Media violence and debating effects & influences

Jason Mittell's picture

Like most people I know, I’m sad, angry, and numb in reaction to the massacre of children and their teachers on Friday. While I feel helpless to affect change in a meaningful way, I do what I can via the small contributions to organizations like the Sandy Hook School Support Fund and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and writing letters to my Federal and State representatives arguing for increased gun control and funding for mental health initiatives. I keep reading as much as I can bear about the events and analyses of what might be done, sharing particularly good pieces (such as this post from my friend Michael Kackman about gun culture and the gun lobby).

I have no personal expertise in understanding gun violence, trauma, or mental illness, but I do hopefully have something to offer as the blame game shifts around to question the media’s role in our overly violent country. Personally, I have little tolerance for the way our television news media covers such tragedies, as they fill the 24-hour cycle with unfounded speculation, ill-informed opinions, and most of all undiluted emotional manipulation. But my own distaste is not the same as claiming that a key cause of such inexplicable violence is to be found in the media’s coverage of shootings (as was inexplicably misattributed to Morgan Freeman in a widely-circulated Facebook post), or in media violence more broadly. I do believe that as media citizens, we should ask ourselves what type of violence we want to see on our screens, and that families should make informed, conscious choices for their children. But blaming the media for violence like the Newtown massacre is simply wrong.

There may be some correlation between violent behavior and particular media consumption practices, and in some instances, violent media might be a contributing factor to inspire particular violent actions, but such linkages are so much lower than other factors (like poverty, drug/alcohol use, patterns of physical & emotional abuse, and access to weapons) that suggestions to curb violence by changing media are simply an impractical, ineffectual distraction. If violent media were such a major cause of violent behavior, then Japan, whose media are as violent as or more than ours, would likely match or exceed America’s violent crime rates, rather than trailing the U.S. by a huge gap in nearly every category. If violent media were the triggers that caused such violent outbursts, then millions of viewers & gamers would be committing daily acts of murder. This holds true for all media, including videogames that take the brunt of the blame today.

I have not done primary scholarship on the topic of media violence, but as part of my textbook, Television & American Culture, I reviewed the literature and tried to offer a measured account of how scholars tackle these issues. I’ve decided to share that portion of the book here to hopefully offer a bit of clarity to such conversations that often embrace broad generalizations and sweeping claims. In the name of instructors using the book being able to emphasize their own perspectives, I probably cut the media effects tradition a little more slack than it deserves – for a much more pointed takedown, see David Gauntlett’s work. If you’ve studied media studies, there’s probably little new here (and it was written four years ago, so there might be some updated scholarship that I haven’t taken account of), but if you see someone spouting off on how the media is to blame – especially if they are quoting Morgan Freeman – send them here for a little lesson in Media Studies 101.


From Jason Mittell, Television & American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2009), chapter 9, “Viewing Television”:

Television Viewers: Passive or Active, Effects or Influences?

One of the questions surrounding television that has been most studied concerns the medium’s impact on viewers—how does television affect us? An entire subfield of academic study of television has developed around this issue of media effects, researching the medium’s impact on people who consume it. Other researchers, who embrace a model of active viewers, have questioned the underlying assumption of the media effects paradigm that television viewing can even be understood within a framework of causes and effects. This debate rages among media scholars and causes such sharp division that some adherents to each side view the research produced by the other side as simply illegitimate. While this book makes no claims to reconcile this division, this section lays out the core arguments and criticisms of both media effects and active viewer research, suggesting how the insights from both models might inform our understanding of television’s role in everyday life.

The Media Effects Paradigm and Passive Viewers

For a large number of scholars, the dominant research agenda for understanding American television is to measure how the medium affects its viewers, an approach generally known as the media effects paradigm. This approach is common among researchers, and used quite frequently by policymakers, critics, and the television industry to justify regulatory policies, condemnations of programming, and marketing campaigns respectively. It is most commonly found within research in the field of mass communications, which emerged in the mid-20th century in the United States and still thrives as an academic field. Underlying early mass communications research was a three-stage model of the communication process: a sender creates a message and transmits it to a receiver. This sender/message/receiver model follows basic commonsense regardless of the medium—someone speaks to other people in hopes that they will understand the intended message, just as I write this book trying to convey ideas to its readers. If we analyze either a conversation or book, we might consider communication successful only if the receiver understands the message as intended by the sender. In this model, senders have the power to communicate effectively, and success is judged by whether receivers accept the messages they receive—in other words, receivers primarily function as passive recipients of messages that they can accept or reject.

