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.

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.