News and Features
One of the most persistent myths in the culture wars today is that
social science has proven "media violence" to cause adverse effects. The
debate is over; the evidence is overwhelming, researchers, pundits and
politicians frequently proclaim. Anyone who denies it might as well be
arguing that the earth is flat.
Jonathan Freedman, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto,
has been saying for almost twenty years that it just isn't so. He is not
alone in his opinion, but as a psychologist trained in experimental
research, he is probably the most knowledgeable and qualified to express
it. His new book, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression,
surveys all of the empirical studies and experiments in this field, and
finds that the majority do not support the hypothesis that violent
content in TV and movies has a causal relationship to real violence in
society. The book is required reading for anyone who wishes to
understand this issue.
I should say at the outset that unlike Freedman, I doubt whether
quantitative sociological or psychological experiments--useful as they
are in many areas--can tell us much about the effects of something as
broad and vague in concept as "media violence." As a group of scholars
put it recently in a case involving censorship of violent video games:
In a field as inherently complex and multi-faceted as human aggression,
it is questionable whether quantitative studies of media effects can
really provide a holistic or adequately nuanced description of the
process by which some individuals become more aggressive than others.
Indeed, since "media violence" encompasses everything from cartoons,
sports and news to horror movies, westerns, war documentaries and some
of the greatest works of film art, it baffles me how researchers think
that generalizations about "effects" can be made based on experiments
using just one or a few examples of violent action.
Freedman, by contrast, believes that the experimental method is capable
of measuring media effects. This may explain why he is so indignant
about the widespread misrepresentations and distortions of the research
He explains in his preface that he became interested in this area by
happenstance, and was surprised when he began reading the research to
find that its results were quite the opposite of what is usually
asserted. He began speaking and writing on the subject. In 1999 he was
approached by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and asked
to do a comprehensive review of all the research. He had not previously
received organizational support and, as he says, "was a little nervous
because I knew there was a danger that my work would be tainted by a
connection with the MPAA." He agreed only after making it clear that the
MPAA "would have no input into the review, would see it only after it
was complete, and except for editorial suggestions, would be forbidden
to alter what I wrote. Of course," he says,
they asked me to do the review, rather than someone else, because they
knew my position and assumed or at least hoped that I would come to the
same conclusion after a more comprehensive review. But there was no quid
pro quo. Although I was nervous about being tainted, I am confident that
I was not. In any case, the conclusions of this review are not different
from those of my earlier review or those I expressed in papers and talks
between 1984 and 1999.
The book proceeds meticulously to examine the approximately 200 studies
and experiments that Freedman was able to find after an exhaustive
search. (He suggests that the exaggerated numbers one often
hears--1,000, 3,500 or simply "thousands" of studies--probably derive
from a statement made by psychologist John Murray in the early 1980s
when the National Institute of Mental Health sponsored a review of the
media violence research. Murray said that there were about 2,500
publications of all kinds that were relevant to the review. This is far
different, of course, from the number of empirical experiments and
Freedman begins with laboratory experiments, of which he found
eighty-seven. Many commentators have noted the artificiality of these
experiments, in which snippets of a violent film or TV show are shown to
one group of viewers (sometimes children, sometimes adolescents or
adults), while a control group is shown a nonviolent clip. Then their
level of "aggression" is observed--or rather, something that the
experimenters consider a proxy for aggression, such as children hitting
a Bobo doll (an inflatable plastic clown), delivering a "white noise"
blast or--amazingly--answering yes when asked whether they would pop a
balloon if given the opportunity.
