Reporting on media effects

First, a disclaimer: I’ve never been interested in researching media effects myself. However, I’m fascinated by the way in which the media reports on effects research. Violent video games, for example, are one of the dangers that surrounds, and they are  just as perilous as contaminants in our water supply. In fact, these games might even be more dangerous, since we bring the media into our homes.

Of course, video games are not the only dangers. Every media technology, and some of the most popular media genres, have been linked to to negative effects. Jane Addams, for example, wrote in outrage against the movies. How is it possible, she wondered, that so many people choose to attend the movies during the sabbath?

One Sunday evening last winter an investigation was made of four hundred and sixty six theaters in the city of Chicago, and it was discovered that in the majority of them the leading theme was revenge; the lover following his rival; the outraged husband seeking his wife’s paramour; or the wiping out by death of a blot on a hitherto unstained honor. It was estimated that one sixth of the entire population of the city had attended the theaters on that day. At that same moment the churches throughout the city were preaching the gospel of good will. Is not this a striking commentary upon the contradictory influences to which the city youth is constantly subjected? (From, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, p. 85)

Addams does not reveal who conducted this investigation. Rhetorically speaking, it is irrelevant. Her readers, back then, would take her word, as they would also take the word of an “eminent alienist of Chicago” who had found that “neurotic children” were becoming “victims of hallucination and mental disorder” as a result of watching movies.

When it comes to constructing arguments about media effects, news organization have the tendency to be just as simplistic as Jane Addams was. Does anyone remember Cooper Lawrence discussing Mass Effect on Fox News? If you don’t, or haven’t seen her appearance, here is the clip.

So, Cooper Lawrence tells us that she only goes by what the research says. She quotes a study from the University of Maryland, but unfortunately we don’t get to learn much more than that. It is enough to say that it came out of a university, without dwelling too much on pesky issues, such as study design, validity, reliability, or even authorship.

Who cares about that! It’s Cooper Lawrence. She’s an expert. She almost has a PhD, and she is quoting experts.

Society values expert opinion, which is why almost every news story that reports on effects research will bring in an expert. CBS, for instance, had Dr. Chris Lucas, a child psychiatrist. Unlike Cooper Lawrence, Dr. Lucas is more restrained in his opinion. He talks about likelihood, not certainty. Yet the message is clear: Parents have to be aware of the possibility of a negative effect.

Here’s another example, discussing the same video game. This story, from a CBS affiliate, quotes avid video gamers, who believe that Manhunt 2 crosses the line. The report also brings in an expert, Dr. Silvia Gearing. She links video games to the wave of school shootings, effectively invoking causation.

Causation and Correlation. Now, there’s two terms that get lost in the shuffle in most media reporting on effects. Causation happens when one event causes another. Correlation, on the other hand, indicates a relationship between two variables (events), but it does not suggest that one will cause the other. Here’s Jack Thompson arguing causation between video game violence and real world violence. Paul Levinson disagrees, and explains the difference.

Neither panelist broaches the issue of methodology, and it is an important question. Laboratory experiments, for example, are routinely used to establish causation. Field studies, on the other hand,  focus on finding correlation. Both techniques are commonly used in research.

This is not to say, though, that research on media uses cannot show causation. Take texting while driving, for instance. In laboratory experiments, texting has been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents. However, if you think about it, that should be a no-brainer. Distraction increases the likelihood of accidents, and texting while driving is a distraction. This report discusses the findings of a laboratory study conducted at Clemson University. The study is significant because of its policy implications. Indeed, we should expect this study, and others like it, to be used as ammunition for bans on texting while driving.

You don’t find much reporting that looks at subtleties, such as research design, causation, correlation, or authorship. What  we do find is  the trends I noted previously: the use of expert opinion, lack of specificity when it comes to research sources, and the conflation of causation and correlation. All of these are rhetorical moves, seeking to steer public opinion in one direction or another. They are not, however, honest representations of the complexity and variety of media research on effects.