Early mass communication research was particularly interested in analyzing propaganda, as the field emerged in the wake of World War II and during the rise of the Cold War. Propaganda messages are designed to have a direct persuasive effect on its receivers, shaping opinions and motivating actions. Not surprisingly, the research on persuasion and propaganda has been most directly applied to television advertising, where senders are highly motivated to generate specific effects upon viewers, as discussed in Chapter 2. For some researchers, the fact that propaganda and advertising can have direct and measurable effects on its viewers is evidence that all media operate similarly, with clear effects upon viewers. However, we must be careful to distinguish between media that are designed expressly to persuade, like advertising and propaganda, and programs created with less persuasive goals, such as to entertain, to inform, to amuse, or to provoke emotions like fear, sadness, or excitement. Do such programs, which comprise the bulk of television besides advertising, have similarly measurable direct effects?

This is a question that divides the field of media studies. For media effects researchers, the answer is a firm “yes”—all kinds of media can potentially affect viewers in significant, direct, and measurable ways. Such researchers have developed a number of different methodologies and theoretical models to account for the effects of media on viewers. The most commonly employed approach follows the paradigm of behavioral effects theory, in which the actions and behaviors of viewers are directly affected by an outside stimulus like television. In its most extreme form, such research adheres to a hypodermic needle model of media effects—television is a foreign substance injected into a passively viewing victim, which directly causes a change in behavior. While almost no researchers subscribe to such a crude approach today, the metaphor is still powerful in the common sense of many media critics, policymakers, and parents looking to “save” children from perceived deadly and addictive effects of drug-like media.

More subtle approaches to media effects still believe that the stimulus of television can cause direct effects, but reactions are much more variable and tied to a variety of factors and contexts than the metaphor of a direct injection. Researchers looking to prove behavioral effects commonly rely upon experimental research, typically measuring changes in attitudes, actions, or physiology after exposure to particular media content. Many such experiments have suggested behavioral effects of media upon some viewers—for instance, experimental research has suggested that viewing violent programming increases the immediate likelihood of some viewers exhibiting aggressive behaviors. Such experimental research must be understood with some important caveats, as it typically demonstrates only immediate short-term effects, not the long-term social impacts of television that many media critics ultimately believe shape viewers’ attitudes and behaviors. Experimental research is also always removed from the way that actual viewers experience media, as the laboratory setting itself can influence behaviors; additionally, even when direct effects are observed, it is always just in a statistically-relevant portion of the research subjects, not a universal reaction to the experiment. Thus the bulk of media effects research suggests a model of limited effectssome media have some effects on some viewers in some circumstances—but far from the overwhelming claims of television’s harmful impacts that are often repeated in the press and by politicians.

Another way of measuring media effects relies on real world behaviors rather than laboratory experiments. Via survey methods, viewer attitudes and behaviors are collected and coded, and researchers attempt to find connections between variables, such as links between the amount of television viewed and beliefs about violent crime. One of the most well developed approaches to analyzing media effects via survey research is called cultivation theory. This approach uses long-term surveys to chart the correlation between television viewing and social attitudes, based on the hypothesis that people who view a large amount of television are likely to share opinions and values that are reinforced by programming. Cultivation analysis typically does not consider specific programs or genres, but rather looks at how consuming television as a medium impacts people’s perspectives of the world—cultivation researchers view the medium of television as an entire ecological system or environment, as discussed more in Chapter 11, rather than conveying particular meanings within specific texts. Researchers chart the broad cumulative patterns of meaning offered by television, and then pose questions via surveys to chart how varying degrees of television viewing might cultivate opinions that mesh with television’s meanings. In many ways, cultivation theory follows an ideological approach to textual analysis as discussed in Chapter 7, but uses quantitative methods to measure the correlation between television viewing and beliefs in areas such as consumerism and racial identity. The most well-known hypothesis offered by cultivation theory is called the mean world syndrome, arguing that heavy viewers of television are likely to view society as more violent than it actually is, fostering emotions of fear, distrust, and anxiety.

