THE BLOG
11/25/2014 10:40 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

How Journalists Contribute to Moral Panics

There has been a lot of attention in recent years to how both scholars and politicians contribute to moral panics, both on a wide array of issues and on the issue of video game violence specifically. Recent events give us an opportunity to explore how journalists also can contribute to moral panics.

Last week the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate released a detailed investigation report of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting perpetrated by Adam Lanza. This report follows a 2013 investigation report by the State of Connecticut. This recent report is a bit more thorough and focuses considerably on Lanza's developmental difficulties and mental health. Most news reports such as CNN faithfully reported these results, but a widely-used article by the Associated Press said the 2014 report also noted that Lanza "spent long hours playing violent video games."

Except, as far as I can see, neither the new 2014 report, nor the year-old 2013 report make any such statement or claim. In fact both official reports appear to largely exonerate violent video games as a heavy influence in Lanza's life. Both reports do note that Lanza appeared to be obsessed with one particular non-violent video game Dance, Dance Revolution and both, in different ways, suggest that, while Lanza undoubtedly did play both some violent and non-violent games, he overall seems to have preferred non-violent games such as Super Mario Brothers and, in younger years, Pokemon. Lanza's fascination with Dance, Dance Revolution apparently was so significant the manager of a theater where he played sometimes had to unplug the machine to get him to leave.

The newer report also provided a bit more detail on the video games found at his home. What is interesting in this report is that, at least of the games mentioned, he seemed to have a preference for milder teen-rated games, although he did also have some M-rated games such as Halo. But the games listed in the 2014 report are also rather old. For instance, he did indeed appear to play Call of Duty but only the older T-rated Call of Duty 2: Big Red One and Call of Duty: Finest Hour are mentioned, games from 2005 and 2004 respectively (7-8 years before the shooting). It's hard to be sure without being able to look through Lanza's playing history in detail, but between witness accounts, the investigation reports and the games reported therein, it seems as if Lanza may have dabbled occasionally in shooting games but, aside from the relatively mild World of Warcraft, generally preferred non-violent games with a particular passion for Dance, Dance Revolution. Or put another way, Lanza's interest in violent games appears to have been on the low end rather than high end of the spectrum for a 20-year-old male.

This hasn't stopped some reporters from tying to link Sandy Hook to video games anyway, sometimes misrepresenting the investigation reports. Last year, scholar Richard Slotkin discussed the Sandy Hook shooting on the Bill Moyers Show and stated "...the state report has gone into the way in which he used video games and obsessively played violent video games," despite that the report made no comment at all about obsessively playing violent video games. Around the same time a report from the Daily Mail ignored the official investigation report altogether to suggest that Lanza had notched tens of thousands of online "kills" and headshots via violent video games to train himself for the Sandy Hook shooting. These figures have never been reported in either official report and appear to be apocryphal.

Which brings us back to the AP report. Granted, video games were a tiny part of the overall story. But this type of reporting reinforces stereotypes about games, even when the facts suggest something different. Perhaps the reporters may have misread or read too deeply into the report's coverage of the video game issue, or perhaps the reporters involved may not have understood that Dance, Dance Revolution is not a violent video game. But it does point to the care reporters need to take in not misrepresenting an issue based on what they think, or their readers think, ought to be a link between media and behavior. Otherwise reporters spread moral panic, not news.