David Gauntlett

 

Moving Experiences, 2nd edition:
Media effects and beyond

 
David Gauntlett
New edition published by John Libbey, 2005

This is the first chapter from the book. For general information about the book see this page.


1. Introduction

In July 1995, the first edition of this book was launched at a press conference in London, chaired by the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. Journalists filled the hot room, and feigned interest in our explanations about the inadequacy of the research methods used to study the impact of the mass media. The story, however, was already written: next day, the Daily Mail newspaper announced that "outrage" had been sparked by the claims, and reported on the "immediate backlash" which had been provoked by, well, the Daily Mail phoning some people up and asking them for a reaction. Top tabloid The Sun fumed that the book was "wrong" and dismissed its author as an "ologist". Other papers took a less dismissive view, but often found a psychologist to suggest vaguely that 'a substantial body of research' had found evidence for media effects. This rather missed the point of Moving Experiences, which entirely deals with that body of research, but dissects it in a critical manner to determine whether those studies, whilst definitely in existence, are of any use or not.

With little else happening that week, the debate went on in the newspapers. A couple of days on and Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson was explaining to his readers that my argument was "pretentious nonsense" - which seemed a bit unfair, since I had tried to explain complex studies in readable terms - before dismissing me anyway as "this ladů with the nerve" to suggest that the fears of "ordinary families" [his words] about TV violence might be misplaced. Meanwhile, lots of people told me how stupid I was, in radio phone-ins. By the end of the week the controversy was crowned by satirical coverage in Private Eye, which presented a study revealing that there was no clear link between viewing Melvyn Bragg and committing acts of violence.

Ten years on

The 'added value' in this second edition is the introduction to new creative methods which may give us fresh ways to explore people's relationship with popular media - which is why this second edition is subtitled 'Media effects and beyond'. (More on this below). In the world of traditional media 'effects' studies, very little has changed in the ten years since the first edition of this book. No-one has managed to pin any more convincing 'effects' claims on the media. That's almost inevitable, if you accept the book's argument that the influences which affect any choice of actions are always going to be complex, multi-dimensional and very difficult to pin down to any one source. The diminishing number of more recent studies have not only failed to show anything new, but have remained doggedly rubbish - see my chapter in Barker and Petley's book Ill Effects (second edition, 2001), for example, for a discussion of how a 'major new study' commissioned by the UK government Home Office, and produced by Kevin Browne and Amanda Pennell at the University of Birmingham, was undermined from within by a pitiable research design which was unable to show anything about the 'effects' which the authors sometimes claimed to be examining.

(I described the main problem thus: 'The Home Office summary [of the Browne & Pennell study] indicates that this was a relatively straightforward piece of research, making no grand claims. It does not show that violent films make people violent, nor the opposite. It is not the kind of study which could claim to - the summary makes this quite clear. 'The research cannot prove whether video violence causes crime,' it states, unequivocally (1998: 4). One wonders, then, why the title of the summary ('Effects of Video Violence...') suggests otherwise, and Browne told The Guardian that 'Violent films have the potential to cause crime,' a view which his own study did not actually support. [ů] What the study 'suggests', to use its own words, is that 'the well established link between poor social background and delinquent behaviour may extend to the development of a preference for violent film'. The research findings, whilst not able to make any claims about 'effects', do attempt to make some links regarding possible influences upon offenders, but ultimately have to admit that 'the study provides little evidence that offenders were more influenced by the experimental film than non-offenders'. Instead, they clearly emphasise that they may have found that people with violent backgrounds, who go on to engage in violence themselves, may also develop a taste for films which contain violence. That's all. The study was not able to trace a path from violent screen images out to the real world; instead, we simply learn that some violent people might want to come in from the mean streets to watch, well, Mean Streets.' (Gauntlett, 2001: 48-49)).

Meanwhile, these ten years have seen the internet develop from a minority-interest database to an international entertainment-and-information phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a corresponding chorus of concern about its potential impact, although in this context the argument made against TV shows - that they come 'uninvited' into the home - makes even less sense because on the net, users have to take their own deliberate steps to access illicit content. (On the other hand, we've all received some spam emails with grotesque proposals in the subject line which are hard to ignore, and not easy to stop). As with TV content, it is very difficult to show that any particular bit of online content somehow changed the character of the viewer. And, as with every preceding form of popular media (see chapter eight), campaigners' personal dislike of certain kinds of material gets mixed up with rather more serious and unjustifiable claims about their supposed 'effects'. At the same time, everyone has the right to say that they find certain kinds of content tasteless or offensive, of course, and the net certainly caters for every taste - including, let us not forget, a wide range of fascinating and valuable cultural resources which otherwise wouldn't see the light of day (Bell, 2001; Gauntlett & Horsley, 2004).

