Decent Reporting on Media Effects (for a change)


In my previous post about not turning-off TV, one common argument that I didn’t mention is the media effects paradigm: watching TV causes violence, anti-social behavior, sexual permissiveness, etc. It’s a dead-end argument for many reasons, especially in inspiring a generalized ban or dismissal of the medium – even if some programming does cause some effects, eliminating the medium is not the correct treatment for the symptom.

The media effects paradigm as a whole is deeply flawed in a wide range of ways – methodologically, ideologically, politically – that I won’t go into here, but one problem that we can’t blame on the researchers themselves is the shoddy & slippery way that the press reports on media effects studies. Since sensationalist claims of overwhelming negative effects promotes fear, and thus helps sell newspapers, reporters often boil down what may be a subtle argument of complex causality or correlation into headlines like “TV proven to cause violent behavior.” So for once I was glad to read a story about media effects research that highlights the complexities: “Games Do Cause Violent Behavior (But Not Much)” in BusinessWeek. The article argues that there are measurable effects of playing violent videogames, but – and here’s what the press almost never mentions – “the effect is very, very small.”  Additionally, the study & the coverage both focus on how a player’s predisposition and temper greatly impact the effects – calm people are not impacted much by games, while angry people are provoked more.

The researcher, Patrick Markey, acknowledges that videogames do not provoke aggression any more than any other media, counters the “murder simulation” hypothesis that some dubiously claim, argues against censorship, and self-identifies as a well-adjusted gamer. But what he doesn’t consider (at least in print) is that people with angry personalities can be triggered toward aggression by many things beyond media, yet we don’t treat those stimuli as social problems in the same manner. In general, we don’t shape our culture to fit the personality needs of the most vulnerable and susceptible – if we did, there would be a movement to outlaw automobiles as they trigger road rage. We should embrace the fact that not all of our media need be appropriate for first graders. Similarly we shouldn’t try to imagine a culture that contains no triggers for people with violent tempers, as that would greatly diminish our range of artistic and cultural expression. Instead of blaming or censoring the stimuli that might provoke certain type of people with anger problems, we should work to provide mental health resources for people whose personality types might lead to violent behaviors – and let people who aren’t affected by violent games frag to their heart’s content!

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