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Shooting awakens debate on effects of violence in the media

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In this photo taken with a fisheye lens, people watch villain Bane on the screen during the midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" inside the Liberty Science Center IMAX theater Friday, July 20, 2012, in Jersey City, N.J. A gunman in a gas mask barg

In this photo taken with a fisheye lens, people watch villain Bane on the screen during the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” inside the Liberty Science Center IMAX theater Friday, July 20, 2012, in Jersey City, N.J. A gunman in a gas mask barged into a crowded Denver-area theater during a midnight premiere of the Batman movie on Friday, July 20, 2012, hurled a gas canister and then opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring at least 50 others in one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history.

Associated Press

In the hours since the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo., details about the life of the suspected gunman, 24-year-old James Holmes, and his motives remain obscure.

But a cloud of theories about violence, each accompanied by its own roster of statistics and experts, arises each time an event like this occurs, in an attempt to explain or at least contextualize the shocking episode.

Indeed, a firestorm of press coverage has reignited a decades-old debate about the influence of violent media on those who consume it. Was Holmes, who according to some reports strode into the theater dressed as Batman's nemesis the Joker, affected by violent games or movies like those of the franchise he invaded? Or was his choice of venue calculated to attract the greatest number of victims?

Insufficient evidence is available to draw conclusions yet, if it ever will be, about the twisted logic behind the tragedy in Colorado. But each time a trauma like this occurs, the statistics rolled out offer a conflicted picture of American society: violence in the media we consume continues to increase, and many researchers insist it leads to increased aggression and desensitization in youth. Others are convinced violent media has no effect.

Meanwhile, real-life violence has dropped precipitously over the last 30 years, and mass murders like the Aurora shooting make up a tiny fraction of violent crimes. But these traumas reopen conversation about violent media as Americans on both sides of the debate struggle to explain a senseless act.

Violent media's influence

Researchers began to study the possible effects of violence in the media in the 1950s, with the introduction of the television. Since then the number of studies on the issue has exploded — the Center on Media and Child Health website, operated by Children's Hospital Boston, lists 368 different studies on television and movies and their relationship to bullying and violence in children. The site also provides 125 studies about the effects of video and computer games on bullying and violence in youth.

The articles focus on different age groups and genders. They also offer different results. A longitudinal study from last year evaluating 700 elementary school age children found that those who witnessed violence, including television violence, were more likely to consider it "normal." Researchers concluded that this desensitization could mean these children were more likely to use aggression with others.

Another article, published in 2009, evaluated 800 teenagers on their preferences in video games, television and movies. Researchers found that those who preferred violence in the media they consumed were more likely to behave aggressively, suggesting, according to the abstract, "use of violent media may increase the risk of violent behaviors among teenagers."

Because of the long history of this branch of study, some researchers have reviewed the literature in order to examine all the evidence. John Murray of Kansas State University published a review in 2008 titled, "Media violence: The effects are both real and strong."

In his abstract, Murray asserts that "50 years of research on the effect of TV violence on children leads to the inescapable conclusion that viewing media violence is related to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviors."

Similar views have been published by a number of institutions, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians. They conclude that exposure to violent media can result in desensitization, increased aggression and an exaggerated view of the amount of violence in the everyday world.

Theory refuted

The press has already begun to speculate the relationship Holmes might have had to violent media or even specifically to the "Batman" franchise. An article from The Associated Press offered a number of connections between fictional Batman storylines (some of whose grislier events, including the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents) take place in or outside movie theaters.

Murmurs also surround details of the events at the screening: Holmes apparently referred to himself as the Joker, a Batman villain from the previous film, "The Dark Knight." He entered the movie theater in a mask, a similar guise to the villain in the new film, "The Dark Knight Rises." Reportedly, audience members initially assumed Holmes' entrance was a movie-related stunt.

But not all scholars are convinced of the significance of these details — or, in fact, of the whole of the research into the influence of violent media.

Jonathan Freedman, a psychologist and emeritus professor of the University of Toronto, reviewed the research on media violence and came to the opposite conclusion of Murray.

"What I've done is review the research that everyone has done … I've concluded that there is no evidence, at least no convincing evidence, that violent media causes people to commit violent crimes," he said. He published his results in his book "Media Violence and its Effects on Aggression."

Crime is down

"All this fuss started when crime rates were high," Freedman said, which happened to coincide with the introduction and rise of television. Some then assumed that "television violence caused" the upswing in violent crime.

Where the theory breaks down, according to Freedman, is that while violence on television and in movies has not merely remained but increased, violence in the real world has dropped significantly.

"As violent as the media is these days, and probably you're exposed to more violent media than at any point in human history," said Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M University, "violence rates are down."

"It's probably time to lay to rest these kinds of arguments or beliefs," Ferguson added. He and Freedman both argued that the ideas about violent media's influence have largely been discredited in the scientific community in recent years.

Government statistics confirm the trends of declining violence pointed to by Freedman and Ferguson. A report released late last fall from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that in the last decade, the rate of homicides in the United States has fallen to "levels last seen in the mid-1960s."

And even since the dawn of the 21st century, incidents of violent crime have continued to wane. According to FBI data, the total number of violent crimes (which according to the Bureau include murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) in 2010 was more than 13 percent below levels in 2006 and 2001.

Some unsettling data shows, however, that events like the shooting in Aurora do not necessarily reflect these same trends. An analysis from 2010 of FBI data from the Scripps Howard News Service indicated that levels of "mass murders," or those involving four or more victims, have remained mostly steady, or even slightly increased since the 1980s.

According to the report, an average of 163 Americans annually were slain in mass murders between 2006 and 2008, while that number was 161 in the 1980s.

On the other hand, "it's important to point out (these events) are very, very rare," said Ferguson. Indeed, lining up the average number of deaths due to mass murder (163) next to the average number of homicides or non-negligent manslaughters in the same period (16,800) showed that mass murder killings make up less than 1 percent of the total.

However rare, the trauma of events like the shooting at "The Dark Knight Rises" is likely to continue fostering debate, and prompting those left in the wake of the tragedy to look for explanations.

Wherever the media violence debate goes next, toward or away from obscurity, Freedman and Ferguson think there are more pressing issues at hand. Focusing on movies in such moments, Ferguson said, "actually can be damaging because it can distract from serious issues."

"We don't know anything about the effects of observing real violence," Freedman said.

email: lmarostica@desnews.com