New approaches

Ten years ago, then, I found myself with a keen interest in media influences - but having just written this book, which said that the media effects studies were mostly useless. Clearly, new approaches were needed, and I have been looking for them ever since. We can be pretty sure that popular media will influence and shape how people view their world. But how do we explore this without resorting to a short-term, hamfisted 'effects' study? My solutions have mostly been centred around the idea of treating research participants as equal partners - unlike in effects studies, where they are treated as passive 'test subjects' who might hopefully be tricked into copying some TV stunt - and by inviting them to use their own creativity to explore the media's possible influences.

My first project after Moving Experiences was meant to be a study of whether the large amount of coverage of 'green', environmental issues on TV (in particular, children's TV) in the 1990s, had actually made children more concerned about the environment. Having written off traditional 'effects' methods, I instead took video equipment into a range of schools, and worked with seven groups of children aged between 7 and 11 to make videos (short films, average length 14 minutes) about 'the environment'. The young participants could show whatever they wanted, and determined all of the content. The 'data' that was subsequently analysed included both the ethnographic observation of all of the discussions and processes which went into the creation of the video, as well as the children's video productions themselves. This approach - outlined in more detail in chapter 12, and discussed in full in the book Video Critical: Children, the Environment and Media Power (Gauntlett, 1997) - proved fruitful, highlighting the high level of children's media literacy, as well as the extent (and limits) of their environmental awareness which stemmed from media sources. Perhaps more importantly, it led to the development of a research approach based on those principles - creative self-expression, openness of opportunity, and qualitative exploration of media influences through media or artistic production. This approach is discussed in full in the all-new chapters 11 and 12.

The end of 'effects' research?

Let us turn, then, to the research on the 'effects' of screen media - such as television and film, and more recently interactive media - which has been conducted for several decades, producing a vast quantity of results. Popular concern that seeing something on screen may have a direct impact on viewers' behaviour led to the development of a research industry which has attracted considerable quantities of both funding and publicity. Despite such a massive exertion of research energy, however, confusion still reigns over what the findings show, with opinions ranging from the claim that screen media has been found to have a dangerously detrimental effect on young minds, to the view that the research has failed to show anything specific at all. Of course, this should not be a matter of 'opinion': we can look at the studies, and see for ourselves if they stand up.

The central position of this book is that the work of effects researchers is done. The effects paradigm should be laid to rest, of interest only as part of the natural history of mass communications research. We should note, however, that this is not to say that the media does not have an influence on the thoughts and perceptions of its viewers, and their attitudes to life, and relationships, and their expectations about the world. It is important to make this distinction, or else this argument can quickly become a case of having one's cake and eating it, and the analogy of literature (another form of mass communication) is a useful one: there can be little doubt that novels can have an impact on the thinking of their readers, and few would argue that literature does not have influence on how readers see the world, learn from its examples, form opinions and knowledge, and behave in the light of this worldview. However, there is no apparent public concern about 'the effects of the novel'. The very idea sounds humorous, almost nonsensical, and historical accounts of the moral panics blaming 'penny dreadful' comics and 'dime novels' for rising crime and amorality in late-nineteenth century Britain and America (Pearson, 1983, 1984; Barker, 1993) raise only a wry smile today.

To return to contemporary media such as television, similarly, we can have little doubt that they have some influence on viewers' thoughts, but the notion of direct media effects on behaviour, rather than seeming absurd, is commonly recognised as entirely viable, and a cause for concern. It is likely that this is a result of the ever-recurrent moral panics in the press and other media, and the sheer persistence with which the question has been investigated by the academic community. So often is the possibility - or rather, supposed likelihood - of screen media having direct effects pushed into the public eye that it can seem na´ve, even perverse, to argue against the contention. Some academics are even willing to make public statements in strong support of the simple view that TV or video violence has direct effects, despite the paucity of convincing evidence, and occasioned not by the release of new research but simply at the call of the press and politicians. An example of this occurred in April 1994, when 25 senior psychologists in Britain publicly declared support for a seven-page 'report' which announced that video violence has serious effects on children (Newson, 1994) - written, it transpired, not on the basis of new evidence, but at the request of David Alton MP, whose amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill outlawing 'unsuitable' videos was due to go before Parliament that month (a story covered by all UK national newspapers 1-3 April, 12-13 April 1994). Similarly, in May 2004, the well-meaning US organisation Common Sense Media reported the findings of a attitudinal survey regarding parents' worries about media content, but was able to quote doctors and academics who were willing to go beyond this data to point to the media's supposed role in 'rising levels of aggression, obesity, substance use, eating disorders and unsafe sexual behavior', which their study was not actually about (Common Sense Media, 2004). It is for such reasons that the available research, however poorly designed or politically motivated, cannot be dismissed out of hand but has to be evaluated as carefully and rigorously as possible.

