The Study of Violent Media

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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.

Prejudice and Our Shared Notions of Reality

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Media effects scholars have long recognized the role of mass media in establishing culture, norms, and shared conceptions of reality — indeed, these links exist across historical literature far predating the formalized, scientific study of mass media. George Gerbner, in a seminal paper laying the groundwork for what would become the Cultivation approach to mass communication studies, states that mass media messages can be thought of as “the common culture through which communities cultivate shared and public notions about facts, values, and contingencies of human existence” (1969, pp. 137 – 138). Where social perceptions and shared realities overlap with mass media, media effects can be understood through different lines of theoretical inquiry.

Broadly, media priming and framing provide explanations for how media messages activate biased predispositions already existing in an individual. However, these mechanisms, when incorporated within the agenda‐setting perspective, can explain other, counter‐intuitive effects. Second‐level agenda setting provides insight into how media portrayals are able to influence collective perceptions by increasing the “salience” of issues in the minds of audiences (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 2; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 14 – 15). Alongside these frameworks, two other theories can be used to study the relationships between media effects and social bias, stereotyping, and prejudice. First, group threat theory provides specific mechanisms that media effects researchers can use to connect messages with social group biases and resulting attitude or behavior. Group threat theory explains the ethnocentric responses of dominate social groups, which arise when members of the dominant group perceive threats to either the hierarchical social orders that benefit them or their position within a social order (Skinner & Cheadle, 2016, pp. 545, 551 – 552). For media effects studies, the theory provides control variables (Skinner & Cheadle, 2016, p. 548) that can be used in priming and framing studies. Those studies are able to observe how moderating attributes, like racial identity, interact with other intervening and confounding factors, like internal predispositions and external pressures to respond without prejudice (Skinner & Cheadle, 2016, pp. 544, 546). These additional — and crucial — audience characteristics can be studied through measures devised by Plant and Devine (1998) who used two scales to “disentangle” the complex mesh of internal and external motivations that people have for responding without prejudice (p. 812). Since people can have a variety of reasons to mask or not present their biases, the web of factors must be sorted out before researchers can adequately determine when and how media effect those biases. It’s important, now, to recognize that within the frameworks of agenda setting — and especially of media priming and framing — researchers are looking at the short‐term effects of media. While longitudinal studies (which involves repeated observations over time) can be used to examine long‐term effects, and control for prior biases (Sparks, Sparks, & Sparks, 2009, pp. 276 – 277), the Cultivation approach may lend itself the most to explaining and modeling the effects of mass media on the worldviews of audiences.

The cultivation approach understands mass media (particularly television) as having small cumulative effects over a long time with significant, even powerful, implications for the collective worldviews and shared notions of reality in an audience. This, at face value, is a wild suggestion for media effects scholars (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009, p. 37). The theory seems to imply that, regardless of factors like selection and active versus passive use, the media acts as a systemic force in establishing culture. In the face of apparent contradictions, Morgan et al. (2009) instead argue that audience choices and selection do matter, but that between those choices are sets of commonalities which, over time, construct a shared vision of the world. It is this effect, they state, that cultivation studies (2009, p. 37). Cultivation effects are best understood as a dynamic and continuous process of pushing and pulling, and cultivation scholars neither negate the literature from an audience selectivity perspective nor backpedal the powerful claims of the cultivation literature (Jacobs, Hooghe, & de Vroome, 2017, p. 247; Morley, 1997, p. 35; Shanahan, Morgan, & Morgan, 1999, p. 125).

Media effects can be, at once, a study opposed to grand claims of direct and overwhelming sway while also demonstrably connecting changes in the culture at‐large with the currents of mass media.  This idea is, to say the least, provocative. But the critical literature is clear, media effects must be understood at all levels. In developing these two lines of inquiry, scholars gain access to both the canopy and the undergrowth in the forests of human culture.

Literature reviewed
  • Gerbner, G. (1969). Toward “Cultural Indicators”: The Analysis of Mass Mediated Public Message Systems. AV Communication Review, 17(2), 137 – 148. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  • Jacobs, L., Hooghe, M., & de Vroome, T. (2017). Television and anti‐immigrant sentiments: the mediating role of fear of crime and perceived ethnic diversity. European Societies, 19(3), 243 – 267.
  • McCombs, M., & Reynolds, A. (2009). How the news shapes our civic agenda. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 1 – 16). 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.
  • Morley, D. (1997). Theoretical Orthodoxies: Textualism, Constructivism and the “New Ethnography” in Cultural Studies. In M. Ferguson & P. Golding (Eds.), Cultural Studies in Question. Retrieved from
  • Plant, E. A., & Devine, P. G. (1998). Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 811 – 832.
  • Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9 – 20. – 9916.2007.00326.x
  • Shanahan, J., Morgan, M., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research. Retrieved from
  • Skinner, A. L., & Cheadle, J. E. (2016). The “Obama Effect”? Priming Contemporary Racial Milestones Increases Implicit Racial Bias among Whites. Social Cognition, 34(6), 544 – 558.
  • 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.

