Surgeon general’s youth-violence report backs media, experts say

Friday, January 19, 2001
Surgeon General David Satcher

Although a report issued this week by Surgeon General David Satcher
mentions a link between media violence and youth violence, several First
Amendment experts say the report does more to vindicate, rather than condemn,
the media.

“The report well establishes, contrary to the media-violence
campaigners’ claims, that we (the media) are not creating a culture of violence
among our youth, nor are there any substantial adverse long-term effects,” said
Robert S. Peck, a Washington, D.C., constitutional lawyer.

The report “found that it was extremely difficult to distinguish
between the relatively small long-term effects of exposure to media violence
and those of other influences,” according to a press release issued by the
surgeon general’s office on Jan. 17. However, the report does say, “Research to
date justifies sustained efforts to curb the adverse effects of media violence
on youths.”

“The issue of the role of the media in youth violence is an important
one, and some people expected it to be a major focus of our report,” Satcher
said in a Jan. 17 CNN chat room discussion. “But, in the report, while we point
out that exposure to violence in the media — especially television
— can significantly increase aggressive behavior in youth, it is not a
major long-term factor in violent behavior.” He said more research should be
conducted to discover what causes youth violence.

The White House and Congress requested that the youth violence study
be conducted in 1999 after two Columbine High School students in Colorado
killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. A shooting at a
Baltimore high school happened about an hour before Satcher released the
report’s findings, according to an Associated Press article.

A team of researchers, assembled by the National Institutes of Health,
prepared the report.

The report suggests that factors, other than media violence, threaten
to cause violence among young people. “The major factors today fall into the
categories of individual and environmental factors,” Satcher said in the CNN
chat room discussion. The report also says that a failure to recognize the true
nature of the youth violence problem can “obscure the need for informed policy
or for interventions.”

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against
Censorship agrees with Satcher’s assessment that other factors contribute to
youth violence.

“The report recognizes that violence is an extremely complex issue and
quick fixes won’t do and can actually be harmful and distract attention from
more profitable avenues and research,” Bertin said. “The report leaves media
influences in a very marginal place,” she added.

Bertin said Satcher’s report is similar to one issued in 1994 by the
National Academy of Arts and Sciences on violence that pointed to
environmental, biological, social, economic and personal factors that influence
violent behavior among all people, not just youth.

Peck says that those who use the surgeon general’s report to support
government limitations on media violence would be misusing it.

“Even the surgeon general, who obviously was seeking to find a
significant connection between media violence and real violence, could not, and
instead recommended ‘efforts to curb adverse effects,’ ” Peck said. “I read
that as support for more media education, not for censorship.”

Bertin says she hopes the surgeon general’s report will allow people
to discuss the debate over whether media violence influences youth violence
more dispassionately and clearly.

“It’s simply wrong-headed to take the shootings at Columbine High
School and say if kids don’t watch violence on television and don’t play video
games then they won’t commit violent acts,” she said.

Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project in New
York, says the causes of youth violence are complex and grow out of family and
peer group relationships. “Media violence is not a significant factor and
censoring media violence will do nothing to resolve the problems of troubled
youth,” she said.

The report “focuses on real causes of problems of youth violence,”
Heins said. “The media is a very minor insignificant factor in this report,
which criminologists have been saying for 10 years or more.”

In the press release issued by Satcher’s office, the surgeon general
said it’s important that the nation confront youth violence “systematically
using research-based approaches and to correct damaging myths and stereotypes
that interfere with the task at hand.”

Heins agrees.

“Hopefully, the report will help focus policy makers on real solutions
to this problem rather than headline-grabbing, but ultimately senseless,
censorship proposals.”