By far the largest proportion of 'effects' studies have been into aggression - specifically, the hypothesis that the viewing of acts of aggression or violence on screen causes people (or young people) to act in similar ways - and this review, of necessity, follows that concentration to some degree. The fact that this particular potential effect has been so much more heavily studied than any other (and many possibilities spring readily to mind: political attitudes, language use, awareness of current affairs, and so on) is an indication that the direction of research over many decades has been influenced by the political desire to blame screen media for social problems, and by fears about the prominence of these 'new' cultural elements. Whilst political, the issue of screen violence is determinedly not party-political, and is almost uniquely capable of arousing the public horror of left and right-wing critics alike. Whilst their fears about the dysfunctions supposedly produced by screen media may differ, campaigners across the political spectrum are united in a belief that television (in particular) is a powerful force which can seduce children away from their 'better nature', and which constitutes an attack on more 'authentic' or 'essentially human' behaviour (Buckingham, 1993: 8).

The subject of screen violence clearly appeals to popular concerns, and is never far from the headlines. Serious news reports become entwined with more speculative accusations about the influence of screen media. When this book was first published, recent examples included reports throughout the British news media about the alleged influence of a horror video on the murder of two year old James Bulger (November 1993), the concern in the USA about the possible influence of the fire-obsessed MTV cartoon characters 'Beavis and Butt-Head' on instances of arson and fire-starting (October-November 1993), the tenuous linking of the movie 'Natural Born Killers' to a number of murders (October-November 1994), and the spontaneous revival of the 'video nasties' panic in the British press (April 1994) which had been reported in other media as if it was itself news. In the ten years since then, we have seen news reports about the cartoonish but bloody violence in Kill Bill (2003, 2004), the protracted torture scenes in The Passion of the Christ (2004), the disturbing long rape scene in Irréversible (2002), and various other cases, including claims that The Matrix trilogy led to real-life violence (1999-2003). The popular press have also sought to ignite concerns around video games such as Grand Theft Auto (versions since 1997) and in particular the Vice City edition (2002) in which players are rewarded for their participation in violent crimes.

Whilst not all press and media coverage of these issues has supported the case for greater censorship, it is clearly the arguments against violence on screen which tend to dominate the mass media coverage. However, there is some evidence that the tone of this recurrent 'public outcry' tends to exaggerate the concerns of the majority of the public. A reliable annual representative survey of UK adults found that in the five years from 1998 to 2002, two thirds of respondents were unable to think of anything that had offended them on television, and the majority were satisfied with the current level of broadcasting regulation (Towler, 2002). A survey conducted by the BBFC (1993), which polled 1,000 people representing the UK population of videocassette renters, found that:

'Nobody in fact professed to prefer watching films on television where "they cut out anything which is distasteful". People accept the need on occasions for controversial or even offensive material to be shown. What they want is adequate information about how to decide for themselves (and for their children) what to watch and with whom.' (p. 18).

David Docherty (1990) found, in another survey of over 1,000 people in Britain, that a majority of people (90 per cent) said that they enjoyed at least one type of film which the study categorised as violent. It is clear that some public feeling that a programme is violent, or even upsetting, cannot be equated with the opinion that such programmes should not be shown at all. A study by Schlesinger, Dobash, Dobash & Weaver (1992) involved showing groups of women particular television programmes from videotape, and discussing with them their experiences of watching the scenes of violence in these programmes, and on television more generally. The women who had experience of domestic violence (52 of the 91 women involved) generally indicated that they found an episode of the BBC soap opera 'EastEnders', which included scenes of domestic violence, to be 'violent' and 'disturbing' (p. 87); however, they also felt very strongly that the programme gave a fair picture, and generally felt that it was important that it should have been shown, to raise awareness about the existence and nature of such abuse (p. 102-3).

