Statement linking media violence to violence in kids draws criticism

Monday, July 31, 2000

By Cheryl Arvidson

The decision by four major health organizations to issue a statement
linking violent television shows, movies, music lyrics and video games to
violence in children was a political one, not one based on conclusive
scientific evidence, according to censorship foes and academics who have
studied the existing research on violence and the media.

“It’s absolutely predictable in the current political climate,” said
Henry Jenkins, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, about the statement released last week in Washington
at a Capitol Hill news conference convened by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

“The mixture of the post-Columbine moral climate coupled with an
election year is designed to feed the ‘culture war’ rhetoric,” Jenkins said,
referring to last year’s massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two teen
gunmen in a Denver suburb. “It feeds into the hands of various political groups
that would like to set themselves up against popular culture for political

“The question I have is, Where’s the news here?” said Robert
Corn-Revere, a First Amendment specialist with the Washington law firm of Hogan
& Hartson. “This isn’t based on some new research or new finding. It’s not
a medical or scientific statement. It’s a political statement.”

The four organizations issuing the statement — the American
Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American
Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent
Psychiatry — said that more than 1,000 studies “point overwhelmingly to a
causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some

“The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years
of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in
aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children,” the
statement said.

“I know the research is not as definitive as people suggest it is and
claim it is,” said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition
Against Censorship. “Why there is this movement in the medical community I
don’t know … but obviously, somebody has been doing some organizing.”

Dr. Edward J. Hill, a spokesman for the American Medical Association,
flatly disputed suggestions that the health groups were making a political
statement. But he did acknowledge that the statement was issued at the behest
of Brownback and some of his congressional colleagues who “wanted to raise the
level of public awareness of the epidemic of violence and the youth of

“What’s the political advantage of the American Medical Association to
go out and talk about a link between media violence and violence?” Hill asked.
“I don’t see any political advantage to that. I think we have a professional
and moral responsibility to point out that there is that link, and parents have
to be extremely aware of this link. I think that is extremely responsible.”

But Jonathan Freedman, a professor in the University of Toronto
Department of Psychology who has studied the research on media violence and
violent behavior, said he found the statement of the AMA and other health
groups to be “irresponsible.”

“It’s incredible,” he said. “The scientific evidence does not support
what they are saying. In fact they claim that it does, and that is simply
incorrect in my opinion.”

Freedman said that although some studies suggest a causal link between
entertainment violence and violent acts in children, “the majority of them do
not. Normally, in science, you expect to get consistent results. It’s
irresponsible for any scientist to say that given the distribution of (these)
results, this is proven.”

Freedman, a psychologist, said he wouldn’t be so upset if the medical
groups had issued a statement saying they believed there was a link “based on
our intuitions and experience. But putting it in terms of what scientific
evidence shows is irresponsible and absolutely wrong. I would challenge the AMA
to bring forth any member of their board who has read it (the research).

“First, you have to be trained to read it,” he continued. “I imagine
the doctors would have a great deal of difficulty reading this kind of
research. Even if they were trained to do it, they would have to take the time
to do it. It would take a year to read the research carefully. I don’t blame
them for not reading it; I just blame them for making a statement that suggests
they have read it.”

Hill, the AMA spokesman, conceded that neither he nor anyone on the
board had read the research, “but we have a science department that gives us
the information that we utilize. We have to depend upon that science
department. I suspect that our science department has thoroughly read that

Hill said suggestions that the scientific evidence is not definitive
reminded him of the earlier debate over evidence linking tobacco to cancer.

“Forty years ago they said exactly the same thing about tobacco,” he
said. “Obviously, it has been quite proven that we were not irresponsible. This
is another example of that type of rhetoric. They’re condemning the quality of
science behind this link that we think is a causal link between media violence
and real violence in some people.”

But Freedman said it was “really insulting” to compare the studies on
television, movie, music or video game violence to the smoking and cancer
studies. “There the evidence is extremely powerful and consistent and
convincing. That is not the case with this kind of (violence) research,” he

Bertin said that for several years, social scientists have sought to
cast the media violence/youth violence debate as the same type of discussion
identified cigarettes and guns as public health threats.

“The cause and effect between cigarettes and health and guns and
health are clear,” she said. “But here, the link between viewing violence in
some entertainment format and engaging in a criminal act is not at all

Jenkins, who said he approached the question from the viewpoint of a
“humanist” who studies issues of culture, said he was troubled when lawmakers
trumpet “fairly simple-minded political solutions to complex problems.”

“We’re not dealing with this (youth violence) as a complex, cultural
concern that requires multiple types of research to be brought together,” he
said. “That is not to say the media has no effect, it’s just that it is much
more complicated than the causal claim” cited by the health organizations.

Both Jenkins and Bertin said that when a group as prestigious as the
AMA flatly endorses a link between media violence and violence in children, it
raises the stakes in the debate and makes it more difficult to get to the heart
of the problem.

“It’s very, very hard to argue against the AMA because of the aura of
authority that we ascribe to medicine and science in our current culture, which
means to me the AMA should be more careful” in the positions it takes, Jenkins
said. “I’m simply skeptical that my doctor has more to say than I do about the
cultural causes of these problems. It’s making judgments about things [the
doctor] isn’t qualified to evaluate.”

Although most people “know instinctively that this (media violence) is
not what causes people to become violent and it’s much more complicated than
that … it is going to concern people,” Bertin said. “It must be
countered. I think to the casual observer, it certainly is going to have an

“I wish these organizations had exerted better judgment than to start
releasing statements about causal effects,” agreed Corn-Revere, the First
Amendment lawyer. “With some very limited exceptions, not even the social
scientists who conduct the studies make such claims.”

Bertin said one way to counter the argument of the health groups is to
“go at it the other way and get the people who actually engage in crime and try
to work backwards to determine what are the causative actions that actually
precipitated this crime. They hardly ever talk about the media. That might be
one way to bring a little more clarity to the discussion.

“I don’t want to be an apologist for crummy television and movies,”
she continued. “That’s not the point. The point is these claims of causation
are not well founded, and they terribly … over simplify a very complex

Bertin said she was not suggesting that “there isn’t an occasional
person for whom this stimulus is important, but most people think … that
the person for whom that kind of stimulus is the operative event is like an
accident waiting to happen. If it weren’t the TV show, it could be a comic
book. That person is looking for an excuse, and finds it in the media he
chooses to view.”

Jenkins said the problem with current research on media violence and
behavior is that cultural studies cannot be conducted in a sterile laboratory
environment in the same way other medical research is done. For example, he
said, “very few of us consume violent media in a sterile laboratory” and
cultural factors have a major impact on how an individual reacts. Also, he
said, just studying a “neurological response” does not factor in “how people
interpret, translate, make sense of the type of violence they are

The studies also fail to make distinctions between the impact of
different types of media violence on different age groups, he said, adding that
the studies also measure only the immediate response to violence, but the
effect may be quite different after some time has passed.

“There is no direct process we can follow between consuming media
violence and committing violent crime,” he said. “I think the really good work
… is very cautious and very qualified.”