Violence: Who’s to blame? Society looks at media, entertainment sources
LENGTH: 2410 words
Bullets fly on television and at the movies, subjecting viewers
to scenes of serious violence every four minutes, a recent study
Certain video games let consumers get in touch with their
“gun-toting, cold-blooded murderer side,” as one advertisement put
“Kill your friends, guilt-free,” declared another.
Some television newsrooms have long subscribed to the adage that
“if it bleeds, it leads.” Many newspapers haven’t lagged far
behind, devoting war-size headlines to the goriest, most shocking
In her recent book, “Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment,”
Harvard School of Public Health ethicist Sissela Bok asked: “Is it
alarmist or merely sensible to ask what happens to the souls of
children nurtured, as in no past society, on images of rape,
torture, bombings and massacre that are channeled into their homes
In the wake of a seeming epidemic of school shootings
nationwide, Hollywood, video game makers and news organizations
find themselves grappling with similar questions.
What is the entertainment industry and the media’s role – and
blame – in a society where children fill their book bags with
firepower and unload their ammunition in playgrounds and hallways?
In a Gallup Poll after the Columbine High School massacre, 81
percent of American adults thought violent entertainment is a
factor in violence in society.
“I don’t think it’s so much a matter of blaming the media or
guns or families,” Bok told The Oklahoman. “It’s important to look
at all those factors as playing a role.”
Entertainment leads to violence?
Eight months ago, two Colorado students killed 12 Columbine High
School classmates, a teacher and themselves – and wounded 23
others – in the nation’s worst school shooting.
Just the latest in a string of school shootings nationwide, the
Littleton, Colo., attack pushed the violence-and-the-media issue to
the top of many Americans’ consciousness. Earlier this month, the
issue hit closer to home for Oklahomans: Five students were wounded
and a 13-year-old boy arrested after a shooting outside the Fort
Gibson middle school.
After the Colorado shooting, President Clinton ordered a $ 1
million Federal Trade Commission study into whether the movie,
music recording and video game industries are marketing violent
materials to young people. That 18-month study is ongoing.
FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky told the National Association of
Attorneys General earlier this year that society makes violent
behavior more likely to happen by desensitizing young people to
violence’s consequences and making violence seem commonplace and
“I acknowledge, as one must, that violent movies, video games
and recording lyrics are not the only reason for a culture of
violence among young people,” Pitofsky said. “While the issue is
not free from doubt, many studies show there is a causal connection
between entertainment content and behavior.”
But the issue is sometimes more gray than black and white, as a
Cornell University professor wrote in the Dec. 20 issue of Time
“The ‘normal’ culture of adolescence today contains elements
that are so nasty that it becomes hard for parents (and
professionals) to distinguish between what in a teen-ager’s talk,
dress and taste in music, films and video games indicates
psychological trouble and what is simply a sign of the times,”
wrote James Garbarino, author of “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn
Violent and How We Can Save Them.”
“Most kids who subscribe to the trench-coated Goth lifestyle, or
have multiple body piercings, or listen to Marilyn Manson, or play
the video game Doom are normal kids caught in a toxic culture.”
A majority of the most violent TV series and films are
industry-rated as acceptable for teens, and even the most serious
violence is often portrayed as harmless or justified, a Washington,
D.C., think tank reported in September.
The study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs examined 50
top-grossing films, nearly 300 episodes of fictional television
series, 50 made-for-TV movies and 189 music videos shown on MTV.
Researchers counted 8,350 separate scenes of violence, over half of
which involved serious violence, including such acts as murder,
rape, kidnapping and assault with a weapon. Such scenes hammered
viewers every four minutes.
“People are starting to point the finger at video games. People
are starting to point the finger at violent movies,” said Matthew
T. Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public
“While it’s not fair to say it’s their fault, I do think they’re
partially responsible, and we need to draw that line a little more
After Columbine, politicians exhausted much energy debating
violence in entertainment. But Congress adjourned for the year
without placing any restraints – or censorship, depending on
one’s view – on the movie and video game industries.
Still, Congress inadvertently did the public a favor by calling
attention to the entertainment industry’s culpability, an industry
leader told the Los Angeles Times.
“Everything in Hollywood takes three years to make, and in three
years, I think, you will see a noticeable push toward eliminating
gratuitous violence,” said Thom Mount, president of the Producers
Guild of America. “No one I talk to here thinks we don’t bear some
Much better than government censorship is awareness by the media
– and parents – of the potential hazardous effects of certain
products, such as violent video games, Harvard’s Bok said.
“Some of those games, parents may go out and buy them thinking,
‘This is all just fun for the kids,'” Bok said. “But some can
induce people to think killing and raping is fun. I think that’s a
tremendous problem from a moral point of view.”
The Interactive Digital Software Association has launched a
campaign to educate the public about video game ratings – such as
“EC” for early childhood and “M” for mature audiences – that it
enacted in 1994. The association, representing the $ 6
billion-a-year video game industry, has tried to educate the public
all along, but the Columbine shooting intensified that campaign,
the group’s president told Knight Ridder News Service.
“As an industry, we have to do a better job publicizing the
ratings and getting the word out on how to use them,” Doug
The ad blitz, which features golfer Tiger Woods and includes
magazine ads, public service announcements and in-store publicity,
is aimed at helping parents select games suitable for their
children, according to Knight Ridder.
But despite the ratings, critics accuse the video game industry
of marketing killer games to young people – and say such games can
lead to horrible crimes.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, this month, a judge banned six video games
after a medical student, inspired by the game “Duke Nukem,” opened
fire on a packed movie theater, killing three people. Closer to
home, a survey by the National Institute on Media and the Family
found that 80 percent of high school students were familiar with
“Duke Nukem” – but just 5 percent of parents had heard of it.