Whilst 'clean up TV' campaigners sometimes claim, somewhat contradictorily, that most viewers do not want to see violence, which is only put in to increase the ratings, a study by Diener & DeFour (1978) found that there was not a relationship between the amount of violence in action-adventure programmes and their audience size. The same researchers also conducted an experiment in which college students were shown one of two different versions of an action-adventure drama, 'Police Woman', one of which was unedited and contained several scenes of violence, whilst the other had almost all of these scenes removed. The subjects reported very similar levels of liking, whichever version they were shown. Such evidence suggests that violence on television is neither as loved nor loathed by the general audience as the more vocal minorities may claim. It is not to be denied that there is a degree of public concern about violence on television. Surveys have found, for example, that parents are often unhappy if their children are exposed to unexpected portrayals of violence, and surveys in which people are asked if they are concerned about media violence often find that a majority say that they are (although this is not surprising, as to tell as researcher that one is unconcerned about such a serious-sounding issue could appear distinctly callous and antisocial).

On the other hand, a 2003 study by ACNielsen for the Australian Broadcasting Authority found that only 14 per cent of adults spontaneously mentioned violence as a concern, when asked if there were 'any aspects of what is shown on television that concern you at all' (Australian Broadcasting Authority, 2003). The questions of personal taste in this area are, of course, quite separate from the question of whether television violence is a cause of real-life violence. However, the persistent controversies and public anxiety surrounding screen violence make it all the more important that the available research is evaluated with the greatest of care and caution.

One further piece of research should be considered at this point. Whilst unable to provide results about effects as such, a study of the viewing habits and preferences of frequent young offenders in Britain by Hagell & Newburn (1994) sheds important light upon this issue. The research, commissioned by the British Board of Film Classification in association with the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Independent Television Commission, involved interviews with 78 juvenile offenders aged between 12 and 18, and a survey of a representative sample of 538 school students in the same age range. The offenders had all been arrested at least three times within one year, and had or were alleged to have committed an average of ten offences in 1992. Most of them (83 per cent) were living at home, and for the minority in custody the questioning was directed at their previous experiences outside; the findings therefore do reflect self-selected habits, rather than those produced in detention.

It was found that the offenders and the schoolchildren had similar tastes, with the top five programmes for both groups being uniformly 'family' shows, both sets including the soap operas 'Home and Away', 'Neighbours' and 'EastEnders', and police drama 'The Bill' (p. 26-7). However, 16 per cent of male offenders were unable to name a favourite programme. The two groups watched the same amounts of television between 9pm and 11pm, when most of the programmes containing the kind of violence which is complained about are screened, although the offenders were more likely than the schoolchildren to watch after 11pm, when of course rather than necessarily becoming more 'adult' or 'violent', television programming tends to fall back on cheaper imports, repeats, and music shows, plus the old Australian soap 'Prisoner Cell Block H' which was the male offenders' fifth favourite programme. The offenders tended to report slightly more television viewing overall, but this was balanced by the larger proportion of offenders who reported watching none at all (such as 14 per cent of offenders at the weekend). Furthermore, the offenders had noticeably less access to television, with over a third having only one television set in the house, compared to just three per cent of the schoolchildren, and less than half having a set in their bedroom, compared to 78 per cent of schoolchildren (p. 21-2). Therefore the repeated complaint that 'you just don't know what children have been watching' on bedroom TV sets would appear to be less rather than more applicable to the offenders. We should also note that the habits and preferences of those who had been convicted of violent offences were no different from those of the group as a whole.

Furthermore, the study found that whilst most of the schoolchildren were able to nominate television characters whom they identified with, the offenders were not:

'Thus, for example, they were asked 'If you had the chance to be someone who appears on television, who would you choose to be?'. In the main the offenders either did not or felt they could not answer this question. The offenders felt particularly uncomfortable with this question and appeared to have difficulty in understanding why one might want to be such a person... In several interviews, the offenders had already stated that they watched little television, could not remember their favourite programmes and, consequently, could not think of anyone to be. In these cases, their obvious failure to identify with any television characters seemed to be part of a general lack of engagement with television' (p. 30).

One third of the offenders hardly ever or never hired films on video, and over half rarely or never went to the cinema (p. 32-3). Of the most common films viewed most recently, the schoolboys' selections were if anything more violent, including 'Lethal Weapon 3' and the 18-rated 'Universal Soldier', whilst the top five for male offenders included romances such as 'Groundhog Day' and 'The Bodyguard' (p. 34). The 'new brutalism' films which had caused alarm in the press at that time were clearly irrelevant to the offenders' lives, with 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' seen by only one offender each, and 'Silence of the Lambs', 'Man Bites Dog' and 'Bad Lieutenant' not mentioned at all. This research, then, provides background information which is simply assumed in many other studies, and its findings are just the opposite of what is usually anticipated. Rather than corrupting themselves with non-stop horror videos and the most violent TV, young offenders had viewing preferences just the same as (and no more violent than) any other young people, but had less access to television sets, video recorders and satellite television, and they rented videos and went to the movies less often. Profiles of the most frequent offenders reflect lives of deprivation rather than depravation, and problems with causes far more complex than television, and indeed nothing to do with it.

