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issues : violence : media violence debates

Media Violence Debates

Bowling for ColumbineThe issue of media violence just doesn't go away. The debate raged when the Reagan administration deregulated children's television in the United States, and was revisited after the Montreal massacre on December 6, 1989. And the rash of high school shootings in North America and Europe at the end of the century has fuelled the debate anew.

Many pundits argue that media violence is at least partly to blame for the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, Taber, Alberta and Erfurt, Germany. Ex-army psychologist Dave Grossman, a leading American activist, points the finger squarely at movies and video games. He argues that Hollywood films have desensitized kids to the consequences of violence, and video games have taught them how to handle a gun. But others, like psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, maintain, "just because a film has a murder scene doesn't mean people are going to commit the act... That overstates the power of the image and under-estimates the role of parents."

It is important to recognize that the discussion is not a purely scientific one. Social scientists have been unable to establish clearly that media violence causes real-life aggression. As early as 1985, Anthony Smith noted that the demand for "evidence" was driven more by the intensity of the debate than the desire to find definitive answers: "Social science has gotten itself into something of a scrape in the matter of television, especially in the area of violence; none of the various sides of the argument about violence will permit social science to depart the field." (For a review of the scientific literature, see Research on the Effects of Media Violence in the menu below.)

Media Violence as a Public Health Issue

On the other hand, many social scientists have concluded that there is a weak correlation between watching media violence and real life aggression—enough to convince organizations like the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Medical Association that media violence is a public health issue. After all, governments don't wait for scientific certainty before they act to protect the public from smoking or drinking; all that's required is proof of a risk. If there is evidence that an activity or substance will increase the probability of negative effects, then the state is justified in intervening.

Media Violence as Artistic Expression

However, others maintain that the crusade against media violence is a form of censorship that, if successful, would seriously hamper artistic expression. Researchers R. Hodge and D. Tripp, for example, argue that, "Media violence is qualitatively different from real violence: it is a natural signifier of conflict and difference, and without representations of conflict, art of the past and present would be seriously impoverished."

We've found that every aspect of even the trashiest pop-culture story can have its own developmental function... Identification with a rebellious, even destructive, hero helps children learn to push back against a modern culture that cultivates fear and teaches dependency.

(Source: Gerard Jones, Violent Media is Good for Kids, 2000)

Many commentators, from artists to film makers to historians, agree. Comic-book creator Gerard Jones contends that violent video games, movies, music and comic books enable people to pull themselves out of emotional traps, "integrating the scariest, most fervently denied fragments of their psyches into fuller sense of selfhood through fantasies of superhuman combat and destruction." Pullitzer-Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes says that video game violence enables young people to safely challenge their feelings of powerlessness.

Psychologist Melanie Moore concludes:

"Fear, greed, power-hunger, rage: these are aspects of our selves that we try not to experience in our lives but often want, even need, to experience vicariously through stories of others. Children need violent entertainment in order to explore the inescapable feelings that they've been taught to deny, and to reintegrate those feelings into a more whole, more complex, more resilient selfhood."

Media Violence as Free Speech

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression lists a number of reasons to protect media violence as a form of free expression:

  • censorship won't solve the root causes of violence in society

  • deciding what is "acceptable" content is necessarily a subjective exercise

  • many of the plays, books and films banned in the past are considered classics today

  • it's up to individuals and not governments to decide what's appropriate for themselves and their children

The Québec Writers Union (l'Union des écrivaines et écrivains québecois, or l'Uneq) makes the same argument in its publication Liberté d'expression: guide d'utilisation. For l'Uneq, legislation restricting the production or importing of literature is part of a larger structure favouring censorship.

The frequent and graphic violence in [the] critically acclaimed film [Saving Private Ryan] is a reminder that the portrayal of violent behavior can serve artistic and moral purposes.

(Source: Center for Media and Public Affairs, 1999)

And, as the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) noted in its 1999 study of entertainment violence, media violence can be compelling social commentary. According to CMPA, the most violent film in 1999 was Saving Private Ryan, a fictionalized account of the D-Day invasion of Normandy which has been critically acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of the horrors of war.