Video games with names like “Doom” and “Quake” not only provide
an appetite to kill but help teen-age gunmen with their shooting
skills, said Jack Thompson, an attorney who represents the parents
of three girls killed in a 1997 Paducah, Ky., school shooting.
“This kid,” Thompson said of the suspect in the Fort Gibson
shootings, “I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts, was a video game
player who wanted to see what it was like in real life.”
Fort Gibson suspect Seth Trickey was a member of his school’s
technology club. At Thompson’s suggestion, police checked the boy’s
home computer, but they found no evidence he had played violent
Michael Carneal, 14, who is serving a life sentence in the
Paducah shootings, didn’t have much experience with real
firearms, Thompson said. But Carneal’s aim and technique could
rival those of Lee Harvey Oswald, assuming Oswald fired the
deadly shots that killed President Kennedy, Thompson said.
Carneal “had never fired a handgun, but walks in and opens fire
on a pre-school prayer meeting from 25 feet,” said Thompson, who
has filed a lawsuit against about two dozen companies that he
claims marketed violent movies, video games and Internet
pornography to children such as Carneal.
“He discharged eight rounds from this .22 semiautomatic. They
all hit their target. Five were head shots. Three were
upper-torso… It’s off the scale as far as marksmanship.”
Where’d Carneal learn to shoot like that?
By playing rapid-fire, kill-the-enemy video games with realistic
weapons and exploding-head targets, Thompson said.
Video game makers deny marketing such games to children and
claim such entertainment is protected by the First Amendment.
Likewise, movies such as “Basketball Diaries,” which features a
trench coat-clad character opening fire on classmates, inspire teen
violence, Thompson said. Carneal also was heavily involved in
Internet pornography and frequented a site called “Nippleodeon,” so
it’s no coincidence he shot girls, the attorney said.
But millions of people read Stephen King novels or watch Woody
Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers” and never attempt a mass
shooting, said Baltimore psychologist James McGee, co-author of a
study titled “The Classroom Avenger.”
McGee is director of psychology and forensic services at
Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore. He and a colleague, Dr. Caren
DeBernardo, have studied 15 school shooting cases involving 45
fatalities and 85 injuries since 1993.
Classroom avengers typically are friendless, immature and
socially inadequate loners, McGee said.
“Other teen preoccupations such as cars, dating, proms,
mainstream popular music, magazines, movies and videos disinterest
them,” his study reported. “They may be fascinated by guns, bomb
making, covert action, assassinations, media portrayals of real or
fictional violence, and violence-laden Internet sites.”
Classroom-avenger-style incidents, particularly ones in close
geographic proximity of which the individual is aware, can
precipitate an attack via a copycat response, the study reported.
Fictional accounts of violence as portrayed in books, television,
music or film can have a similar effect.
“Verbal expressions of intent to kill and/or commit suicide or
do something highly dramatic within the very near future, when made
in this context and in the presence of the other primary variables
of this profile, are highly predictive of an imminent attack,” the
All tragedies, all the time?
In an era of 24-hour cable channels, the entertainment industry
is just one piece of a larger debate over violence and the media.
Another question is whether extensive news coverage of real-life
violence leads to copycat crimes, producing a vicious cycle of
blood and heartbreak?
Eighty-eight percent of Americans believe media coverage
encourages copycat crimes, according to a Newsweek survey in August.
The chance to become media stars influences teen-agers who open
fire at school, Pamela Riley, executive director of the Center for
the Prevention of School Violence, told The Oklahoman the day of
the Fort Gibson shooting.
In her interviews with school gunmen, Riley said she asked the
inevitable question: Why?
“I wanted to be on television,” many told her.
While studies have linked heavy consumption of violent media –
fictional and real-life – to a higher likelihood of someone
committing a violent crime, research concerning news coverage and
copycat crimes is sketchy, a local expert said.
“Most of what you are going to find is anecdotal evidence –
people who connect the dots from a post office shooting in Edmond
to subsequent shootings. The same with business place shootings,
school shootings, violence in public places,” said Philip
Patterson, an Oklahoma Christian University journalism professor
whose 1994 book “Electronic Millstone: Christian Parenting in a
Media Age” addressed violence and the media.
“Then folks make the assumption that since, let’s say, the
Columbine experience for 99 percent of us was a ‘mediated reality’
that we did not personally experience – it must be that mediated
reality on which future copycats are acting.”
The evidence becomes more empirical, Patterson said, “when the
researchers point out that the copiers are usually loners,
consumers of violent media, etc.”
As school shootings become more common, and especially since
Columbine, reporters are acting more professional and respectful,
said Bob Steele, director of media ethics at the Poynter Institute.
“I think there was more restraint in terms of the aggressiveness
of the reporting, which was difficult, given the importance,” he
said of Columbine coverage.
“There are examples of stories they didn’t tell because they
thought it would be too intrusive and painful for the victims’
But finding the balance between providing readers the truth
without unnecessarily causing victims more grief isn’t easy, he
“It’s like when we go to the doctor, and a good physician will
ask some hard questions about everything from eating habits and
drinking habits to sexual habits. Those are intrusive questions,
but good physicians ask them.”
Others stress that all the violence in America – violence that
despite the high-profile cases is on the decline statistically –
can’t be blamed on popular culture.
The United States has a tradition of violence that includes the
Wild West and early 20th-century race riots in places such as
Tulsa, said Richard Slotkin, a history professor at Wesleyan
“The same violent movies that we look at here are shown in
Europe and Japan, but you don’t find the Europeans and Japanese
killing each other at the same rate we do,” said Slotkin, whose
books include “Regeneration Through Violence” and “Gunfighter Nation.”
“It can’t just be the images. It’s got to be something the
images are tapping into.”
CONTRIBUTING: Staff writer Christy Watson