While survey research and cultivation theory offers provocative claims about how media consumption might shape our world views and cultural norms, such methodologies can only demonstrate a correlation between factors, showing that it is statistically more probable than by chance that particular variables coincide together—this mode of research cannot prove causation, or that one variable caused another. Thus a survey might show that children who watch more televised violence are more likely to behave aggressively, but this does not prove that television caused the aggressive behavior—viewers with aggressive personalities might be more likely to enjoy violent programming, or both behaviors might be tied to a third variable, like educational aptitude or family situations. Such correlational research generally finds that the statistical linkages between media and behaviors are less significant than other structural and contextual variables, so again these studies point toward a limited effects model for some viewers in some contexts, positioning media consumption as a potential “risk factor” for particular behaviors rather than a direct catalyst. Surveys can also fall prey to a number of research flaws, like questions biasing respondents toward particular answers, or the inaccuracies of reporting people’s own behaviors and attitudes. Well-constructed surveys showing correlations between media and behaviors can be quite useful, especially as long-term studies measuring changes within the same group over time, but it is crucial not to mistakenly equate evidence of correlation with proof of causation, as press and policy summaries of such research often do.

The bulk of media effects research focuses on the impact of violence upon viewers. Researchers typically use techniques of content analysis, as discussed in Chapter 8, to quantify and label the amount of violence in varying programs; these quantitative accounts of violence are then used as evidence to support the cultural impact of more limited experimental or survey findings. It is crucial to note that no reputable researcher claims that simply identifying the content of a program proves its impact—while the most adamant voices against media violence believe that the experimental and survey research has conclusively proven definitive harmful effects of television violence, the content of texts themselves does not evidence its impact on viewers. For adherents to the media effects research paradigm, the evidence from experimental and survey research appears to conclusively suggest that media violence produces the effects of fear, aggression, desensitization to violence, and lowering inhibitions toward actual violent behavior. They admit that such effects are only strong in a small percentage of viewers with predispositions toward violence or other contextual factors, but contend that television causes small negative effects upon the majority of the population. However, a large number of scholars question the core foundations of media effects as a paradigm.

Part of the criticism of media effects research stems from a broader divide between quantitative social scientific research, which nearly all media effects researchers embrace, and adherents to qualitative methods more common in the humanities and certain social sciences like anthropology and sociology. For qualitative researchers, the meanings within television programs and the ways that viewers respond to them are far too varied and complex to be easily quantified into simple categories like “violent” and “non-violent”—such criticisms point out that in some quantitative studies, an image of Bugs Bunny hitting Elmer Fudd might be coded identically to news footage of a war zone or a bloody shoot-out in a fictional police drama. Likewise a broad range of viewer attitudes and opinions are typically reduced to one or two variables for statistical purposes, oversimplifying the breadth and complexity of human behavior for analytical convenience. For qualitative researchers, the phenomenon of media viewing must be understood through more interpretive means—in-depth analyses of programs, as explored in Chapters 7 and 8, and through interviews and observations of actual viewer behaviors, considered more below. The disagreement between quantitative and qualitative researchers is perhaps an irreconcilable divide, as each side can argue that their methods are the only way to truly understand the phenomena that they study. A reasonable middle ground is to acknowledge that insights can emerge from each approach, and that the specific research questions being posed might effectively be explored from a variety of relevant methodologies.

Media effects research has also been criticized for its core assumptions and attitudes toward television. Media effects researchers typically hold a negative opinion about television, seeing it as a destructive social influence—their research looks to prove the specific ways that they believe television causes problems. Yet this perspective arguably clouds their analysis in key ways—by searching for problems caused by television, they typically ignore both potential social benefits of the medium and the additional factors that might be more powerful causes of the social ills linked to television. For instance, if the social problem being researched is youth violence in America, many factors correlate much more strongly with violent behaviors than television viewing, including poverty, drug use, peer influence, parenting styles, educational achievement, and psychological conditions. Likewise some studies of television viewing suggest that just as violence can provoke negative effects in some viewers, the same content might reduce or redirect aggressive behaviors in other viewers, an aspect that media effects researchers rarely explore seriously. According to the strongest critics of media effects research, the inherent anti-television biases of researchers undermines the entire field, as studies are designed and interpreted only through the lens of proving researchers’ already-held beliefs about the medium’s lack of value.

