Exposure to Violence Begets Violence?

As some blame Hollywood for mass shootings, this writer cautions against jumping to conclusions.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

(The Root) — The Aurora, Colo., shooting rampage in July that left 12 dead and 58 wounded has left people searching for answers and pointing fingers at what could have been done to avoid this tragedy. Blame has been lobbed at psychiatry, school officials, family and media for the inexplicable decision to allegedly massacre a group of innocent people gathered to watch The Dark Knight Rises. James Holmes is suspected of having carried out the act dressed as “the Joker,” a fictional character who has been Batman’s arch-nemesis since his introduction to the DC Comics’ Batman series in 1940.

Holmes’ alleged references to the Joker have many people pondering the effects that exposure to violent media (comics, video games, film, television, Internet) could have had on the horrible act of which he stands accused. 

This particular critique resonates with me the most as a professor and media scholar, because even though that sounds like a reasonable explanation, the effects of violence in media are hard to prove. It is nearly impossible to control for other factors like exposure to violence in the home, socialization or a lack thereof or mental illness.

Violence in the media is often the go-to reason for why people behave violently, but establishing a causal relationship between exposure to violence in media and violent acts is quite complicated. Media scholars, particularly cultural theorists, have dispelled the idea that the link between violence in media and violent acts in society is absolute.

Media scholar Dr. David Zurawik, who has taught a course on children and television at the University of Maryland and Goucher College over the last 20 years, believes that it is impossible to blame violence in media for acts like the one supposedly carried out by James Holmes. “If violence encoded in some media text caused violence in the real world, you’d have massive outbreaks of violence when it shows on the screen,” he said. “Of course that doesn’t happen because everyone reacts differently to that exposure.”

Millions of people read comic books and watch movies and don’t go out and shoot up a movie theater. “In 30 years of writing about and studying the media,” Zurawik added, “and 20 years of teaching it, I absolutely believe you cannot blame the movies for Holmes’ alleged act unless you want to discard the evidence and research by media scholars.”