The debate regarding the relationship between the portrayal of violence within media and real-life cases of violent crimes is ongoing and unlikely to reach a definitive conclusion. However, staggering evidence has become more prevalent in recent years to indicate that while individual cases of violent crimes may be influenced by media, the more influential factors that inhibit such behavior are socioeconomic background, upbringing, and community culture.
While both mental illness and exposure to violent media are paraded as the obvious causes of many violent crimes, they are seldom cited as the most common causes. In fact, gender is more likely to play a role in the likelihood of an individual’s ability to commit a crime than both mental wellbeing and exposure to violent media. In the majority of cases concerning violent crime, exposure to violence via media is almost never the sole or primary cause.
Despite the rising prevalence of graphic violence in a number of media throughout the 21st century, there has actually been a noticeable decrease in violent crimes among youths since the middle of the 1990s. Peaking in 1995, and once again on a smaller scale again in 2008, violent felonies among juveniles have dropped consistently across a number of states in the U.S. (Tucker & Palomino, 2019). Despite the significant growth in population, California has noticed a drop of 83 percent in 2017, a stark difference from 1995. This data is often overlooked, especially in times when media is often attributed to cases of violent crimes among youths.
This may be a result of the overall uncertainty as to the reason for the continuous drop in crime. However, if media violence is inherently tied to real-life manifestations of violence, rates would only increase. This is because the youth is exposed to media with violence and crime more so than ever before, through both free and paid content. As such, the argument that supports the notion that media and real-life violence are consequential cannot ascertain the current decrease in juvenile felonies.
Criminal and violent behavior within any population cannot be attributed to a single factor. Similarly, exposure to violent media is unlikely to be the only cause of such behavior in juveniles. In fact, a number of studies have extensive data that illustrate ways in which mental illness, background, and most importantly, gender, affect the likelihood of such outcomes. While mental illness is a popular scapegoat for incidents of a violent nature, such as shootings, which are often promoted by politicians, it only accounts for 14.8 percent of mass shootings and 4 percent of interpersonal violence (Kiesel, 2018).
On the other hand, of the 96 mass shootings committed since 1992, the majority have had a common component with 94 of the perpetrators being male. 86 percent of felons that commit domestic violence are also men. There are factors that are much more likely to influence an individual’s likelihood to commit crime than exposure to violent media or even mental illness, including binge drinking, childhood trauma, residence in a crime-high neighborhood, and being a male.
Both critics of news reporting and researchers have noted that the popularization of perpetrators of violent crime through media exposure hosts a myriad of negative consequences. These can range from copycat acts, the nurturing of similar ideology, and lack of support for victims or survivors of these incidents. The 1999 Columbine is a well-known example during which news outlets let the identities of the attacks be widely known.
This led to the ideology, actions, and identities of these individuals gaining popularity and a following. They would be referenced in letters and messages by 17 school shooters and 36 students responsible for threatening to commit violence 14 years after the Columbine shooting (Schildkraut, 2018). While the connection between news outlets popularizing such perpetrators and a myriad of negative effects are certain, they cannot be compared to fictional violence in artistic media. The two differ tremendously and have been noted to have different effects, with some studies even citing that extensive reporting on real-life violence does not often equate with a copycat crime.
It is also important to acknowledge the potential effects of violent media not only on possible perpetrators but on the general public as well. Analysis of George Grebner’s extensive research revealed that the consumption of media with violence is more likely to instill fear of being a victim of such crimes in the viewers than inspire such behavior in potential offenders (Morgan, 2010). In fact, Grebner’s perspective is not the quantity of violence in media, but the act of normalizing it not only in fiction but also in the real world has more consequences for the average viewer than for any demographic more prone to violence.
Grebner himself states that the connection between television and real-life violence is trivial, as other factors such as poverty and subculture effects are much more significant contributors with proven links to rates of violence. While television violence may stir imitation acts of crime in individual cases, it is not the root of the majority of violent felonies that are committed on a daily basis.
Despite this, individual cases persist and are often directly cited as being influenced by violence viewed within the media. In the same way, copycat crimes propagated after the exposure of certain felons via news outlets do not account for the majority of committed crimes of a similar nature, media violence influences only a few. Regardless, even the few crimes committed directly as a result of media violence are still tremendously harmful and an essential counterargument.
Studies have shown that children are especially vulnerable to interpreting media violence in ways that can manifest in their real lives. With studies as early as 1956, children more exposed to violence in the media were more likely to express aggressive, violent, and destructive behaviors (Stossel, 1997). While some of these studies ignore other factors such as upbringing, socioeconomic background, and mental illness, the impact of media cannot be denied. As such, while the argument that media and real-life violence are connected cannot be completely disproven, the evidence argues that the quality of the media and life factors of the viewer is more influential.
The causes of most crimes, especially those of a significantly violent nature, are usually uncertain or made up of a number of factors. The attribution of such acts to media or mental illness is often a scapegoat target that undermines serious economic, social, and political issues that are more likely to influence such behavior. While certain individuals may act violently by following an example of violent scenes seen in the media, their behavior is primarily motivated and formulated by their socioeconomic, cultural, and ideological background.
Kiesel, Laura. “Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Mass Shootings; Blame Men.” Politico. 2018. Web.
Morgan, Michael. Mean World Syndrome, interview by Sut Jhally. 2010. Web.
Schildkraut, Jaclyn. “The media should stop making school shooters famous”. Vox. 2018. Web.
Stossel, Scott. “The Man Who Counts the Killings”. The Atlantic, 1997. Web.
Tucker, Jill, & Palomino, Joaquin. “Vanishing Violence”. San Francisco Chronicle. 2019. Web.