Does increasing violence in films, TV and video games fuel a more violent America — including even the mass shootings that erupted in Parkland, Florida?
Experts say the answer is complex. But for many voters, the entertainment industry is at least partially to blame.
In the wake of the school massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 882 registered California voters weighed in on gun-related issues for an Eyewitness News-Southern California News Group poll conducted by SurveyUSA. Among the questions was “To what extent is the entertainment industry — including those who produce TV shows and motion pictures — responsible for the mass shootings in America?”
Forty-nine percent held Hollywood at least somewhat responsible. As to whether that’s actually true, though, is another question:
“It’s perfectly interesting to find out what people think about that,” Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said. “However, I don’t think you get close to answering a question that complex — and it is a really complex question — by just asking people off the street. [If that percent] of Americans think school shootings are partially caused by violence in the movies and television, it’s interesting that that many people think that’s true. But that gets us absolutely no closer to whether or not it is true.”
More scientific research indicates media violence may move some to act out the real thing, but a causal contribution of watching a “Game of Thrones” bloodbath to unloading an AR-15 in class isn’t close to being proven.
“The rarer the behavior, the more complex the behavior is,” explained Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University who, among other things, served as an expert on violent media for President Obama’s Gun Violence Committee. “It’s pretty easy to draw a link between exposure to violent media and aggressive behavior. But aggressive behavior is fairly common, assault is more rare, murder is even more rare and mass shootings are incredibly rare, even though it seems like they’re very common.”
Bushman added that in a meta-analysis of 381 effects-on studies involving violent video games he helped oversee, the overwhelming majority of them found links to aggressive behavior.
But Thompson noted that there’s a long history of studies that look into whether watching fictional violence makes people violent or not.
“I think, at best, one could say it’s inconclusive,” Thompson said. “I’ve read an awful lot of this stuff. A lot of it is bad social science, some of it is OK social science, some of it swears that yes, there’s an impact, others say that there’s not.
“What that gets us to, what we can take from all of that, is that it is really, really hard to separate all of the variables that go into a behavior as aggressive and radical as going out and killing other people,” Thompson continued.
Thompson pointed out, as many free expression advocates have over the years, that millions who play first-person shooter games or obsessively watch “The Walking Dead” are nice, gentle folks in real life who would never actually shoot somebody. Bushman acknowledged that mass shooting is extreme aberrant behavior, but was firm that watching violent media is a risk factor for it.
“Violent criminal behavior, including mass shootings, is very complex, caused by many risk factors often occurring together,” Bushman noted. “Exposure to violent media is one of those risk factors; it’s not the only one or even the most important one, but it’s definitely not a trivial one.”
Those convinced that media can inspire actual violence in some like to point out that advertisers wouldn’t spend billions on broadcast TV ads each year if they didn’t influence people to buy stuff, so why wouldn’t depictions of violence have some kind of similar effect. Counter arguments might point out that societal and group/individual moral factors tend to discourage violence much more than they do purchasing attractive products and services.
But the more pervasive, amoral and graphic violence that has increased in pop culture over the last few generations could also have an overall eroding effect on such inhibitions.
“You don’t always mimic everything you see, of course not,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, the grassroots group that advocates to protect children from being exposed to violence, sex and profanity in the media. “But it has a long-term, negative, cumulative impact. It desensitizes, it causes us to be in greater fear of our surroundings and it tends to suggest, especially to children, that violence is an appropriate way to resolve conflict.”
If what we watch is so influential on our behavior, though, Thompson asks why his Baby Boom Generation, raised on wholesome TV fare like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” didn’t grow up to lead sanitized, Norman Rockwell painting lives.
“We grew up watching television that didn’t have swearing, there was violence in Westerns but it was pretty stylized, and forget pre-marital sex; there was no marital sex on television, right up through Rob and Laura having separate beds on the hip ‘Dick Van Dyke Show’,” he recalled. “And the Baby Boom Generation did quite the opposite. They divorced as a national pastime, they completely normalized premarital sex, they got abortion legalized . . . .”
While many Hollywood professionals have publicly supported efforts by surviving students of the Parkland massacre and others’ calls for more gun control, their opponents — and not necessarily just gun rights advocates — have detected hypocrisy in people who sometimes make their living in violent media decrying it in the real world.
“I think examining the idea that their entire industry is so completely steeped in the firing of guns is something worth thinking about.”
— Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture, on violence in film
George Clooney, for example, has been criticized in some quarters for vocally and financially supporting the students’ gun control efforts when he has starred in such ballistically based films as “The Peacemaker,” “Three Kings” and “The American.”
Thompson says yep, there is some hypocrisy there. But with gunplay one of the fundamental activities Hollywood entertainment has been built on for more than a century, there also might be glimmers of self-awareness that come with it.
“When an industry starts to examine what’s going on in contemporary culture, including some real pathologies like the perpetuation of shootings, I think examining the idea that their entire industry is so completely steeped in the firing of guns is something worth thinking about,” Thompson said.
And it should be mentioned that show business types may not be the only hypocrites when it comes to media violence. When “The Blacklist” star Megan Boone tweeted, after Parkland, that her FBI agent character “Liz Keen will never carry an assault rifle again and I am deeply sorry for participating in glorifying them in the past. Yours, girl from Florida,” half the comments were derisive complaints from people who enjoyed their violent shows.
“The firing of a gun is such a Hollywood cliché; It’s like, everybody does it,” Thompson noted. “The difference from other cliches, though, is that even though everybody keeps on doing it, we seem to never get tired of watching it.”
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