Many media critics, like George Gerbner and Joanne Cantor, agree that censorship is not the answer. However, they question whose rights are protected when governments give, in Gerbner's words, a "virtual commercial monopoly over the public's airwaves," in effect delivering our "cultural environment to a marketing operation."

Censorship is not the answer. But the pattern here is that [the right to free speech] is aggressively used to protect commercial interests at the same time that the free speech rights of child advocates are stifled.

(Source: Joanne Cantor, Whose Freedom of Speech is It Anyway?, 2002)

As journalist Scott Stossel notes, parents used to tell children scary stories face-to-face, so they could moderate the content and teach life lessons: "Children today, in contrast, grow up in a cultural environment that is designed to the specifications of a marketing strategy."

Shari Graydon, past president of Canada's Media Watch, and Québec activist René Caron remind us that the air waves are a public utility, and those who control their access and distribution must do so in ways that represent the best interests of all Canadians. Caron states, "violence has been used by the industry to capture the attention of boys, to captivate them and manipulate them." Although this strategy may be profitable, "from a social viewpoint, from a moral viewpoint, this approach has had abominable repercussions."

Media Violence and The Uncivil Society

The repercussions aren't limited to a potential increase in aggressive behaviour. Many commentators worry that media violence has become embedded in the cultural environment; that, in some sense, it's part of the "psychic air" that children and young people constantly breathe. That environment of violence, profanity, crudeness, and meanness may erode civility in society by demeaning and displacing positive social values.

Todd Gitlin goes further. He argues that media violence is a red herring that allows politicians to divert attention away from very real social problems. He writes, "There is little political will for a war on poverty, guns, or family breakdown ... we are offered instead a crusade against media violence. This is largely a feel-good exercise, a moral panic substituting for practicality... It appeals to an American propensity that sociologist Philip Slater called the Toilet Assumption: once the appearance of a social problem is swept out of sight, so is the problem. And the crusade costs nothing."

"To be loathsome, popular culture doesn't have to be murderous."

(Source: Todd Gitlin, Imagebusters: The Hollow Crusade Against TV Violence, 1994)

Rather than focusing on violent content, Gitlin argues we should be condemning "trash on the grounds that it is stupid, wasteful, morally bankrupt: that it coarsens taste, that it shrivels the capacity to feel and know the whole of human experience."

Media Violence and the Inequitable Society

Gerbner warns that the search for a link between media violence and real life aggression is in itself a symptom of the problem itself. For Gerbner, media violence demonstrates power: "It shows one's place in the 'pecking order' that runs society."

For example, Gerbner's decades-long study of television violence indicates that villains are typically portrayed as poor, young, male members of visible minorities, and victims are overwhelmingly female. He argues that by making the world look like a dangerous place, especially for white people, the majority will be more willing to give the authorities greater power to enforce the status quo.

This is an argument that Michael Moore used in the award-winning movie, Bowling for Columbine. Journalist Thierry Jobin writes, "[Moore] denounces the way in which the government and the media foster a feeling of insecurity, pushing Americans to barricade themselves in their homes, a loaded 44 Magnum under their pillows." Gerbner worries that this sense of insecurity and powerlessness will be used to justify a weakening of democratic values.

Media Violence as Consumer Choice

Opponents of regulation argue that it's up to the viewer to decide what to watch. If you don't like television violence, they say, then turn off the TV.

However, research indicates that the popularity of a TV show depends less on content and more on scheduling. As Gerbner points out, "... violence as such is not highly rated. That means it coasts on viewer inertia, not selection. Unlike other media use, viewing is a ritual; people watch by the clock and not by the program."

Joanne Cantor criticizes the media industry for saying it's up to parents, not the industry, to decide what their children watch: "They make harmful products, which come into our homes automatically through television, they market them to children too young to use them safely, and they try to keep parents in the dark about their effects." Cantor argues parents need tools to help them decide what is healthy and unhealthy for their kids.

One such tool is the V-chip, which enables parents to program their televisions with pre-set industry ratings to screen out certain shows. Keith Spicer, former chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, calls the V-chip a "sexy, telegenic little gizmo that fulfills the fantasy of a magic wand."