As Freedman and others have pointed out, these laboratory proxies for
aggression are not the real thing, and aggressive play is very different
from real-world violent or destructive behavior. He comments:
Quite a few studies with children defined aggression as hitting or
kicking a Bobo doll or some other equivalent toy.... As anyone who has
owned one knows, Bobo dolls are designed to be hit. When you hit a Bobo
doll, it falls down and then bounces back up. You are supposed to hit it
and it is supposed to fall down and then bounce back up. There is little
reason to have a Bobo doll if you do not hit it. Calling punching a Bobo
doll aggressive is like calling kicking a football aggressive. Bobos are
meant to be punched; footballs are meant to be kicked. No harm is
intended and none is done.... It is difficult to understand why anyone
would think this is a measure of aggression.
Freedman notes other serious problems with the design of lab experiments
to test media effects. When positive results are found, they may be due
simply to the arousal effect of high-action entertainment, or to a
desire to do what the subjects think the experimenter wants. He points
out that experimenters generally haven't made efforts to assure that the
violent and nonviolent clips that they show are equivalent in other
respects. That is, if the nonviolent clip is less arousing, then any
difference in "aggression" afterward is probably due to arousal, not
imitation. Freedman's favorite example is an experiment in which one
group of subjects saw a bloody prizefight, while the control group was
shown a soporific film about canal boats.
But the most striking point is that even given the questionable validity
of lab experiments in measuring real-world media effects, the majority
of experiments have not had positive results. After detailed analysis of
the numbers that the researchers reported, Freedman summarizes:
Thirty-seven percent of the experiments supported the hypothesis that
media violence causes real-world violence or aggression, 22 percent had
mixed results and 41 percent did not support the hypothesis. After he
factored out experiments using "the most doubtful measures of
aggression" (popping balloons and so forth), only 28 percent of the
results were supportive, 16 percent were mixed and 55 percent were
nonsupportive of the "causal hypothesis."
For field experiments--designed to more closely approximate real-world
conditions--the percentage of negative results was higher: "Only three
of the ten studies obtained even slightly supportive results, and two of
those used inappropriate statistics while the third did not have a
measure of behavior." Freedman comments that even this weak showing
"gives a more favorable picture than is justified," for "several of the
studies that failed to find effects actually consisted of many separate
studies." Counting the results of these separate studies, "three field
experiments found some support, and twenty did not."
Now, the whole point of the scientific method is that experiments can be
replicated, and if the hypothesis is correct, they will produce the same
result. A minority of positive results are meaningless if they don't
show up consistently. As Freedman exhaustively shows, believers in the
causal hypothesis have badly misrepresented the overall results of both
lab and field experiments.
They have also ignored clearly nonsupportive results, or twisted them to
suit their purposes. Freedman describes one field experiment with
numerous measures of aggression, all of which failed to support the
causal hypothesis. Not satisfied with these results, the researchers
"conducted a complex internal analysis" by dividing the children into
"initially high in aggression" and "initially low in aggression"
categories. The initially low-aggression group became somewhat more
aggressive, no matter which programs they watched, while the initially
high-aggression group became somewhat less aggressive, no matter which
programs they watched. But the children who were categorized as
initially high in aggression and were shown violent programs "decreased
less in aggressiveness" than initially high-aggression children who
watched neutral programs. The researchers seized upon this one highly
massaged and obscure finding to claim that their results supported the
Freedman examines other types of studies: surveys that compare cities or
countries before and after introduction of television; experiments
attempting to assess whether media violence causes "desensitization";
longitudinal studies that measure correlations between aggressiveness
and preference for violent television over time. No matter what the type
of study or experiment, the results overall are negative. Contrary to
popular belief, there is no scientific support for the notion that media
violence causes adverse effects.
Why, then, have not only researchers and politicians but major
professional associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and
the American Medical Association repeatedly announced that thousands of
studies have established adverse effects of media violence? One reason
was suggested to me recently by a pediatrician active in the AAP. The
organization's guidelines argue for scientific support for policy
statements. This puts the AAP in a serious bind when, as is the case
with media violence, its leaders have a strong opinion on the subject.
It's tempting then to accept and repeat assertions about the data from
leading researchers in the field--even when it is distorted or
erroneous--and that's what the professional associations have done.
