The Study of Violent Media

Violent media has a storied history in the United States. It has been the rallying point for numerous moral-panics, the subject of a great deal of social and scholarly criticism (Sparks, Sparks, & Sparks, 2009, pp. 270 – 274), and the focus of enormous portions of the media effects literature (Sparks et al., 2009, p. 271).

The earliest studies of mass media and violence examined the relationships between content and certain physiological and cognitive measures. Physiological effects can be observed by looking for arousal to violent stimuli or habituated desensitization to those same stimuli (Sparks et al., 2009, pp. 278 – 279), and as externally verifiable, physiological measures are easier generalize. While more difficult to study, validate, and generalize, the cognitive methods house crucial understandings of media effects (Plant & Devine, 1998, make a similar argument in regards to internal and external motivations), though these methods do vary in sophistication and ability to pierce the black box of human cognition (Sparks et al., 2009, pp. 279, 281). These methods observe media effects through social learning (establishing norms), media priming, information processing (with the increasing feasibility of incorporating brain-imaging), and attitudinal changes like increased aggression (Perse, 2001, pp. 204 – 215; Sparks et al., 2009, pp. 277 – 278). These methods and approaches look to behavior and attitude change, generally in the short-term, and understand the impacts of individual messages. Were there to be a single, powerful message directly resulting in violent behavior, these mechanisms would be the ones to link message with behavior, and then to qualify and explain the connection. 

On the other hand, cultivation theory looks at the entire media context of an audience and only addresses the aggregate effects of media (Mastro, 2009, p. 334). In spite of this apparent complexity, cultivation has a reductive beauty of its own. Instead of linking violent behaviors with specific media, a cultivation approach to studying violent media looks at the culminating impacts of the media, understood as an overarching cultural force, on an audience or a person’s perceived reality. Additionally, rather than looking to the effects of violent media on factors like aggression, this paradigm looks to study the beliefs and assumptions about reality that the media cultivate (Sparks et al., 2009, p. 271). Being studied through surveys that ask respondents to relate the lessons of media content, it is important to note that these media do not need to feature violence themselves to result in perceived lessons and fears related to violence (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009, pp. 38 – 40). This can be seen plainly in effects like the “mean world syndrome” where audiences believe the world to be more dangerous the more television they view (Morgan et al., 2009, p. 41; Riddle, Potter, Metzger, Nabi, & Linz, 2011, pp. 168, 184; Sparks et al., 2009, p. 271).

Between cultivation and effects approaches are complimentary, if inverted, paradigms for studying the effects violent media. By looking at the effects of individual messages and looking at the aggregate effects of all media, scholars have an opportunity to understand the totality of society’s relationship with mass media. 

Literature reviewed
  • Mastro, D. (2009). Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed). New York: Routledge.
  • Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorielli, N. (2009). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 34 – 49). New York: Routledge.
  • Perse, E. M. (2001). Media effects and society. In LEA’s Communication Series. Mahwah, NJ: LErlbaum Associates.
  • Riddle, K., Potter, W. J., Metzger, M. J., Nabi, R. L., & Linz, D. G. (2011). Beyond cultivation: Exploring the effects of frequency, recency, and vivid autobiographical memories for violent media. Media Psychology, 14(2), 168 – 191.
  • Sparks, G. G., Sparks, C. W., & Sparks, E. A. (2009). Media Violence. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 269 – 286). New York: Routledge.