The final major critique of media effects research concerns how the field conceives of television viewers as passive recipients of messages and social effects. The basic model of media effects conceives of senders and messages as more powerful than receivers in a communication system. At its extreme, the hypodermic needle assumption treats viewers as entirely passive recipients of drug-like media injections, but even more nuanced and complex accounts of viewing through cultivation theory and limited effects models assume that the primary place of viewers in the media system is to receive messages and feel their associated effects. Even the use of the term “effects” implies that what happens to viewers is caused by external factors, similar to the effects of an ingested substance like drugs or medicine. Another school of media research avoids the language of “effects” by focusing more on “media influences,” considering how the media function within a larger cultural context of people’s lives.

The Media Influence Paradigm and Active Viewers

No media researcher would argue that the content of television lacks impact on viewers—obviously television provides information, persuasive messages, and emotional experiences that significantly influence both individual viewers and society as a whole. The divide within the field concerns both the relative power of such messages versus the actions and choices of viewers, and the most appropriate methods to understand the influence of television. While media effects researchers attempt to measure direct effects of television upon viewers using quantitative methods, a competing approach could be understood as the media influence paradigm. Under this approach, researchers believe that the impact of television is best understood by studying actual lived experiences, rather than abstracted surveys or laboratory experiments, using qualitative methods like interviews and interpretation. Scholars studying media influences look at television as one of many factors that help shape behaviors and attitudes, avoiding claims of simple causality or direct effects; rather, media are considered as part of a broader cultural context to be studied from the perspective of a viewer’s everyday life.

Media effects researchers tend to regard programs or entire media systems as stimuli with measurable effects, measuring average effects on a large number of viewers. The media influence approach looks at the power of messages in relation to the power and practices of viewers themselves. This shift in emphasis requires a different understanding of the basic act of communication, rethinking the core process of sender/message/receiver. An influential revised model of communication, developed for understanding television news but applicable to all media, focuses on the encoding/decoding of messages. According to this approach, the creation of media texts involves multiple meanings and competing ideas being included in the production process—as discussed in Chapter 5, formal choices conveying meanings in a television program might signify a broad range of ideas and represent the input of dozens of production personnel. Thus texts are seen as encoded with multiple meanings through their production, rather than a singular “sent” message. Most scholars looking at texts through this framework consider how a program encodes ideological and hegemonic representations; as discussed in Chapter 7, many messages are not explicitly intended by creators, but reflect an unquestioned set of “common sense” norms and assumptions. By looking at a range of encoding meanings, scholars explore how programs allow for a cultural forum of ideas, rather than a singular uniform message.

The process of consuming or decoding a text allows for a similar range of interpretations and understandings, rather than a simple “reception” of an intended meaning. For scholars of media influence, understanding the varying ways to decode a program is crucial to assess its cultural impact. This decoding process is not an open free-for-all to interpret any meaning into a program, but framed by cultural and social limitations. Obviously many encoded messages frequently convey their intended meanings, as news programs communicate facts about current events or a soap opera projects its emotional tone; however, it would be a mistake to think that all encoded meanings are conveyed equally, or that the only meanings people take away from programs result from intended messages. Viewers bring their own frameworks and expectations to the decoding process, including their particular social situations, like age or economic class, as well as their personal tastes and experiences. Thus the process of decoding is an intersection between a text that contains a multitude of encoded messages, and a viewer with a range of influences that shape his or her perception—out of this junction emerges a limited number of different possible interpretations.

