Op-Ed: Understanding Media Violence

August 2012  

Once again, the horror of a violent assault has spread around the globe at the speed of light. Just as the many incidents that preceded it, the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colo., has reignited the cultural debate on media violence.

It is difficult to know to what extent, if any, the consumption of media messages had to do with the killer’s decision to unleash his assault on an unsuspecting movie audience. In response to some voices that react to such assaults by talking about the possible influence of media, some others shout back, “Movies don’t kill people—people kill people.” Of course, this is true, and many of those who make this point bristle at the notion that by talking about media influence on behavior, the spotlight is redirected away from personal responsibility for one’s actions.

But we ought to resist feeling forced to choose between a view that emphasizes personal responsibility for behavior and an understanding that the media messages that fill our culture surely have an impact upon us. Both are true. Just as we are all personally responsible for our purchasing decisions, we are all responsible for our choice to either refrain from or to engage in violence. But few of us believe that the barrage of commercial messages in our culture have no influence upon us. Advertisers and researchers know better. Similarly, we ought to know better than to accept the premise that media violence has no impact on us. Decades of research clearly establish that media messages have power.

The late George Gerbner, who spent most of his career studying media violence at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that prior to the advent of electronic media, the central storytellers of culture were parents, educational institutions and the church. The primary motivation for telling those stories was to inspire, teach and preserve important values. But the structure of electronic media has altered the balance of influence of those traditional sources. Today, many of the most influential stories that permeate our cultural environment are told by folks who care less about the stories they tell—and more about how many stories they can sell.

Media violence is relatively cheap to produce and speaks in a universal language that is easily exported across cultures to make billions in profits. Violence is part of life and to think that it ought never to appear in any of the stories that humans tell is unrealistic. We can learn some important lessons from stories that contain violent themes. But, today, the level of graphic violence being produced for entertainment and commercial profit is completely unprecedented in human history. To think that we can immerse ourselves and our children in this entertainment without being affected by it is absolutely naïve. Decades of research show otherwise.

Surely, we all have personal responsibility for our actions. But just as surely, the cultural environment created by the steady stream of media messages that surround us have their impact. Viewers who consume large amounts of violence over time are desensitized to it. This puts us at risk. We ought to be cognizant of both of these truths and attempt to live our lives accordingly—striving for the best that we can do for ourselves and for each other. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to just turn the TV off—or change to a different channel.

 Glenn G. Sparks is professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University

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