‘Ruination once again’
- Cases in the study of media effects

Tom Gormley

This article is copyright © Tom Gormley, 1998. Not to be republished without permission. May be used for educational purposes, provided that the author (Tom Gormley) and source (www.theory.org.uk) are acknowledged.

About this article: Tom Gormley lives in Dublin and sent me this paper which, he says, "I wrote as an assignment for a distance-learning MA in January 1998, which you might find amusing". It's good.


1. INTRODUCTION

Case 1 - Direct and indirect effects

Mr. X wrote recently to RTÉ, Ireland's national public-service broadcasting organisation, expressing no doubts about the harm television can do. As he reported, he entered a room at around 6:30 p.m. on Monday, 3 November 1997, to see his children watching a television programme he found so offensive that:

I lifted the television up in my arms and threw it out the window. The television landed straight down onto the car, blew up and did £900 worth of damage to my new Ford Mondeo.

While Mr. X's report may be exaggerated, he is not alone in his concerns. The February 1997 edition of the religious magazine Reality, published by an order of Roman Catholic priests, was subtitled On Children and Television, and writers expressing concern about the issue included the Professor of Psychiatry at University College, Dublin and a clinical psychologist who had studied the viewing behaviour of young people. The editor wrote of television programmes ‘polluting the minds of more and more of our children’, called on parents to demand that certain soaps be moved to ‘later and more appropriate time slots’ (Moloney, 1997: 4) and pointed out that ‘there are more than two acts of violence on Irish television every hour’ (ibid: 16)

Internationally, but with a concentration in North America, many studies have sought to establish direct links between exposure to television and anti-social behaviour in young people. This is often called the ‘media effects’ approach.

Case 2 - Counting incidents

At approximately 9:30 p.m. on 27 December 1997, Mr. Y sat with his partner and their two children, a boy of 16 and a girl of 9, to watch Die Hard 2 on RTÉ. Over the next two hours he took notes as the family enjoyed an on-screen celebration of violence including:

  • terrorists causing a crash in which 230 airline passengers died;
  • a man stabbed through the eye with an icicle, accompanied by grotesque gurgling sounds and vivid visual effects;
  • a man having his throat slit, with more visual and sound effects;
  • a fire engulfing the plane in which the members of a terrorist gang prematurely celebrated their escape.

Mr. Y's research approach, that of listing violent acts, is also not unusual. A number of USA studies simply catalogue such incidents. Alter (1995), for instance, records a total of 264 violent deaths in Die Hard 2 while Kalin (1997: 3) can point out that the ‘typical American child witnesses 12,000 violent acts on television per year’.

Shortcomings in Conventional Research

For the purposes of this paper I will call the approaches I have described above the ‘conventional’ methods of examining media violence and I will argue that, despite the application of substantial resources over an extended period of time, researchers using approaches like these have not produced sufficient evidence either to support or to refute the claim that media violence is harmful.

I will argue that this failure arises from a number of persistent major shortcomings in conventional research including a tendency on the part of researchers not to challenge their own presumptions; a lack of awareness of play; ambivalence about actual violence; and failure to take account of the extent to which people, including young people, can distinguish between ‘realistic’ and ‘unrealistic’ media messages.

First I will look at work within the two traditions.

 

2. 2,500 YEARS OF MEDIA EFFECTS

Murray (1997: 1) points out that questions about the effects of television violence have existed since the earliest days of the medium. He refers with approval to testimony given to a US Senate committee by long-time researcher Leonard Eron, who claimed:

There can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behaviour, crime and violence ... Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence... The causal effect of television violence on aggression, even though it is not very large, exists. (Eron, 1992: 1)

Later, Eron estimated at a 1993 conference that 10% of violence in the USA was due to television (Stossel, 1997: 4; UCLA, 1995: 10).

Had he looked back past the birth of television, Murray might have seen similar claims about film in a 1933 report by Blumer and Hauser who found that ‘motion pictures created attitudes and furnished techniques conducive to delinquent and criminal behaviour.’ (Newbold, 1995: 107)

Further back, he might have referred to the 1888 Punch attribution of crimes in Whitechapel to ‘highly coloured pictorial advertisements’ (Gitlin, 1994: 1); to an 1841 Inspectors of Prisons report claiming that theatres, if not corrupting the mind, ‘tend to its vitiation by familiarising it with scenes of grossness, crime and blood’; or to a 1776 claim by Hanway that newspapers and amusements were to blame for ‘the host of thieves which has of late invaded us.’ (Cumberbatch, 1996: 443)

Can we take it, then, that a society free of television sets, cinema screens and the printing press* was safe from media effects? Apparently not! Socrates worried about the possible effects of the discovery of the alphabet (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967: 113; Lee, in Plato, 1988: 15) and he wrote nothing, though reading and writing had been widespread in Athens, at least for administrative purposes, for over 100 years by the time of his birth in about 470 B.C. During Plato’s lifetime, young people were taught to read and write and to recite the works of the great poets, such as Homer and Hesiod. Plato, though, wanted to ban poetry because ‘it has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters.’ (1988: 436) He particularly opposed allegorical tales, like Homer's Battles of the Gods, because ‘children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change.’ (1988: 133)

A persistent concern with the corruption of innocence is apparent here. In treatments separated by over 2,000 years, the pantheistic Plato and the determinedly monotheistic Roman Catholic Father Gerard Moloney express similar worries about the pollution of young minds. The main difference between them is whether this is attributable to Homer or to Home and Away.