Scholars have charted a spectrum of decoding as it specifically relates to the ideological messages within a text. At one extreme is a dominant decoding, which fully accepts ideological messages as common sense, similar to the “hailed” viewer discussed in Chapter 7—thus for a shampoo commercial, a viewer with a dominant decoding might see her own hair as worse than the woman in the ad and believe that happiness could be achieved by better hair, as obtainable through this shampoo. At the other extreme is an oppositional decoding, which recognizes the ideological messages of the text and rejects them as flawed or irrelevant to the viewer’s own social position and experiences—a viewer with an oppositional decoding looks at the shampoo advertisement as misleading and manipulative, trying to convince her to be unhappy for failing to live up to unrealistic beauty norms.

Most viewers fall somewhere between these two poles, engaging with texts via negotiated decodings that accept some dominant meanings while rejecting others, based on how they relate to viewers’ own experiences and social positions. There could be many different negotiated decodings of this hypothetical ad, such as a viewer who identifies with the problem of split ends but doubts that this shampoo could solve it, or a viewer who uses the advertised shampoo but does not see split ends as a real problem—or even a bald viewer who finds the messages and product ironically amusing. Such readings are always subject to the limits of the text, as viewers have the ability to negotiate with textual meanings but not to invent completely new interpretations—a viewer who saw the shampoo ad as advocating for universal health care would be dismissed as misinterpreting the text. Thus this approach to studying television consumption examines both the degree to which media messages influence viewers, and how viewers’ own backgrounds and beliefs influence how they might embrace, reject, or negotiate with those messages.

Advertisements are typically straightforward messages to examine for media influence—they are encoded with explicit messages designed to influence viewers, and resulting consumer behavior is a fairly direct measure of that influence. Most programming is much more complicated, both in terms of the complexity of encoded messages and the various ways that viewers might decode them. For instance, the political thriller 24 is encoded with a broad array of meanings, ranging from reinforcing traditional gender roles with helpless female characters rescued by powerful men, to offering commentary on government corruption and bureaucracy. For a media effects researcher, the show’s central meaning might concern its portrayal of violence, conveying the message that extreme violence and even torture can be a heroic solution to problems—researchers might use experiments or surveys to gauge how viewer behaviors and attitudes toward violence and politics might be affected by consuming such meanings. A media influences scholar would look at a broader range of meanings and ways of decoding the show, trying to account for how a viewer’s background and beliefs influence the way they make sense of 24. A viewer with a law enforcement background who believes that terrorists and criminals must be stopped using every available technique might find that 24 reinforces his dominant beliefs, while other oppositional viewers might find the graphic violence and ideological messages so distasteful that they watch the show only to be outraged. Other viewers might enjoy the show despite the violence, embracing its narrative suspense and complex storytelling but rejecting morally-questionable behaviors of characters, thus negotiating with the program to focus on the particular meanings and pleasures most relevant to them; such negotiations might be motivated by other aspects of the text as well, embracing on the show’s representation of an African-American president, the quirky personality of Chloe, or the visual style of split-screens and hand-held cameras. Media influence researchers reject a simple model of direct effects, arguing instead that meanings are made at the intersection between a broad assortment of elements within a show like 24 and the range of viewer experiences and social positions.

How do researchers proceed in making sense of the various factors and possibilities that factor into media influences under this model? Most scholars follow an approach that is known as cultural studies, a set of related methodologies and theories that explores culture as a site of negotiation and struggle, rather than simply the cause of social problems. To understand how people are influenced by television, cultural studies scholars use two primary approaches. The first is textual analysis, as discussed in Chapter 7, where researchers analyze the range of meanings encoded in texts and consider how they represent particular meanings that might uphold or challenge dominant ideologies. Textual analysis can outline a spectrum of potential meanings, forming the limits of multiple interpretations that might be activated by viewers’ decoding, and highlighting how a text might privilege particular meanings through narrative structure or other formal elements. But to understand the decoding process, cultural studies scholars use qualitative reception research to investigate how actual viewers make sense of texts. Such research can use open-ended surveys, interviews, focus groups, observations, analyses of published reviews or comments (like in a magazine or online forum), or other related methods, sometimes in tandem with quantitative methods to correlate the decoding process with people’s social identities via categories like race, age, or economic class. The unifying goal of cultural studies reception research is to capture the ways that people actually consume and decode media in their everyday lives, charting both how media influence viewers and how various viewers influence the interpretive process.

