In the wake of the Newtown, Conn. massacre, the national conversation has included no lack of conjecture that the media we consume is to blame for the violence. Most famously, NRA second-in-command Wayne Lapierre's Dec. 21 speech in Washington, D.C. featured a lengthy segment in which he pointed the finger at video games and movies and singled out a number of decades-old films as particularly culpable. Lapierre was roundly mocked for his tone-deaf diatribe, but he was hardly unique. Numerous public figures on the right and left have gone out of their way to make certain we spend more time talking about Quentin Tarantino and Natural Born Killers than about access to assault weapons.
Is all this talk of violent media having an effect on the public at large? A poll conducted by The Hollywood Reporter suggests that it is., but only barely. The survey, conducted with pollster Penn Shoen Berland, asked “consumers of movies and television” how their opinions regarding violent media had been affected by the Sandy Hook shootings. The findings are inconsistent, but they reveal interesting information about the mind of film and TV fans. Among them:
* 60 percent of respondents still believe mental illness is the primary cause of mass killings.
* 44 percent of parents polled said that the shootings made them “more aware” of how much violence is in the media their kids enjoy.
* 46 percent of all respondents felt Hollywood should make fewer violent movies. When only parents are considered, the number jumps to 54%.
* Women were more than twice as likely as men to call for fewer violent films.
* Only 6 percent of respondents said they want more violent films to be produced.
* 70 percent of respondents older than age 30 — a category so broad as to almost feel unquantifiable — feel there is too much violence in advertising for film and TV.
* Despite that get-off-my-lawn attitude, only 34 percent of total respondents said violent advertising should face greater restrictions.
* In fact, even parents aren't grabbing for the pitchforks. Only 34 percent of parents polled believe it's the job of the president and Congress to pressure Hollywood to change advertising. In fact, 75 percent of all respondents believe the opposite.
* Not surprisingly, political affiliation matters: 68 percent of liberals held the NRA more responsible than the media; 74 percent of conservatives blamed the media over the NRA.
It's important to note that methodology, sample size, and demographics are not revealed in the report. (At least not in the online version.) It's entirely possible the respondents are all Nielsen families in a rush to get back to watching Hawaii Five-0.
It also should be considered that responses to polls taken in the immediate aftermath of a significant tragedy might not reflect a permanent, or even accurate, change in mood. With the massive outpouring of public grief, not to mention the very real terror people tend to feel about such events, there is essentially a massive amount of peer pressure placed on people to respond in the 'correct' way. Note that a similar phenomenon is seen in polls of American church attendance; people report much higher levels of religiosity than their behavior suggests.
We should therefore expect that responses to these questions include at least a few people saying what they think they're supposed to say, rather than what they actually believe.
What's interesting is that despite the number of poll respondents who have concluded that something needs to be done about violence in the media as a result of Sandy Hook, the results do not show a corresponding desire for censorship. In fact, they show the opposite: instead of blaming film and video games for mass murders the way rock music was blamed for suicides and Satanism in the 1980s, the poll suggests that your average citizen actually wants to deal with the real roots of the problem.
Unfortunately,that's not happening. Nearly three weeks after the shootings, we have yet to see a single proposal to address gun violence. We haven't even seen a real proposal of any kind from the national government (unless you count the demand for yet another study on the effects of video-game violence.). The only concrete action we've seen? A community near Newtown has established a buyback program... for violent video games.
President Obama said, in his statement on Sandy Hook, that “we can't tolerate this anymore.” And he's right. But until we identify what it is we're not supposed to tolerate, we're stuck, and so far it looks like the conversation is successfully being misdirected away from guns and toward popular culture. I don't need a poll to tell me that's a bad sign.
Ross Lincoln is a LA-based freelance writer from Oklahoma with an unhealthy obsession with comics, movies, video games, ancient history, Gore Vidal, and wine.
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