* * *

Any review of this massive field is necessarily somewhat selective. It is hoped that as many as possible of the most interesting, sophisticated and varied studies and criticisms are included here. There is a deliberate bias towards studies published since the 1970s, by which point studies were either more sophisticated, or had little excuse not to be. The methodologies and assumptions utilised by the various studies are discussed in some depth, whilst detailed descriptions of certain studies are omitted where the flaws of their method - most notably in laboratory experiments - are such that their findings cannot be considered genuinely relevant to the question, at the heart of this review, of whether effects occur in the real world. The research review has not been updated with 'effects' studies published since the first edition came out in 1995, because all of the points made here about the doomed 'effects' methodologies apply just as well, and in just the same way, to any of the dwindling number of studies produced since then. (I have, however, updated the text generally, and added some more recent examples and studies about the general context, such as the level of public concern about media effects). On a personal level, I never wanted to become a mere critic of media 'effects' studies, and therefore I have directed my attention towards new alternatives to the disappointing studies, rather than simply making new attacks on bad studies, which would be easy but ultimately unsatisfactory.

It should be noted that the focus of this book is primarily the possible effects of mainstream entertainment material. Therefore pornography, for example, is not covered by the arguments made here. Feminist and other researchers have shown that in some cases men use such material as part of their abuse of women (see, for example, Everywoman, eds, 1988; Zillmann, Bryant & Huston, eds, 1994). Whilst it can be argued that the pornography is an accessory in situations where the men would be violent anyway, the extremely harmful uses of such material by a certain type of men are not to be denied. Much pornography, produced by men for men, can also be seen to have a broad, negative cultural impact on women's status and how they are regarded (Dworkin, 1981; Brittan, 1989). However, the uses of such pornography, and its place in sexist culture, are complex areas which are separate and distinct from the much more straightforward examination of the possible effects of mainstream screen media on individual viewers.

Chapters two to four of this book concern the traditional effects research and its focus on the alleged undesirable consequences of consuming screen media. In chapter two, some general problems and criticisms affecting the whole sphere of this kind of effects research will be discussed. In chapter three, the research into screen media and aggression will be considered, taking each of the main methodological approaches in turn - laboratory experiments, field experiments, 'natural' experiments, correlation studies, and longitudinal panel studies - whilst chapter four discusses arguments about other negative effects. In chapters five to seven, we move on to consider the possible benefits and positive influences of screen media. Chapter five is concerned with research into 'prosocial' (positive, educational or altruistic) effects on viewers, from basic experiments with specially prepared materials to more sophisticated consideration of the overall influences of everyday viewing, and its place in socialisation and moral development. In chapter six the particular case of campaign-type material which is specifically intended to have an effect is discussed, covering a wide range of public information campaigns, and advertising. With the complaints against traditional effects research firmly established, chapter seven moves on to consider alternative approaches to media effects or influences, which have been developed in the light of criticism of earlier research, and suggests ways in which research may usefully proceed in the future. Chapter eight returns us to the recurrent attacks on popular media for its supposed negative effects, but seeks to place the research discussed in previous chapters into the all-important contexts which these studies are produced in, and address. Therefore the research is considered in the wider historical and social context of the recurrent moral panic about screen media and its possible effects, the associated fears and assumptions about social class, and through some comparison of actual popular television content with researchers' implied and explicit approaches to it. Chapter nine summarises the research review, demonstrating that the media effects tradition has reached the end of what was always a hotly-contested, circuitous, and theoretically undernourished line of enquiry.

Some time after I had completed the first edition of this book, I produced a much more compact way of making the main argument. That article, 'Ten things wrong with the media "effects" model', takes the mountain of media effects studies as a whole, and then outlines ten fundamental flaws in their approach. It always seemed a shame that this piece didn't appear in Moving Experiences, but now, happily, a revised version appears as chapter ten.

Finally, as mentioned above, chapters eleven and twelve are brand new, and introduce new creative visual research methods which may offer us a different way to explore media influences, through a research process which treats participants not as media 'victims' but as creative producers of meaning. It is therefore hoped that this second edition not only provides a (somewhat revised) critique of an inadequate research tradition, but also constructively suggests an alternative route by which researchers might seek to deepen their understandings of the role and significance of media products in people's lives.