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Blaming Television and Movies Is Easy and Wrong

February 04, 2001|KAREN STERNHEIMER | Karen Sternheimer teaches in the sociology department at USC and is research consultant to the Center for Media Literacy. She is working on a book about media and children

Conclusions in the recent surgeon general's report linking violence with the media are dangerously misleading.

It is only fitting in the electronic age that we continually turn to popular culture to explain our social problems. But we need to question why public discussion keeps blaming the media for violence. Congressional hearings on the subject are practically an annual event, yet most people do not realize that the research these conclusions are based on is highly controversial in social science circles. The real problem is that politicians' continued attention to media as the cause of violence encourages the public to make this connection and ignore other causes.

The four biggest fallacies about the media-violence connection:

* Media violence is the central cause of violence. Violence is not an equal opportunity problem. People who live in violent neighborhoods and families are more likely to become violent (or the victims of violence) than anybody else. Period. To presume media can create violence where no other risk factors exist is misleading. Dangerously misleading, in fact, because it diverts public attention away from more likely contributors, such as alcohol abuse, the deterioration of public education and the lack of economic opportunity in impoverished areas. The lack of hope and the feeling that failure is inevitable can lead to frustration and aggression. If we blame only media, it becomes only about parental choices and V-chips and preaching to kids.

* All violence is the same. One of the studies the surgeon general cites equates programs as diverse as cartoons and police dramas with video games and action movies. By lumping them all together as simply "violent," we not only belittle the intelligence of the viewing public, but we negate the importance of context and meaning. If everyone knows that Wile E. Coyote is not real and therefore no one is hurt, is this violence? Studies have demonstrated that even young children can discern fantasy from reality. We must also ask why state-sanctioned violence is rarely brought up in these inquiries. Wasn't Timothy McVeigh trained by the U.S. military, not just the media?

* Correlation indicates causation. This is one of the biggest sins a researcher can commit: taking a statistic and overstating its meaning. Correlation, the type of statistical analysis most frequently cited by the surgeon general, tells us about associations, not cause and effect. It is likely that people with a propensity for violence are drawn toward violent media, thus creating a correlation. In other words, just because ice cream sales are higher when more air conditioners are turned on does not mean turning on air conditioners will increase ice cream sales. It is the heat.

* Only the entertainment industry disputes this research. This is simply untrue. The media-violence connection is hotly debated among social scientists, but this never makes the headlines. There is a growing body of research and writing that disputes the idea of a cause-effect connection between media and violence.

So why do public officials continually return to this specious argument and ignore conflicting research? Perhaps because it makes the problem of violence in the U.S. someone else's responsibility. Change your script. Monitor your kids' music better. Buy a new TV with a V-chip. This way we don't have to worry about the easy availability of guns or provide impoverished public schools with better facilities or create job training programs in urban areas still recovering from economic restructuring. Just turn off your TV and it will all go away.

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