 

3. THE BODYCOUNT APPROACH

The media effects approach to television violence is simply the most recent manifestation of a tendency to blame communications media for a loosely-defined range of ‘antisocial’ behaviours. Another approach, which presumes but does not argue the effects theory, involves elaborate counting methods.

In the US, threats of legislative action led to a 1994 agreement that the television industry would fund a project for monitoring the ‘status of television violence.’ Broadcasters appointed the Centre for Communications Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA, 1995: 13) while cable companies selected Mediascope, Inc., which later transferred administration of the project to the Centre for Communication and Social Policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara (NTVS, 1997: 1). A similar project was conducted by researchers at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield for the BBC and the ITC (Gunter and Harrison, 1995).

The US reports represent the most recent and extensive application of counting techniques to media violence. The UCLA team comprised 5 faculty and 25 student monitors while the NTVS team involved 30 faculty in 4 colleges, some 65 research assistants and a 17-member Board of Advisors. Both projects concentrated on examining the amount and types of violence shown on television, but both reports are prefaced with reviews of the effects work they consider most important. It is within these reviews that the shortcomings I identified earlier are most apparent and it is to them I will now turn.

The 1997 NTVS Report argues that there is clear evidence, based on ‘careful and critical readings’ of research collected over the last 40 years, that media violence contributes significantly to violence in society (1997: 8), referring particularly to the Surgeon General's Report Television and Social Behaviour (1972), which included material from George Gerbner of the Annenberg School for Communications.

Both the 1972 Surgeon General's report and the NTVS 1997 report depend heavily on the work of Albert Bandura and his colleagues in the ‘Bobo Doll Experiments’ (Bandura, 1965; Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1961; 1963) from which Bandura developed Social Learning Theory, ‘one of the most important models that explains how learning and imitation of violence occur via the media.’ (NTVS, 1997: 11). A critical reading of this experimental research will bring shortcomings to light.

The Bobo Doll Studies

The ‘Bobo’ is an inflatable plastic doll, about one metre tall, with a weighted base, designed so that when knocked over it will rebound. The research team showed experimental groups of young people film of another person (the model) beating such a doll with a baseball bat then, having frustrated them by taking favoured toys away, put them in a room with a similar doll and bat.

In some experiments, the model had been rewarded or punished for beating the doll, forms of punishment including one described by the researchers as ‘slapping.’ The researchers found that those who had been shown film of the model beating the doll were more likely to do so than the control group, while those who saw the model being rewarded were more likely to do so than those who saw the model being punished. Control group members acted aggressively in a variety of ways but they did not beat the doll with the baseball bat. The researchers’ conclusion was that experimental group members had learned how to behave aggressively from the model, and this forms a large part of the basis of the NTVS claim that people learn violence from television.

The failure to take account of the difference between beating a doll with a baseball bat on the one hand, and actual violence on the other; that is, the failure to recognise that people, and particularly young people, enjoy engaging in play, is a striking aspect of the research.

Second, the researchers noted that those shown the model being slapped were less ‘aggressive’ (i.e. less inclined to hit the doll) than others. But how were aggression and violence defined? Neither the original researchers nor their successors remark on the fact that those shown the ‘punishment’ were the only experimental groups to see actual violence portrayed on screen during the experiment - however justified or ‘pro-social’ that violence might be claimed to be - while the others perhaps saw a new way of playing with a Bobo doll.

There is, then, a lack of rigour in dealing with the processes and results of the Bobo Doll studies which is carelessly and uncritically carried through to the NTVS Report and which renders it worthless. Having failed to establish any link between television violence and real-life behaviour, the effort of engaging no less than 112 people in counting, categorising and coding violent incidents is futile and contributes nothing to our knowledge of whether media violence is harmful.

The UCLA approach to theory

The UCLA Report displays an unorthodox approach to its theoretical background, far from the ‘critical sociological perspective’ recommended by Halloran (1995: 69). Surveying the ‘many different studies’ that constituted the Surgeon General's 1972 Report, it states:

Each of the individual studies can be criticized, especially for methodological flaws. For example, one can question whether the findings from a laboratory experiment can be applied to the ‘real world.’ In some instances, the samples studied were quite small. In many instances, a host of additional variables might account for the correlations found. Moving beyond individual studies, the report can be faulted for its general focus which was on short-term and direct effects.... Nevertheless, overall, the accumulation of evidence supported the hypothesis that viewing of violence on television increases the likelihood of aggressive behaviour. (UCLA, 1995: 6, 7; my italics)

This seems to suggest that a large collection of invalid studies is authoritative simply by weight of numbers. Rigourous social science would surely hold that the results of flawed studies cannot be claimed to support any hypothesis, no matter how many such studies are cited.