Another factor was candidly suggested by Dr. Edward Hill, chair of the
AMA board, at a panel discussion held by the Freedom Forum in New York
City last year. The AMA had "political reasons," Dr. Hill said, for
signing on to a recent statement by professional organizations asserting
that science shows media violence to be harmful. The AMA is "sometimes
used by the politicians," he explained. "We try to balance that because
we try to use them also."
Because Jonathan Freedman believes the scientific method is capable of
measuring the impact of media violence, the fact that it hasn't done so
is to him strong evidence that adverse effects don't exist. I'm not so
sure. I don't think we need science to know from observation that media
messages over time can have a powerful impact--in combination with many
other factors in a person's life. Some violent entertainment probably
does increase aggression for some viewers, though for as many or perhaps
more, the effect may be relaxing or cathartic.
If the media do have strong effects, why does it matter whether the
scientific research has been misrepresented? In part, it's precisely
because those effects vary. Even psychologists who believe that the
scientific method is relevant to this issue acknowledge that style and
context count. Some feel cartoons that make violence amusing have the
worst effects; others focus on stories in which the hero is rewarded for
using violence, even if defensively.
But equally important, the continuing claims that media violence has
proven adverse effects enables politicians to obscure known causes of
violence, such as poverty and poor education, which they seem largely
unwilling to address. Meanwhile, they distract the public with periodic
displays of sanctimonious indignation at the entertainment industry, and
predictable, largely symbolic demands for industry "self-regulation."
The result is political paralysis, and an educational structure that
actually does little to help youngsters cope with the onslaught of mass
media that surround them.
POP-ing the Bankers
The essential case for the abolition of capital punishment has long been complete, whether it is argued as an overdue penal reform, as a shield against the arbitrary and the irreparable or as part of the case against "big government."
The attacks hardened the resolve of immigrant bashers and anti-Semites.
Packing the judiciary with right-wingers like Priscilla Owen.
When the New York City Board of Education called on public schools to
bring back the Pledge of Allegiance in the wake of 9/11, my daughter, a
freshman at Stuyvesant High, thought her big chance to protest had
finally come. Have you thought about what you'll say if you have to
justify not reciting it? I asked. "Sure," she replied. "I'll say,
there's such a thing as the First Amendment, you know--separation of
church and state? I mean, under God? Duh!" Judge Alfred Goodwin
of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, meet my Sophie, future
president of the ACLU if the punk-rock-guitarist plan doesn't work out.
Virtually every politician in the country has issued a press release
deploring Judge Goodwin's ruling that the words "under God" constituted
a coercive endorsement of religion. "Ridiculous!" said the President.
Tom Daschle led the Senate in a stampede to condemn the ruling 99 to 0,
after they recited the pledge together. The Times editorial
expressed the standard liberal line, mingling world-weariness and fear:
"under God" is a trivial matter, so why arouse the wrath of the mad
Christians? You can turn that argument around though--if it's so
trivial, why not do the right, constitutional thing? Let the
nonbelieving babies have their First Amendment bottle! The very fact
that the vast majority of Americans believe in God counts against
inserting expressions of religious faith into civic exercises for
kids--civil liberties are all about protecting unpopular minorities from
being steamrollered by the majority. The history of "under God" is not
very edifying or even very long: It was added to the original
pledge--written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist--by Congress in
1954 as a means "to deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of
communism." If that was the purpose, it worked. The new Evil Ones,
however, have no quarrel with being "under God"; it's the "liberty and
justice for all" they disapprove of. If we really want to drive them
nuts, we should change "under God" to "with equality between men and
women." Or better yet, retire the pledge as an exercise in groupthink
unbefitting a free people.