This reception research has pointed to some broad trends concerning how people make sense of media. Foremost, the research has highlighted the inability for media messages to uniformly determine their own influences, as actual viewer responses and practices are much more wide-ranging and variable than either media effects researchers or traditional ideological critics claim. These diverse interpretations are typically limited by what is encoded in the text, but also are directly shaped by a viewer’s context—pre-existing beliefs, social situations, identities, attitudes, and modes of viewing are central factors in shaping how people decode and make sense of media texts. While certainly messages can have powerful influences on viewers, and people’s social contexts can guide their interpretations, cultural studies research argues that television viewers are ultimately much more active than the passive model portrayed by media effects research, and engage with a television program in a broader variety of way than simply absorbing singular messages.

Critics have questioned both the methodologies and findings of cultural studies research, highlighting some of the limits of the paradigm. The qualitative methods of interviewing and interpretation are certainly not designed to be the controlled scientific measures that media effects research often claims to be—qualitative studies typically focus on a small number of non-random viewers that do not statistically represent a broader pool of viewers. Such studies claim that their usefulness is not in predicting behaviors or measuring cause and effect, but in examining the range of practices comprising everyday life that viewers might follow—just because one viewer offers a particular interpretation does not mean that others will see the program in the same way, but it points to a distinct possibility amongst a range of options. Such research is inherently interpretive rather than framed by controlled experiments or statistical surveys, and thus must rely on the power of persuasive argument to convey the broader relevance of such real world viewing practices. Cultural studies research is dependent on viewers relating their own practices and perspectives, and thus can be critiqued for both relying on questionably subjective self-reported information and offering only inconclusive interpretations of what people say about themselves. At its worst, cultural studies research simply reports the opinions of viewers without sufficient analysis of their significance and contexts, but well-done research can point to how broader social factors help shape our viewing experiences and attitudes in a more complex and varied fashion than media effects models of direct causality.

How can we understand that two groups of well-respected scholars studying television viewers can paint such divergent pictures of how messages impact people? In part, the difference between media effects and influences paradigms stems from the core attitudes and starting points of the researchers. Many media effects researchers start with a core belief that television is a negative social influence and thus conduct studies to prove this influence, while cultural studies scholars tend to be more focused on understanding the social practices of everyday life and thus start by regarding viewers more sympathetically to see how television fits into their lives. One of the key differences between the media effects and media influence approaches is the willingness to consider the activity and agency of viewers in making cultural judgments, interpretations, and decisions through the act of watching television. Thus researchers might view the same data on viewing behaviors quite differently—a media effects scholar would foreground the evidence that some viewer behaviors shifted negatively in reaction to programming, while a media influence scholar would emphasize the broad range of responses that viewers can take away from programming, complicating simple negative/positive characterizations.

The biggest danger in trying to understand the effects or influences of television is the tendency to oversimplify what is a tremendously complex and multifaceted social practice into a simple slogan or generalization. Almost no studies claim to have definitively proven that television causes real world violent behaviors, or that television viewers are free to make whatever meanings they care to—however these claims are often made by people referring to such studies, used to justify industrial and policy decisions, and offered as justification for condemning or celebrating television as a medium. The impact of television programming on viewers is much studied, but still up for debate. Understanding the methodological strategies and findings of such research, and looking at competing models to compare competing viewpoints, is the key to discerning the important question of how viewers are impacted by what they see on television.

Further Reading

Debates over theories of media effects versus influences are prevalent among television scholars. For the media effects side, see Elizabeth M. Perse, Media Effects and Society (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), and W. James Potter, The 11 Myths of Media Violence (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003). For the media influences position, see David Gauntlett, Moving Experiences: Media Effects and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2005), and Martin Barker and Julian Petley, eds., Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001). James Shanahan and Michael Morgan, Television and Its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), provides a good account of cultivation theory.

Filed under: Academia, Media Politics, Media Studies, Television, TV Textbook, Videogames, Viewers Tagged: cultural studies, media effects, media violence, violence

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Tue, 18 Dec 2012 00:20:44 +0000