The remainder of the UCLA analysis, dealing with subsequent research, is similar in tone and the report’s prefatory section ends with the circular argument that ‘television violence is a potential danger. If it were not, we would never have been asked to conduct this study.’ (1995: 11)

It is clear from these short extracts that the UCLA Report also fails to make any genuine contribution to our knowledge, mainly because it fails to attempt any serious engagement with theory. Because, indeed, it effectively evades the question of whether media violence is harmful.

 

4. ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES

The failure of the conventional research approaches, described above, should not be taken to indicate that the question cannot be addressed seriously. A number of approaches to the way we understand and use media can contribute to a much clearer idea of what is happening when we watch television. I will now examine the cases reported at the beginning of this paper from different points of view.

The ‘Active’ Audience - Revisiting Case 2

Audience members are not passive recipients of televisual texts but incorporate them into other social activities in a number of ways. Some incidents noted by Mr. Y reflect this approach:

  • The language of Die Hard 2 was playfully integrated into the group’s conversation when the teenage boy asked for a drink and his mother, adopting a mock-US accent, replied ‘Eat shit, motherfucker’, the clearly understood implication being that he would have to get his own drink.
  • During a commercial break, the girl responded to an insurance company's advertisement calling on viewers to take care with Christmas tree lights, arguing that the company was merely trying to avoid claims and did not really have viewers’ interests at heart.
  • The presence in Die Hard 2 of Dennis Franz, well-known for his role in the TV series NYPD Blue led to a long discussion about the problems facing David Caruso, another actor in the series, who had tried to build a career as a big-screen actor.
  • But when ‘real-life’ violence was discussed, Die Hard 2 was ignored. The girl's electronic ‘pet’ bleeped and she explained that it needed attention, describing the kinds of attention she could offer, including food or a slap. Other family members reacted to the latter as if stung, arguing that slapping was unreasonable, and a discussion of discipline and violence ensued, with references to actual parental violence in the home of one of the girl's friends. At no stage during this debate was any reference made to the mayhem in progress on the screen, perhaps because it was not considered relevant to the issue of violence in real life.

These events draw attention to issues including that of modality, the extent to which young people believe that what they see on television is real, associated with Hodge and Tripp (1996; also Robinson, 1996: 432 ), and the sense in which families use television as ‘an occasion for conversation and affection.’ (Seiter, 1996: 97; Palmer, 1986; Lull, 1991)

Domestic Politics - Revisiting Case 1

The action reported by Mr. X can be seen differently too, if located within the context of his role in the family. He claims to have destroyed a television set and caused £900 worth of damage to his car. If another person acted in this way, Mr. X might reasonably describe it as aggressive, anti-social behaviour. Yet his letter implies that his violent intrusion into his family's entertainment was justified by the nature of the material they were watching and by his duty to preserve their ‘innocence.’

A developing body of research seeks to locate the experience of television viewing within the micropolitics of domestic relationships, considering such questions as who decides what is seen on television, who literally controls the remote control. Morley, in his work for Family Television (1986; Seiter, 1996: 103), for example, found that men ‘watched more television, planned their viewing more and tended to control what others watched’ in the home.

 

CONCLUSION

Conventional research has delivered no useful answers to the question of whether media violence is harmful. Gauntlett argues that the lack of answers after decades of research and hundreds of studies must lead to the conclusion that effects are ‘not there to be found.’ (1998: 1, italics as original) and that the ‘effects paradigm should be laid to rest.’ (1995: 1). [David adds: Actually the 1998 article moves away from saying that effects never happen to exploring why scholars fail to find them, and why such studies are almost always useless. Either way, it remains the case that the ‘effects paradigm should be laid to rest’].

It is clear from the previous pages that the major conventional works have been hopelessly flawed and, rather than challenging presumptions, have used them as the basis for research, often rendering their own results meaningless. It is also clear, however, that many people continue to believe that violent television programmes cause violent behaviour in society, and the fact that inadequate research projects have failed to support this hypothesis is not sufficient evidence to rebut it.

There is a need for well-considered, well-designed and well-managed research which will build on the work of Gauntlett, Morley, Robinson and others, work which is sensitive to the social contexts within which television viewing takes place and to the extent to which young people have developed quite a sophisticated awareness of the relationships between television messages and ‘real life.’ Research is capable of delivering useful answers to the question of whether media violence is harmful but only if researchers are prepared to take a rigourous, critical social scientific approach which does not rest on easy, and easily dismissed, presumptions.

 

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