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by James MacKinnon


After two and a half years, researchers Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson of the University of Iowa had a blockbuster study in hand. It pointed, decisively, to troubling conclusions about a social problem at the core of an ongoing national debate. The findings appeared as the lead article in American Psychologist, the flagship of their field. Colleagues were applauding. And then came the mainstream media reaction.

"A lot of silence," says Bushman flatly.

Here, in a nutshell, is the story the media missed. Bushman and Anderson carried out an exhaustive review - a "meta-analysis" - of every existing study of the link between media violence and real-life violence. The result: Research has indicated a clear connection since at least the 1970s, and the body of evidence has been growing ever since.

"I think the mass media, like the tobacco industry, is producing a harmful product," says Bushman. "I don't know if this has much to do with the silence, but I have to suspect so."

Broadcasters consistently argue the violence we see on TV, in film and in video has little if any relation to the violence real people carry out in their lives. According to Bushman and Anderson, however, the correlation between media violence and real-life aggression is stronger than that between calcium intake and bone mass, for example, or condom use and sexually transmitted HIV, or even homework and academic achievement.

"Most people are surprised when they look at those figures," says Bushman. "Why are they surprised? They're surprised because this is not the impression they've picked up from the media."

News reporting on the effects of virtual violence does appear to be changing - for the worse. As evidence of the link between media violence and the real deal climbed steeply throughout the '90s, the news media increasingly reported the link to be weak. One key problem, Bushman and Anderson argue, is "a misapplied fairness doctrine," by which news reports balance the plain and prudent scientific evidence with the coolly contrarian denials of teen video-game maestros, popular actors and other entertainment insiders and consumers.

"Everybody deserves to be heard," says Bushman. "But opinions should not be given equal weight with the results of scientific studies."

The American Psychologist report is only the latest to declare that the real-life costs of media violence are now beyond reasonable doubt. The first such statement came as early as 1972, from the US Surgeon General. That warning was reiterated in July 2000, when six prominent American medical, psychological and psychiatric organizations signed a joint statement on the hazards of exposing children to on-screen violence.

Still the media beat rolls on. Recent research shows that the average American child now spends 40 hours per week consuming media, and will witness more than 8,000 murders on network television before graduating from elementary school. Violent media - easily understood across global cultural barriers - threatens to become America's most valuable export commodity. Meanwhile, reliable newsroom watchdogs are increasingly rare; following a flurry of industry mergers, most of North America's major print news outlets are under the same corporate umbrellas as the television broadcasters, film studios and video game manufacturers that profit most from violent entertainment.

If reporters and editors are ducking the virtual realities, however, there is some hope for a push for change from an unexpected direction. According to a more recent Bushman study, sex and violence on television actually distract viewers from the most important content of all - the commercials.

"What we are finding is that when people watch a program with violence or sex, they think about violence and sex," said Bushman. "The sex and violence registers much more strongly than the messages the advertisers are hoping to deliver."


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