Something tells me we haven't seen the last classroom invocation of the
divine umbrella--Judge Goodwin has already stayed his own ruling--but
even if the decision is upheld, it's unfortunately the least significant
in a number of recent rulings about education. The Supreme Court
decision upholding the Cleveland school voucher program is a real,
nonsymbolic triumph for organized religion, which stands to reap
millions of dollars in public funds, taken directly from the budgets of
the weakest school systems. Theoretically, your tax dollars can now
support the indoctrination of every crackpot religious idea from
creationism to stoning, with extra credit for attending rallies against
legal abortion and for the retention of "Judea" and "Samaria" as God's
gift to the Jewish people. What happened to e pluribus unum?
(Interestingly, as David Greenberg notes in Slate, e pluribus
unum was replaced as the national motto in 1956 by... In God We
Trust!) And what about that pesky First Amendment? Writing for the 5-4
majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist argues that separation of church and
state is preserved because it is the parent, not the state, who actually
turns the voucher over to the religious school. By the same logic, why
not a health system in which patients get vouchers good for surgery or a
ticket to Lourdes?
The same day brought the Court's decision upholding random drug testing
of students who want to take part in after-school activities. Now
there's a great idea--take the kids who could really use something
productive to do with their afternoons, kids who, whatever mischief
they're up to, actually want to run track or sing in the chorus or work
on the yearbook, and don't let them do it! God forbid some 16-year-old
pothead should get a part in the drama club production of Arsenic and
Old Lace. The harm of the ruling isn't just that kids who do drugs
will now have yet more time on their hands and yet more reason to bond
with their fellow slackers, it's that everyone gets a lesson in
collective humiliation and authoritarianism--stoned or straight, the
principal can make you pee in a cup. Consider too that one-third of
schools now offer abstinence-only sex education, in which kids are told
that contraception doesn't work and having sex before marriage is likely
to be fatal--if the kids don't go to parochial school, apparently,
parochial school comes to them.
The prize for the worst school-related decision, though, has to go to
the panel of New York State appeals court judges that reversed Justice
Leland DeGrasse's brave and noble ruling invalidating the state's school
funding formula, which gives less money per child to New York City
schools despite the fact that city schools have disproportionate numbers
of poor and non-English-speaking children. According to Justice Alfred
Lerner, author of the court's majority opinion, the state is required to
provide its young only the equivalent of a middle-school
education--enough for them to sit on a jury, vote and hold down a menial
job. Anything more is optional and can be distributed at will. (Why not
let kids drop out after eighth grade, you may ask? Well, then they'd
miss abstinence classes and drug tests and reciting the Pledge of
Allegiance!) The world needs workers at the lowest levels, the judge
observes, so let the black and Hispanic kids of New York City be the
hewers of wood and drawers of water and flippers of burgers. Somebody's
got to do it--and it's a safe bet it won't be the judges' children.
Maybe the critical legal theorists are right and the law is merely a
form of words into which can be poured whatever meaning the ruling class
wants it to have. It's hard to understand in any other way the court's
willful misunderstandings of the actual conditions of city public
schools, so that they could respond to plaintiff's evidence of schools
with decades-old outmoded science textbooks by harrumphing that there's
nothing wrong with libraries full of "classics."
Saving the worst for last, on the final day of the term the Supreme
Court issued 5-to-4 rulings on school vouchers and drug testing that
blow a huge hole in the wall of church-state separation and shrivel the
privacy rights of students.
