Editor's Note:In this guest commentary, Prof. Ferguson responds to a recent story that linked media coverage and violent video games to mass shootings.
The tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, this past December have left the country reeling. At such moments it is common for societies to experience what are called “moral panics.”
During such times, extraneous phenomena, often media, are blamed for societal problems despite lack of evidence they are significant contributors. These moral panics serve to give us an illusion of control over uncontrollable events and give us a “boogeyman” to blame. In the 1950s, comic books were blamed for delinquency, and media ranging from books to music to television have long been blamed for societal ills.
Hyperbole from politicians, activists and some scholars often contributes to these moral panics. Thus it was a shame to see a credible group, the National Science Foundation (NSF), find its name attached to a report commissioned by a politician with a clear agenda that almost surgically avoided mentioning any research that conflicted with a highly ideological and alarmist view of media effects.
Speaking as a video game researcher, the report commissioned by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) grossly misrepresents the field of video game violence. One meta-analysis of media violence by Joanne Savage is cited as if supporting links between media violence and violent crime when, in fact, Dr. Savage concluded quite the opposite.
Otherwise, the report misses countless studies that find no links between media violence and aggression or societal violence. This is an issue known as citation bias … when scholars only cite studies that support their personal views and ignore studies which do not (or misrepresent them as in the case of Dr. Savage’s work).
Generally this is considered to be an ethical violation. This type of flawed scholarship grossly misrepresents the field of media violence and contributes to societal moral panics.
In fact, research on media violence has always been inconsistent and often flawed. The NSF report can be contrasted with, of all things, an almost simultaneous report by Common Sense Media (CSM) which functions as an anti-media “watchdog” group.
Although I disagree with many of CSM’s conclusions, I commend them for acknowledging the debates and discrepant evidence in this field. CSM presents an honest argument for media effects, one I disagree with, but at least without the blatant misrepresentations of the field found in the NSF report.
It is a surprise to find an anti-media advocacy group, one whose funding presumably depends on selling the notion of how bad the media is, outshining the NSF on accurate and careful reporting of the literature.
The best research we have coming out now, using well-validated measures of clinically significant aggression and controlling well for other variables, has not found consistent evidence for harmful media effects. Societal violence, including among youth, has been plummeting, not rising in recent decades. Countries which consume almost identical media cultures as ourselves across the Western world have much lower violence rates.
And, contrary to what one might read from the NSF report, consumption of violent media is not a commonality among mass shooters. The 2002 Secret Service report (cited in the NSF study, but not in the section on media violence) found no evidence school shooters consume high amounts of media violence. And in recent weeks we’ve seen a spate of high-profile crimes by elderly men who presumably were not gamers. But society tends to ignore these cases that don’t fit the profile.
Writing before the Brown v EMA Supreme Court case (where the court found that current evidence did not support links between video games and societal violence) scholars Hall, Day and Hall warned that exaggerating the effects of violent video games would ultimately damage the credibility of the scientific field. Unfortunately, the NSF report, blatantly misleading and biased as it is, contributes to this loss of credibility.
Scientific organizations should be wary about associating with blatantly politicized calls for “research” to suit a political agenda. I call upon the scientific community to do better.
The author is an associate professor and chair of the Psychology & Communication Dept. at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.