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 data.
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,