Exposure to Violence Begets Violence?

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."

Unlike many cultural-studies-based media scholars, psychologists often insist that the link between exposure to violence in media increases aggressive behavior in society. A 2003 collaborative study conducted by eight universities entitled "The Influence of Media Violence on Youth" concluded:

Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community.


While the findings of this study are valid, it is still very difficult to control for other factors. For example, is a child who plays violent video games more likely to be violent or antisocial because of the video game or because of the lack of socialization with other groups, including peers, outside of the home? The idea that children will become more violent by exposure to violence in media suggests that children are passive consumers and unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

Zurawik, who also serves as media critic for the Baltimore Sun, disagrees with this notion. He offers, "When you look at the latest research in the media-studies field, children have tremendous resistance to what they see on the screen. They talk back to the screen, compare it to their family and church situations and often resist what is being shown to them on the screen."


Proving the link between exposure to violence in media and violence in society is not easy and is complicated on many levels.

What isn't complicated is that storytelling is a major part of any society and stories are not always "positive," pristine or benign. If someone is mentally unstable, then it is not surprising that he or she would inject himself into a story that has been told a myriad of ways since the 1940s. It is the mentally unstable person who is the common denominator in such acts, regardless of which side one falls on in this argument.


This is not an attempt to bash mentally unstable people; it is a plea to not just settle for the popular argument — it's the media! — and to instead think long and hard about what can be done to ensure the safety of the public.

According to recent reports, Holmes was under the psychiatric care of Dr. Lynne Felton at the University of Colorado, where he was a doctoral student. Felton reported his behavior to the threat-assessment team at the university but apparently the threat-assessment team, of which Felton was a member, never met to discuss his case because Holmes had withdrawn from the university and was no longer a member of the community.


Perhaps we should be discussing how to better support students with mental-health issues on college campuses, particularly those who reach out, which is what Holmes did by seeking psychiatric counseling from Dr. Fenton. People are up in arms when the Catholic Church tries to manage criminals within their system — which, by the way hasn't worked. Why aren't people up in arms over colleges and universities that use in-house means of handling criminal behavior (sexual assault) and dangerous behavior instead of immediately reporting the behavior to professionals (police, mental-health units) outside of the college or university — professionals who are trained to support and handle these types of situations? What about gun control, for that matter?

The willingness to blame the media and unwillingness to figure out how to best avoid an incident like the one in Aurora is just as scary as walking on a college campus and going to the movies has become.


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.