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March 20th, 2008
Grimes, Bergen book re-examines impact of violence in media

By Jayme Blaschke

Is our society harmed by media violence? A new book by Texas State University-San Marcos journalism professors Tom Grimes and Lori Bergen, and a sociology journal edited by Grimes, try to answer this question.
Grimes and Bergen’s recently released book entitled Media Violence and Aggression: Science and Ideology (Sage Publications) asserts that studies claiming to show that there is a link between childhood consumption of media violence, and later aggressive behavior as adults, are just plain wrong. Grimes and Bergen (with co-author James A. Anderson, a professor at the University of Utah) argue that the alleged causal link between children’s consumption of media violence and their aggression as adults is illusory.

Instead, Grimes, Anderson, and Bergen argue that the authors of those studies find a causal relationship between violent media consumption and social aggression by unintentionally using faulty research methods. Those methods include defining media violence as being anything ranging from the comic behavior of cartoon characters–where the Road Runner drops a boulder on the Wile E. Coyote–to realistic portrayals of murder. These faulty methods also extend to the definition of aggression. Aggression, in these studies, can range from assault and battery (reasonable) to moving violations in a car and criticizing a person’s looks (both unreasonable)–and a lot of behaviors in between. When media violence and social aggression are so liberally defined, then it becomes easy, indeed almost impossible, not to find some link (usually a very weak link even at that) between childhood consumption of media violence and later aggression as adults.

Grimes, Anderson, and Bergen suggest that it would be more productive to study the real link between media violence and aggression: The link takes place within children who already have, and therefore come to media violence with, emotional problems. The book enumerates the most commonly diagnosed mental ailments suffered by children, aliments that interact with media violence in a way that’s harmful to those children.

The April edition of American Behavioral Scientist, a respected sociology journal, invited the world’s most prominent proponents, and opponents, of the media violence/social aggression link to argue their cases. This special issue, edited by both Grimes and Anderson, included scholars from the University of Leicester in England, the Menninger Psychiatric Clinic in Houston, Harvard University’s School of Public Health, and scholars from Syracuse University, American University, Carnegie Mellon University and Texas State.

Among the arguments made by proponents of the link are that, across three decades, researchers using different methods and testing competing theories have consistently found evidence that children exposed to media violence cause aggression later in life. One contributor to the volume even goes as far as to assert that media violence changes the architecture of the brain, thus making violent behavior more likely. He includes MRI-generated photos of living brains reacting to media violence.

Opponents argue that there are too many other social influences that contribute to social violence to be able to reliably single out violent television and movies as causes. These opponents also argue that proponents are making serious data collection and analytical errors, which lead to the erroneous assertion that media violence causes an increase in levels of social violence.

Tom Grimes is professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State. Lori Bergen is professor and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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