Bloody media, real tragedy

Violence: News and entertainment are part of a decades-old problem that continues to be addressed simplistically.

April 23, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

President Clinton put the relationship between media violence and real-life acts of carnage like the one at Columbine High School on the front burner yesterday when he urged the nation's parents, teachers and pupils to consider whether graphic violence on television and the Internet plays a role in such tragedies.

"We have to ask ourselves some pretty hard questions here," Clinton told a group of pupils at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., in a conversation carried to millions of students across the country on Channel One, a classroom news service.

"All of you are exposed to much higher levels of violence through television, through video games " Clinton said. "Does it make these things more likely to happen?"

The president wasn't alone in asking such questions. Running at or just below the surface of most of the coverage on radio, TV, the Internet and in newspapers is the question of whether viewing violent images leads to acts of aggression, especially by young men. It is a question that has stumped us as a nation since the first teen flicks like "Rebel Without a Cause" were linked to juvenile delinquency in the 1950s during Senate hearings called to study the matter.

What is so depressing about the current form of the conversation as played out in the media this week is how little we seem to have learned in almost 50 years.

"I get really angry by the nattering that goes on in the media's so-called analysis in the wake of these tragedies," said Shirley Peroutka, chair of the media studies program at Goucher College. "It just keeps missing the point.

"It's not comprehensive. It's never holistic. It's always those phony either/or arguments: It's the parents, or it's the guns, or it's TV. Wait a minute, guys, it's all of these things and a lot of other factors as well. It's complicated, and media messages are only part of the package. But that's not what you're hearing on TV and radio this week, is it?" said Peroutka, whose doctorate is in communications.

What we're hearing on one side is the simplistic cause-and-effect explanation that seeing violence in the media directly led two teen-agers to kill 15 people. Among others, it was voiced by Jefferson County, Colo., Sheriff John Stone, who talked about "Hollywood romancing" such acts.

Some in this camp tied the slaughter at Columbine directly to the ending of "The Matrix," a hit film that ends with two characters dressed in black, wearing trench coats with machine guns underneath, killing everyone in sight.

On the other side are the we-are-in-no-way-to-blame pieces from the media, particularly television reporters and analysts. Typical was a CNN report by Anne McDermott, which acknowledged that media do show lots of images of crime and violence, but they also show images of great heroism. Why don't such images lead people to go out and act heroically?

Dr. Michael Brody, a Silver Spring psychiatrist who writes about media for the Journal of Popular Culture, agrees with Peroutka, saying that one reason we haven't come up with better answers to the link between media violence and real-life aggression is a result of framing the question in such extremes.

Yes, we are a culture saturated with excessively violent images, and teens are especially at risk with such imagery, says Brody, who also serves as spokesman for the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry. But it is never as simple as being able to say viewing "The Matrix" or listening to neo-Nazi record lyrics caused the carnage.

Media violence is not singularly to blame for what happened in Colorado this week -- even if the two killers were imitating what they saw in "The Matrix" -- any more than Beavis and Butt-head, with their "fire is cool" mantra, were for a widely reported trailer fire in Ohio in 1993 that took the life of a young child.

But he adds that media violence is surely part of the problem. And the only way we are going to find a solution is by finding a new and more sophisticated model for analysis -- one that calibrates how violent imagery intersects with some of those "other factors" Peroutka mentioned.

"The first thing I thought of when I heard about the shooting was the image I had from the movie `The Matrix,' the final scene," Brody said. "So, yes, that sort of thing, the violent imagery, is there. And it's on TV, in video games and all over the Internet now, too. What's on the Internet makes the media part alone so much more complicated than it was even a few years ago.

"But beyond anything from the media, when the information comes out, we're going to see several things. Number one, these kids were identified with problems before. Number two, we will also find that there was a last straw, that something happened which was a last straw for these kids. And, we will see that there was an availability of firearms. This can't happen without the availability of guns," he said.

As for what other factors she thinks we need to include, Peroutka put gender, class and race at the top of her list.

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