Attempting to Protect the Vulnerable from Violence

DISCLAIMER: The following is graduate student work. I’m uploading it after grading from the Professor. I rewrote one sentence that was awkward but didn’t change anything else. I made a couple of minor formatting changes for online viewing, the printed version attempts to conform to MLA style. Comments on any of my blog posts are encouraged at any time and if you have any critiques that would help me write better I especially would welcome those.


Attempting to Protect the Vulnerable from Violence

Social scientists have been studying mass media for decades to see if there is a link between consuming violent media and real-life violent behavior. All social scientists do not agree but over time the majority have come to accept that there are causal links (Baran and Davis 193-194). Many researchers use social cognitive theory as a framework for explaining how and why people learn behavior from the media (Baran and Davis 193).

Human beings sometimes observe and then imitate behavior, but imitation doesn’t happen in every instance (Baran and Davis 170). How does a violent idea escalate to violent action? There are many variables in the content itself that influence behavior. If the subjects receive punishment for their actions, the content will be imitated less frequently (Baran and Davis 176). The Hays code, which the US Movie industry imposed on itself from 1934-1965, was an example of self-censorship to avoid consumer outrage and government intervention. The strictures that filmmakers had to follow indicate early awareness that the moral and legal contexts in which violence and lawbreaking were shown did make a difference in how they were received by audiences (Hays Code).

Experiments have demonstrated that there will be more imitations of violence if the behavior is rewarded in the character’s world, the content causes emotional arousal, if the violence is portrayed in a realistic way or with humor, if the motive of the subjects is seen as justifiable and if viewers identify with the characters (Baran and Davis 176).

The circumstances under which violent content is viewed are another area of influence. Violent effects are worsened if people become de-sensitized by frequent viewing (Baran and Davis 176). Content in which the user is active rather than passive, such as in a video game, has greater effects on the user (Baran and Davis 181).

From the beginning of the study of mass media, researchers and theorists have been interested in what the individual who is viewing the content brings to the interaction between the consumer and the media. Some of the earliest mass society media theorists did accept the paternalistic view that certain members of society were more vulnerable than others to the undesirable effects of low-quality media products (Baran and Davis 21). They feared that changing populations no longer protected by older institutions would not be well-served using the media as a substitute (Baran and Davis 36).

The story of the legendary 1938 radio broadcast War of the Worlds is well known by many Americans, but it has been greatly exaggerated into myth (Pooley and Socolow). The majority of people who heard the broadcast were not fooled into thinking that the Earth was really being invaded by Martians. There were, however, some people who were affected in alarming ways and researchers did attempt to find out why. The listeners who believed the broadcast was real and in turn responded with panic tended to be fatalistic, had low self-confidence, were afflicted by phobias and were emotionally insecure (Dixon, 2). These findings are an example of acknowledgement over time by many researchers that media does not affect all people the same way, an observation known as the individual-differences theory (Baran and Davis 105).

Even as limited-effects theories were becoming more dominant among researchers in the middle of the 20th century (Baran and Davis 22), they did not discourage other theorists from examining what kind of people were vulnerable and why. Neo-Marxists conceded an advantage to elites because of their economic power (Baran and Davis 23). Carl Hovland who led a research group for the US Army about the effectiveness of propaganda in training new recruits found that in general the films they tested did not have a great effect. The team did find that balanced presentations that explained both sides of an issue were more effective on people with more education (Baran and Davis 99-100). News-flow research associated poor news information retention with lower educational levels (Baran and Davis 110). Cultural criticism based on deterministic assumptions rose in popularity among 1970s academics as a humanities-based counterpoint to postpositivist limited-effects theories (Baran and Davis 24).

Children view media differently according to their level of development, therefore the age of the person viewing the violence is another factor that determines susceptibility to media effects (Baran and Davis 178). Ever since the first generation of people raised with television came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, researchers have been interested in trying to see if there is a link between exposure as children to violence in mass media and actual violent behavior (Baran and Davis 166-167). Enough causal relationships were found to cause the Surgeon General of the United States to commission research in 1969. After the findings became known the television industry engaged in some self-policing to quell criticism and prevent government-imposed regulations that might harm their interests
(Baran and Davis 167).