Since 1996 Ohio has provided tuition aid for Cleveland grade school
students to attend private schools, special city or suburban public
schools and individual tutoring classes. In the 1999-2000 school year,
96 percent of the students in this program went to religious schools.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court approved the voucher system (Zelman
v. Simmons-Harris). Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William
Rehnquist noted that the tuition aid went initially to the parents, who
then endorsed the check over to the school. Because the parents could
have chosen one of the public school programs, the "incidental
advancement of a religious mission," wrote Rehnquist, is not
attributable "to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement
On its face, this is nonsense. The "achievement of a religious mission"
is directly attributable to the state, which actually pays the funds to
the religious institution; the parent is only a conduit who directs
where the money will go. The declared purpose of these schools is
religious indoctrination of students. The curriculums include prayer,
and all subjects are taught in a religious framework. Providing the
tuition money that makes it possible for these schools to enroll their
students puts the government squarely in the business of achieving a
Formally, the program was neutral, but in practice it was not. The
amount of aid was too little for nonreligious private schools but more
than enough for the low-cost religious schools, where the program paid
for the full tuition. The overwhelming proportion of this money thus had
to go to religious schools, which, of course, the Ohio legislature had
to know. Moreover, if formal neutrality is the test, a program will pass
muster even if all the money and students go to religious schools, so
long as it has some secular purpose. Since such a purpose can always be
produced, the door is wide open for massive state support of
fundamentally religious activity.
The focus on choice ignores the point of the Establishment Clause of the
Constitution. That clause is not designed to promote a choice between
religious and nonreligious institutions, nor is there any right to such
choice at state expense. The intent of the Establishment Clause is to
avoid spending taxpayer money in a way that promotes religion and thus
encourages sectarian rivalry. We had a great deal of such strife before
1787, and the clause was adopted to prevent this. Also, as Jefferson
explained, no one should be "compelled to...support any religious
worship, place, or ministry whatsoever...[even a] teacher of his own
religious persuasion"; Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, shared
The decision will probably not result in many more voucher programs.
There is a lack of state money for education and strong allegiance to
public schools; studies by the government and other organizations do not
support the claim that voucher programs substantially improve academic
achievement. The decision will, however, produce many bitter religious
fights. As soon as the decision came down, state and federal legislators
introduced voucher legislation. There will also be conflicts over other
programs, including challenges by religious groups to the more stringent
provisions on church-state separation in state constitutions.
The Court's drug testing decision is also more important for what it
portends than for its immediate result. In 1989 the Vernonia, Oregon,
school district instituted a drug testing program for student athletes.
In 1995 the Court approved the program but stressed the special
circumstances of the case: Vernonia had a serious drug problem in which
athletes were the leaders of the drug culture; missed football plays and
serious sports accidents had been attributed to drug abuse. The Court
cautioned, however, "against the assumption that suspicionless drug
testing will readily pass Constitutional muster in other contexts."
That caution disappeared, however, when the Tecumseh, Oklahoma, school
district found drugs on the campus, heard students talk about drug use
and decided to test all middle and high school students who wanted to
participate in competitive extracurricular school activities. Lindsay
Earls, a member of the choir, the marching band, the Academic Team and
the National Honor Society objected but, after winning in appeals court,
lost in the Supreme Court (Board of Education of Independent School
District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls).
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas ignored all the
special circumstances of the Vernonia case and dismissed the absence of
a demonstrated problem of drug abuse as unimportant. Because (1)
students have a reduced expectation of privacy, (2) the intrusion is
"negligible," (3) the sanction (exclusion from extracurricular
activities) is minor and (4) drug abuse is a bad thing, the program is
acceptable. Any effort to link drug abuse to choir singing, the marching
band or the Academic Team would have been ludicrous, and Thomas didn't
even try. On his reasoning, as long as the sanctions are minor, all
students may be subjected to drug testing because the other factors he
mentioned always exist.
Although the decision is far-reaching, its immediate impact is likely to
be modest. Few schools routinely test even their athletes, and
widespread testing is expensive. The decision underscores once again,
however, that for the Supreme Court, the rights of young people are
shredded when they walk through the schoolhouse gates.
Politicians and courts are taking their cues from growing public
They pledge allegiance to the thought
That every politician ought
To take a stand that's foursquare for the Lord.
They think if they say, "God is great!
Don't separate him from the state!"
Election is the blessing he'll afford.
When Ted Rall's cartoon "Terror Widows" appeared on the New York Times website on March 6, angry letters of complaint poured into the
Facebook Like Box