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No Consensus Among Scholars on Media Violence

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Just this week, a consortium of 230 media scholars sent an open letter to the American Psychological Association, asking the APA to retire their misleading policy statements on media violence, and to refrain from future, similar policy statements. This open letter arguably reflects some frustration or disappointment among a large swath of the scientific community in this realm, and concerns that misrepresentation of the research by groups like the APA has damaged the credibility of our field. In this essay, I discuss how this open letter came to be, and the role of professional organization policy statements in promoting media-based moral panics, particularly in the wake of tragic mass shootings such as the recent Navy Yard shooting.

First, let's be clear: the notion that media violence plays even a partial role in mass shootings is scientifically dead. As a 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service indicated, mass shooters do not consume unusual amounts of violent media. And whether young or old, male or (rarely) female, it is severe mental illness, not media exposure that is the commonality among mass shooters. We create an illusory correlation by attending only to cases that fit the narrative of the "obsessed gamer" and ignore older shooters like Amy Bishop or Douglas Harmon, who don't fit the narrative. Even among young shooters, links to violent media may be misrepresented. The Virginia Tech shooter is still often "linked" to violent media despite the official investigation of that case ruling out much exposure to violent media. Violent media links for other young shooters such as James Holmes and Jared Loughner are based, largely, on rumor and conjecture. The social narrative of the obsessed media fanatic is so strong, one gets the sense that if a shooter so much as played Pac Man, they would be lumped under the "violent video game" heading.

Speaking as a researcher in the field, the evidence linking violent media to even mild acts of aggression is inconsistent. Evidence for a causal effect, even in part, on serious societal violence is generally lacking. So why does this social narrative persist? Part of it has been the poor historical performance of professional advocacy groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association in faithfully communicating the research to the general public. Historically, their statements make claims about the effects of media violence, typically failing to inform readers of any research to the contrary, or noting the significant methodological limitations of these studies as recently noted by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court.

They typically were constructed by select groups of scholars heavily invested in an a-priori view, not carefully selected independent scholars. These should not be mistaken for a disinterested review.

Policy statements related to media effects by both groups are now well-known to contain numerous even basic errors. I discuss some of the problems with these policy statements in a recent review of video game violence that, to their credit, the APA themselves published. Nor are these issues limited only to media violence policy statements. One scholar found, in 2011, that the AAP's claims of a "Facebook Depression" were based on a selective sampling and interpretation of research studies. Those claims were apparently even disavowed by authors of the studies the AAP cited.

In 2000, the then-president of the AAP testified before Congress that 3500 studies of media violence existed with only 18 not finding negative effects of violent media. These numbers have since been revealed as being little better than an urban legend. By 2009 the AAP had downgraded the number of studies to 2000, an apparent net loss of 1500 studies over a decade, although still much higher than the actual number. One has to wonder at the peer review efforts of an organization that inflates something as basic as the number of studies by a factor of ten. The AAP's 2009 policy statement also repeated the "urban legend" claim that media violence effects are comparable to the effects of smoking on lung cancer, a claim that had, by then, already been discredited.

The APA's 2005 resolution on video games was less given to urban legends, but still failed to cite evidence (which existed) contrasting with claims of harmful video game effects. The APA's policy statement also repeated the fear that interactive media might have more effects than television or books, a belief which by then was already in conflict with evidence. To their credit, the APA is currently reviewing their policy statements on media. However, four of the seven task force members have taken public anti-media stances in the past rendering the task force less than neutral. Two, for example, signed an amicus brief supporting California's efforts to regulate violent video games, during the Supreme Court's Brown v EMA decision in 2011. This amicus brief was not successful, and the court struck down California's regulatory law both on First Amendment grounds and lack of scientific support. Given the inclusion of scholars with public anti-media views on the task force, it is unclear that the APA is truly committed to a careful, objective review. Policy statements such as these are often cited by anti-media advocates as indicating a scientific consensus, despite that no such consensus exists.

As a consequence of these missteps, our consortium of over 230 scholars published our open letter to the APA imploring them to do better. We hope that the concerns of such a large body of scientists will be heard and the credibility of our field may be restored. Our community effort also makes clear that claims of a scientific "consensus" linking media violence to aggression or societal violence are simply false. Ultimately we do not believe that "truth by committee" is appropriate for science. Other groups such as the American Society of Criminology have set a model for avoiding politicized policy statements on contested research. We urge the APA to follow their example.