The Violence In the Media Debate

“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.”—Quentin Tarantino

“You have to show violence the way it is. If you don't show it realistically, then that's immoral and harmful. If you don't upset people, then that's obscenity.”—Roman Polanski

“How a society channels male aggression is one of the greatest questions as to whether that society will survive. That's why I am not against violence in the media, I am against the glorification of immoral violence.”— Dennis Prager

“A lot of people in the movie industry tend to run and hide from it like ostriches. Movie industry people are definitely in denial right now, but you do become desensitized to violence when you see it on the screen so often. Let's face it, violence exists for one reason in movies, and that's to get an effect, create an emotion, sell tickets.”—Madeleine Stowe

“Exposure to violent electronic media has a larger effect than all but one other well known threat to public health. The only effect slightly larger than the effect of media violence on aggression is that of cigarette smoking on lung cancer."”—L. Rowell Huessman

There are many issues surrounding this age-old debate (see further notes under the sections on the left), and the perceived effects of violence in the media are an important aspect of Audience Theory. Over the past fifty years various studies have both proved and disproved the links between violence in the media and aggression in real life. But the same questions keep coming up:

  • Violent entertainment is as old as entertainment itself: why do we enjoy watching scenes of pain, suffering and destruction?
  • What effect does watching violence have on our attitudes towards violence? Does it make our behaviour more violent?
  • Should there be rules about how much violence is incorporated into entertainment? Should there be restrictions on the availability of violent entertainment?
  • Who is responsible for the violent content in media? The media-makers, or the regulators?
  • Is a violent society the result of violent entertainment, or is it the other way around?
  • Is there such a thing as a "copycat killing", or is this an example of Moral Panic?

The arguments on each side of the debate are very powerful, and draw on years of discussion, and anxiety about the effects media violence might be having on our society as a whole. You need to sift through the research material and have a look at the different views of parents, psychologists, academics, audiences and media producers. Check who has authored any given report, and how that might affect their conclusions e.g. are they affiliated to a religious group, or an industry association? The irony at the heart of the Violence in The Media debate is that a lot of the media coverage of this topic which condemns violence, actually incorporates violence and is designed to titillate and stimulate violent reactions. Headlines about violent media draw a lot of interest but be warned, you may find some of the material disturbing.

Areas of Research

People have been arguing for centuries about the effects on an audience of violence they see via a media form — back in Victorian times there was a lot of concern about the bad influence of penny dreadfuls on the lower classes. However, it was only in the mid-twentieth century that scientists attempted to gather empirical data to support or disprove the various theories.

Empirical data is problematic. Given the range and number of media images a human is exposed to during a lifetime, it's impossible to test the impact of just a few images under experimental conditions. What about everything the test subject experienced, both in terms of media violence and real life violence, before they walked into the laboratory? Is it possible to find a true control group to test results against? You would need a comparative group of people who had never seen violence in the media, something of an impossibility in the modern world. How can you tell if test subjects are behaving in the lab as they would normally? How can you measure long-term impact?

Most experimental groups are drawn from volunteers (often students) who give up a few hours at a time to take tests. These human beings are not lab rats. They're not living under completely controlled conditions. Each one has lived a complicated and endlessly varied life, has a different psychological profile, and is likely to react in a different manner to stimuli. Therefore, it's almost impossible to come up with a conclusive, definitive, solve-the-argument-once-and-for-all set of results that proves any given hypothesis about media violence. Although, given the recurrence of a moral panic about violence every time a new media form comes along, there will always be research funding available to anyone who wants to try.

Social Psychology

Measuring aggression and its causes has always been an important focus for social psychologists, partly because excessive aggression isn't tolerated in our society, and overly aggressive individuals often find themselves in jail because of their behaviour. The first experiments on the impact of media violence on human behaviour were conducted by psychologists and sociologists who applied theories of social learning and modelling behaviour i.e. they thought that people saw violent behaviour on TV and copied it. The more violent behaviour they saw, especially violence that went unpunished, the more likely they were to behave in a violent manner themselves. Since the 1960s and Albert Bandura's Bobo Doll experiments, there have been many studies by social psychologists attempting to establish a causal relationship between media violence and aggressive behaviour.


fMRI brain scan

Towards the end of the twentieth century, neuroscientists developed a new technology for testing the effects of violence. Instead of asking questions or measuring behavioral reactions, scientists could use fMRI scans to look directly at the behavior of the brain in response to violent images: an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment. The fMRI scan shows which areas of the brain are high activity when looking at certain images, and which are low activity, or dormant.

Viewing violent images activates areas of the brain related to threat detection and response (fight or flight), and there is evidence to suggest this threat is stored in the long-term memory. There is also evidence to suggest that viewing violent media or playing video games has an impact on subsequent activity, and it actually inhibits the more logical (not the emotional/reactive parts stimulated by the violence) areas of the brain i.e. you'll find algebra homework even more difficult immediately after you've been playing Call of Duty.

This isn't as conclusive as it might first seem. Debate still surrounds how long the effects of experiencing violence last, and whether the long term memory storage has a significant influence on future behaviour. We still don't know enough about the human brain, or how genetic factors determine behaviour, to decide how much of an influence violence in the media has, even though we can see the way it makes our brains light up.

Quantitative Data

There has always been quantitative data about violence in the media: how many incidences of violence were depicted, how long the incident lasted - and observations about the theoretical impact the violence had on an audience. There is a perception that the number of violence incidents in the media is steadily increasing, therefore quantitative data is still important to researchers.

Media Effects is a complicated field. For more information, go to the Media Effects page here.

Most media research is done in relation to television (it's the medium to which we are most exposed), but don't forget the importance of film, music, comic books,video games and the internet.

Further Reading



You can check out recent news stories related to Violence in the Media at the Mediaknowall blog.

Be aware that websites are written from a particular viewpoint, so be careful when evaluating the evidence presented - many are specifically designed for anxious parents seeking to control their children, for instance. Others may be posted by media producers wishing to defend their (lucrative) way of life. What we are left with is a series of opinions and theories, and it is up to the individual to pick their way through the maze of statement and counter-statement, reviewing the arguments, and remember whose authority they are citing when writing their essay. This is a very dangerous area to risk your own opinions, or to make any statement that is unsupported by evidence.

In this clip, Mark Kermode suggests that moral panics about movies might be a thing of the past, with tabloid ire now focused on video games (Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Call of Duty, Postal). Have attitudes towards violence in the media calmed down or are we just waiting for the next big controversy?

You can make up your own mind. Enjoy the nightmares.