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Avoid a panicked rush to blame the media

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

Another "Columbine" happened Monday: A young man armed with a .22-caliber revolver opened fire in his California high school, killing two and injuring 13. Most of his victims were fellow students.

The word Columbine once brought to mind buttercups, now it's shorthand for a school massacre. For some, this could be the perfect metaphor for the coarsening of our culture. But before we allow ourselves to be whipped into another Hollywood-bashing frenzy, we need to get the facts right.

After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, public officials needed a scapegoat. They needed some place to lay blame to explain why seemingly normal, privileged young men would engage in such barbarism. The convenient culprit was violence in media. Government at all levels couldn't do enough to investigate and interrogate the entertainment industry, implying that movies, music and video games influenced these impressionable boys, whispering directions and encouragement in their ears.

In addition to the flood of bills Congress considered to control violence in media, the Federal Trade Commission investigated Hollywood's movie promotion strategies, resulting in the ballyhooed finding that ultra-violent movies were being marketed to the under-18 set. And a group of senators wrote the Federal Communications Commission suggesting it start using its licensing authority to police the content of programming.

It was a veritable free-for-all. No one who was calling for a dispassionate analysis of the real impact of violent media on society was getting heard.

Anthropologists have dubbed this phenomenon "moral panic." As Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained at a forum on violence in media, in traditional societies a moral panic occurs when an event or tragedy "shakes society to its roots," and people look around for someone or something to blame. "The charges that stick are those that reaffirm pre-existing biases," Jenkins said.

Remember the House on Un-American Activities Committee, the lynching of blacks in the South, the internment of Japanese-Americans, "Banned in Boston," the blaming of immigrants for the recession of the 1980s? Moral panics happen here with uncomfortable frequency.

What may seem obvious at a highly emotional time -- such as the notions that socialists will destabilize our democracy, erotic books can be dangerous or kids who incessantly play violent video games will become violent themselves -- can be easily dispelled when reasoned voices are given room.

Here's some room:

First, no study has proven that violence in media is the cause of violence in society. While there are all sorts of studies that claim to show an increase in aggressive behaviors and attitudes after viewing violent images, these results have not been shown to translate into an increase in violence in the long run or in real-world settings.

The thesis that watching violence begets violence may seem intuitive, but falls apart on close examination. If this were the case, then everywhere brutal, gory video games are played and similarly bloody television shows aired, violence would be uniformly occurring. But that's simply not happening. Japan is notorious for its graphic entertainment yet experiences little actual violence. Even here, as music, movies and video games grow more graphic, violence in society has gone down, not up.

Second, it is just as plausible that violent entertainment has an ameliorative effect.

Children's fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, have typically had an element of violence. One reason, according to Jenkins, is it's a way to open young people to the universality of dark emotions and get them to work through their own.

Experts say playing violent video games gives teens a release and may act as an escape valve, allowing them to let off steam by doing only virtual damage. And because these kinds of games and movies are so attractive to teens, they keep young people occupied. It's a great diversion -- time spent watching a violent movie is time not committing mayhem on the streets.

So before our politicians decide that Charles Andrew Williams picked up a gun and started shooting in Santana High School because he was an avid Dune video game player, they should consider how reckless it is to lay blame without proof. Since Columbine, Americans have heard repeatedly from Washington that the entertainment industry needs to be constrained and controlled. The victim of all this loose talk is our national commitment to freedom of speech.

When easy answers are substituted for the right ones, moral panics are sure to follow.

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