In the United States communication freedom is so essential to our form of government that freedom of the press is written into our Bill of Rights. That does not mean that no legal limits on media are allowed at all, but it is difficult to create new regulations that protect some rights without curtailing others (Baran and Davis 66). Media creators who subscribe to social responsibility theory may choose to create content they believe is in the public interest but the government has a very limited ability to compel them to do so (Baran and Davis 80), assuming there would even be a general consensus on what content is actually in the public interest.

Real-life violence has many costs. Obvious direct consequences are death and injury. Even indirect exposure to violence has detrimental effects on mental health, social interaction, cognitive function and academic performance, especially in children (Sharkey 2287). Since consumption of violence in the media has been determined to be one of many contributors to real-life violence, reducing exposure or taking steps to mitigate the effects of violent media content should help reduce violence at least to a degree (Fingar 183). Since consumption or non-consumption of most media can’t be compelled by law any more than the production, would education about media help consumers make better choices?

One attempt at mitigation is media literacy, “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages” (Baran and Davis, 293). Participants in the Media Literacy movement believe that education is a powerful tool in the hands of consumers, particularly young consumers (Fingar 183). Studies undertaken in schools have shown enough positive changes in behavior for researchers to recommend that Media Literacy programs be more widely accepted and implemented (Fingar 189, Scharrer 82-83). In a society founded on Libertarianism (Baran and Davis 55), perhaps media literacy will gain more influence as new technologies draw people even more deeply into the world of media (Baran and Davis 192-193).

Works Cited

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Dixon, Robert. “Limited Effects Theory.” September 2019. PowerPoint presentation.

Feilitzen, Cecilia von, et al. Outlooks on Children and Media: Child Rights, Media Trends, Media Research, Media Literacy, Child Participation, Declarations. Compiled for the World Summit on Media for Children (3rd, Thessaloniki, Greece, March 23-26, 2001). Feb. 2001. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=ED450947&site=ehost-live. Accessed 13 September 2019.

Fingar, Kathryn R., and Tessa Jolls. “Evaluation of a School-Based Violence Prevention Media Literacy Curriculum.” Injury Prevention, vol. 20, no. 3, June 2014, pp. 183–190. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2013-040815. Accessed 13 September 2019.

“Hays code.” Siteseen Limited, 2017-2018, www.american-historama.org/1929-1945-depression-ww2-era/hays-code.htm. Accessed 14 September 2019.

Pooley, Jefferson and Micheal J. Socolow. “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic.” The Slate Group, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/orson-welles-war-of-the-worlds-panic-myth-the-infamous-radio-broadcast-did-not-cause-a-nationwide-hysteria.html. Accessed 14 September 2019.

Scharrer, Erica. “‘I Noticed More Violence:’ The Effects of a Media Literacy Program on Critical Attitudes Toward Media Violence.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 21, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 69–86. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1207/s15327728jmme2101_5. Accessed 13 September 2019.

Sharkey, Patrick T., et al. “The Effect of Local Violence on Children’s Attention and Impulse Control.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 102, no. 12, Dec. 2012, pp. 2287–2293. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300789. Accessed 13 September 2019.


Links to things I didn’t use

If you are interested in the above topic and the media in general you might enjoy some further reading.

7 Ways to Limit Your Child’s Exposure to Violence in the Media

Protect Your Brain from Images of Violence and Cruelty

Tips on How to Deal with Media Violence

Blocking kids from social media won’t solve the problem of cyberbullying

Effects of television viewing on child development

A Comparison Between Emotional Abuse and Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”

Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals

The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences

Facebook Has Seized the Media, and That’s Bad News for Everyone But Facebook

The Real ‘Fake News’ Is The Mainstream Media

The Media Is Obsessed With Bad News

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