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Commentary

Media-Effects Researchers Back Out of FTC Hearings

By Marjorie Heins

In late October, two leading "media effects" researchers cancelled their scheduled appearance at an upcoming panel sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission - part of its ongoing inquiry into "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children."1 Craig Anderson and L. Rowell Huesmann, leading proponents of the view that violent content in entertainment has been proved to cause aggression, explained that the two other people invited to be on the panel are not "legitimate experts" and therefore are not worth debating.2

The cancellation was remarkable, and suggests that Anderson and Huesmann are unwilling to face increasingly widespread criticism of their methods and their claimed results. Indeed, their cancellation letter deliberately demeaned their opponents' qualifications - describing Dr. Joanne Savage of American University, as "a criminologist who has no significant record of research on media violence or on violent behavior," and Jonathan Freedman, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, as simply "a writer whose book arguing that media violence has no effect was paid for by the Motion Picture Producers Association."

Freedman's book, in fact, does not "argue" so much as laboriously review every study in the media violence field, and show that the great majority of them have had negative results.3 Freedman came at the media-violence literature with an open mind in the 1980s and was amazed to discover how largely it had been misrepresented. He began to evaluate and criticize this literature long before he received any funding from the Motion Picture Association.4 A psychologist trained in the experimental method that Anderson and Huesmann rely on, but not personally invested in this particular area of research, Freedman is ideally suited to critique the claims of those who are invested, and are stubbornly wedded to the view that adverse effects from media violence have been proven.

Anderson and Huesmann's letter inverted this presumption of objectivity, and asserted that only those who have actually done "original research on the effects of media violence exposure" are "legitimate experts." Using this criterion, they not only disqualify Freedman, but entire schools of media scholarship which do not deny that the mass media have powerful effects, but argue that the effects are more varied and less uniform than psychologists like Anderson and Huesmann will acknowledge. These scholars have found, for example, that some fans of violent entertainment use it as a "healthy outlet," providing "a means of releasing feelings of aggression."5 And they question whether the effects of something as varied and complex as "media violence" can really be measured through short-term experiments in a laboratory or other quantitative methods.6

One reason for Anderson and Huesmann's cancellation is suggested on the third page of their letter, where they describe a symposium in which Anderson participated, sponsored by the Australian government earlier in 2003. "There was only one legitimate media violence researcher among the conference presenters," they write, "but there were three other 'experts' whose primary function was, apparently, to denigrate all media violence effects research conducted over the last 40-some years." The claim of "scientificially proven" harmful effects, unquestioned in too many public forums for far too long, apparently did not fare well in Australia.

There's no question that conference panels can sometimes be stacked, and those representing unpopular viewpoints can be "ambushed" by opponents. But in Anderson and Huesmann's case, the problem was quite the opposite. They have been accustomed to uncritical acceptance of their theories and methods for far too long. A more nuanced analysis of media effects, along with more emphasis on media literacy education and other non-censorious approaches to concerns about anti-social media messages, are positive signs.

November 21, 2003

NOTES

1. See Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Workshop on Industry Self-Regulation, http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/workshops/violence/index.html.

2. Letter from Craig Anderson and L. Rowell Huesmann to Dr. Joseph Mulholland, Bureau of Economics, Federal Trade Commission, Oct. 22, 2003 (on file at the Free Expression Policy Project).

3. Jonathan Freedman, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (University of Toronto Press, 2002).

4. See A Psychologist Surveys the Wreckage (review of Jonathan Freedman's book).

5. Joel Saxe, "Violence in Videogames: What are the Pleasures?" Paper presented at the Int'l Conference on Violence in the Media, St. John's University, Oct. 1994, reprinted in 2(1) CommOddities - A Journal of Communication and Culture, July 1995.

6. See, for example, Friend of the Court Brief by 33 Media Scholars in Interactive Digital Software Ass'n v. St. Louis County, Sept. 24, 2002.

 


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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