Cultivation, a theory for TV that explains media effects on worldview

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For all the times that Cultivation theory has come up thus far, Morgan et al. (2009) finally lay out the breadth and nuance of the perspective. These discussions on the effects of television and of cultivation intrigue me far more than the results of any one experiment exactly because of the breadth and nuance that can be brought forward.

I was a teenager during the rise of violent video games, and many of my first forays into news and politics were through the lens of someone on the receiving end of a moral panic. Don’t take away my violent video games, Senator; I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I didn’t understand why video games were always being bullied in the traditional media, when TV, movies, and books had as much violence. I blamed political scapegoating and an entrenched media that feared and distrusted an emerging artform. It is good to revisit these thoughts from a nuanced understanding, and to be fair to my younger self, the portrayal of these topics in the media always takes on a simplistic framing. Morgan et al. suggests that violence comes up again and again in media effects research because it is easy to study, gets funding, and makes the work of researcher more accessible to the general public through a concrete topic. Violent media and its effects lend themselves to being easily conceptualized and discussed. They, as well as Jacobs et al. (2017), suggest that the clearest effects of violent media are on a person’s worldview, not necessarily on their likelihood to commit violent acts themselves.

My love of video games is likely what led to my unchecked optimism for technology. Televisions were getting bigger and cheaper, with high‐definition on the horizon, while video games, computing, and graphics technologies were rapidly advancing, and I thought this was great — it was great for everyone and everything, always. Current events have tempered this feeling — current events or that, oh no, I’m getting older. For my youth, I was steeped in online video game forums, gaming‐industry and technology magazines, television shows about science‐and‐technology, and technology‐and‐business related news. Without realizing it, I’d been pushed toward a worldview that normalized a perspective on technology that was extreme in optimism, trusting both industry‐leaders and start‐ups implicitly, and one that expected and demanded a high degree of morally, economically, and environmentally unsustainable obsolescence. New, new, new; the next big thing always meant something better.

From these new understandings, it’s easy to see how my media selection and exposure cultivated a specific outlook. The realities of growing up before the end of Moore’s Law, and being an end‐user to the industries driven by it, gave me heuristic models for understanding the world that privileged the newest things as the best things. Even just a few years ago, my thoughts on technology were somewhat nuanced but still firmly in the tech‐enthusiast camp. The criticism of technology always seems to be framed around “Millennials,” and I see this as a trope. Cries that a current generation is ruining civilization are as old as civilizations themselves while the voracity of undue criticism can mask actual social issues — for everyone. I still believe this last bit, but at the time I also thought that there was a certain xenophobia around the new forms of cultural expression that devices like cellphones permit. Like emojis; it’s probably not worse, just different. At the time, I made the argument that, yes, while everyone is walking through public with their faces glued to their devices and ignoring the people near them, those same devices permit them to be, not anti‐social, but hyper‐social. Internet‐connected devices permit choosing quality over proximity in social interactions. Today, however, these thoughts are overtaken by just how different the current environment is from anything that came before, and the effects that emerge as the new media environment has matured. As I go next into the media effects literature addressing new media, I’m curious to see how my current positions are informed or changed by the research.

Literature reviewed
  • Jacobs, Laura, Marc Hooghe, and Thomas de Vroome. “Television and Anti‐Immigrant Sentiments: The Mediating Role of Fear of Crime and Perceived Ethnic Diversity.” European Societies 19, no. 3 (May 27, 2017): 243 – 67.
  • Morgan, M., J. Shanahan, and N. Signorielli. “Growing up with Television: Cultivation Processes.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed., 34 – 49. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge, 2009
  • Riddle, Karyn, W. James Potter, Miriam J. Metzger, Robin L. Nabi, and Daniel G. Linz. “Beyond Cultivation: Exploring the Effects of Frequency, Recency, and Vivid Autobiographical Memories for Violent Media.” Media Psychology 14, no. 2 (May 31, 2011): 168 – 91.