic often foreshadows what will happen to us. Rather than smile at American errors, we should keep them at a distance. A society that lets children arm themselves—whether through ideology or through weakness—can’t claim to give morality lessons.”

We are to understand, of course, that in this instance the disdain is directed not at Americans in general but at American media. In that, the French join cause with a substantial chunk of American punditry.

When a community is wracked by a tragedy of violence, we yearn to find a cause, something or someone to blame. Therefore, it is only natural, if not exactly rational, that a gaggle of psycho-babblists will waddle forth with their denunciations of “violence in the media.”

These days, the culprit of choice most often is television, but other targets include the movies, music, books, comics, video games and, yes, even the newspapers. It does seem that popular culture today is saturated with violent images and action, making it easier for the pundits to point the finger of blame at the media. Some have learned to call for “responsibility” rather than “regulation.”

And that’s fair enough. But while we’re at it, how about a little more responsibility all around? For the media, for the pundits, for the regulators lurking in the background, and for the public itself.

Here are some thinking points:

First, get the facts straight.

Violence on network television has been declining steadily over the past three years, according to a report released in January by the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Public perception, largely the result of media emphasis, is that almost half of all violent crime is committed by juveniles; in fact, the figure is 19%.

Public perception is that violent crime among juveniles is increasing dramatically; actually, it has remained at about 20% for more than 100 years.

After a terrifying spike beginning in the ’80s, the murder rate among young people declined 31% between 1993 and 1996, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Next, get the social science straight.

Studies that indicate a link between viewing violence and doing violence turn out to be either quite qualified in their conclusions or quite clumsy in their methodology.

Children form basic values at a very young age based primarily on family influence.

There is no way to safely predict whether a given stimulus will provoke positive, negative or neutral behavior, given the vagaries of human personality.

Finally, add a dose of common sense.

If juvenile crime and violence were a function of watching television, then incidents of violence and crime would be more evenly distributed across demographic and geographic boundaries according to the availability of television. As a matter of fact, the rates vary greatly from community to community, class to class.

For the media, being more responsible means taking care with both depictions of violence and discussions of violence as a social problem.

For the pundits, being responsible means acknowledging that blaming the media can be a dangerous game as well as a zero-sum game.

For the policy-makers, being responsible means resolving to quit pandering to fear and to start addressing the clearly demonstrable causes of violence in our society: poverty, guns, drugs, gangs and the declining influence of the family.

For the rest of us, we must resist the impulse to take isolated events, such as the Jonesboro shootings, and turn them into a national trend. And we must recognize that, while blaming violence on the media may give us comfort, it will give us neither surcease nor solutions.