The industry has been quick to endorse V-chip technology but critics argue that its real function is to protect the industry from parents, not the other way around. Gerbner states, "It's like major polluters saying, 'We shall continue business as usual, but don't worry, we'll also sell you gas masks to 'protect your children' and have a 'free choice!' ... Programming needs to be diversified, not just 'rated.' A better government regulation is antitrust, which could create a level playing field, admitting new entries and a greater diversity of ownership, employment, and representation. That would reduce violence to its legitimate role and frequency."

Todd Gitlin agrees with Gerbner that the real issue is broadcaster irresponsibility—though he does endorse the V-chip because, "parents deserve all the technology they can get."

Media Violence and Active Audiences

Researchers like David Buckingham in the U.K. and Henry Jenkins in the U.S. add another dimension to the debate. They argue that rather than focusing on what media do to people, we should focus on what people do with media.

As Jenkins writes, media images "are not simple chemical agents like carcinogens that produce predictable results upon those who consume them. They are complex bundles of often contradictory meanings that can yield an enormous range of different responses from the people who consume them."

From this perspective, people don't just passively absorb messages transmitted through the media; they choose which media to consume and are actively involved in determining what the meaning of the messages will be. And that process doesn't occur in a social vacuum. Personal experiences affect what we watch and how we make sense of it. Our class position, our religious upbringing, our level of education, our family setting, and our peer groups all have a role to play in how we understand violent content.

Jenkins draws a different lesson from the shooting in Littleton: "Media images may have given [the Columbine shooters] symbols to express their rage and frustration, but the media did not create the rage or generate their alienation. What sparked the violence was not something they saw on the internet or on television, not some song lyric or some sequence from a movie, but things that really happened to them... If we want to do something about the problem, we are better off focusing our attention on negative social experiences and not the symbols we use to talk about those experiences."

Media Violence Debates

Overview Media Violence Media Stereotyping Online Hate Electronic Privacy Media and Canadian Cultural Policies

Related MNet Resources


Current Issue Review: Violence on Television (Canada, Library of Parliament, October 1997)

Classification System for Violence in Television Programming in conjunction with V-chip (Action Group on Violence on Television, April 30, 1997)

Television Violence: Fraying Our Social Fabric (Canada, House of Commons Standing Committee on Communication and Culture, June 1993)


Good Clean Fun (Shift Magazine, December 1999)

Is Media Violence Free Speech? A debate between George Gerbner and Todd Gitlin (Hot Wired, June 1997)

Toxic TV: Is TV Violence Contributing to Aggression in Kids? (Maclean's, June 17, 1996)

Imagebusters: The Hollow Crusade Against TV Violence (The American Prospect, December 1994)

reading, viewing, surfing


The Man Who Counts the Killings (The Atlantic Monthly, May 1997)

Getting the Facts Straight on Media Violence (Freedom Forum, April 1998)

Children and Television Violence (Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, 1995)

Imagebusters, the Sequel: Why TV Violence Matters (The American Prospect, March 1994)

Cultivation Theory (University of Wales, 1995)

Moral Panic: Excerpt from "Lessons from Littleton: What Congress Doesn't Want You to Hear About Youth and Media" (Harper's, August 1999)

The Media Violence Myth (American Booksellers Association for Free Expression, 2000)

Television Violence and the Art of Asking the Wrong Question (Center for Media Literacy, 1993)

When the Chips Are Off (Reasononline, 2001)

Does Children's TV Have to Be Edifying? (New York Times, July 6, 1999)

The Censor and the Artist: A Murky Border (New York Times, November 26, 2002) - Must log in to access article


Congressional Testimony on Media Violence (MIT Communications Forum, May 1999)


American Parents Express Deep Concern Over Media's Impact on Kids in Common Sense Media's New National Poll (common sense media, May 2003)


Whose Freedom of Speech Is it Anyway? (Joanne Cantor, 2002)


Violence in the Media: A Joint Statement (American Booksellers Foundation for Free Speech)


Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003 (United States Congress, 2003) (To locate this legislation, enter the name of the Act in the Word/Phrase dialogue box.)


Stop Killing Women as Entertainment - Scenes from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (National Institute on Media and the Family) CAUTION: This video contains intense violence and sexual scenes.

Web site

Media Risk Reduction Project (Simon Fraser University)

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (University of Washington)

Media Violence Debates  

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