The media plays a significant role in shaping public ideas, beliefs, and attitudes. It is a huge part of different cultures and is one of the key public influences in the United States. The media is important in informing the public about the news and mirroring modern society.
However, some researchers argue that the media’s reports on crime do not reflect reality. According to social science research, the media often over-reports crime. The ways in which it covers crime and gun violence tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on fatal and multiple shootings, while giving extra focus on uncommon victims, such as women. Meanwhile, neglecting male victims. Media portrayal of crime has both positive and negative effects on viewers and has an impact on future crimes. This article will unpack how media coverage of gun violence impacts American society.
Mass media’s effect on the audience – how does it shape culture and society?
According to sociology, media content has a significant direct effect on its audiences and can trigger particular social responses in terms of behavior and attitudes. Some researchers, for example, Gerbner (2002), argue that there is evidence relating to the relationship between screen violence and violence in real life. This is because mass media content can be extremely influential in shaping people’s ideologies, values and beliefs and can lead to imitation of the behavior portrayed in the media and desensitization.
Hypodermic needle model of media effects – the media’s ability to mesmerize, influence, and control the audience
According to Noam Chomsky, the media has the ability to influence, or even control its audiences. Thus, political leaders can use the media as the means of mass persuasion, propaganda, and “brainwashing”. Chomsky explains this with the early history of propaganda that was present during the First World War. This war is argued to be the first war fought using the media. The media were spreading political messages through subtle and effective means of propaganda in Russia, Germany, Italy, and Spain (Chomsky, 1997).
The “Magic Bullet” or “Hypodermic Needle Theory” is a theory of direct influence effects that is based on early observations of the effect of mass media. The models were first mentioned in Harold Lasswell’s book, “Propaganda Technique in the World War” (1927). Lasswell analyzed Nazi propaganda films to identify mechanisms of persuasion used to secure the passive acceptance and support of the Germans for Hitler and his wartime atrocities.
According to the hypodermic needle approach, there is a direct correlation between violence in the media and crime and violence in real life. Therefore, gun violence that is portrayed in the news, films, video games, and the lyrics of songs can strongly influence the audience. The theory highlights that children and teenagers are especially vulnerable to violent media content because they view it in their early stages of socialization, meaning that they still imitate what they view.
Copycat crime – gun violence imitation
A copycat crime is a criminal act that is imitating or is inspired by a previous crime. The media is believed to be one of the key influences on copycat crimes and suicides. Violent events that are covered by news outlets and spread throughout social media and popular cultures, like songs or films, can create a tendency for people to imitate them. A large amount of attention is often given to shooters. Their personal details, name, photo, motivations, and background are shared in the media and sometimes, the “fame” that results from this, is something that mass shooters desire. School shootings, such as one of the most widely reported school mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, have been a source of inspiration for 400 related incidents in the U.S. In 2007, a Virginia Tech student who killed 32 students, wrote that he had a desire to repeat the shooting from 1999 (Pew et al, 2022).
Bandura et al (1963) carried out a famous psycho-social experiment on a doll, which suggests a link between exposure to violence in the media and violent behavior in children. In his “Bobo Doll Experiment”, Bandura showed evidence that social behaviors, like violence and aggression, can be acquired through observation and imitation. In the experiment, children who were exposed to films and cartoons of a self-righting doll being attacked with a mallet imitated the behavior (McLeod, 2014). Therefore, Bandura proved that viewing violent content in the media, like gun violence, can lead to copycat violence and imitation of such behavior.
Other studies show that the more attention is given to the shooter through the media, the more likely it is that the event will be imitated and will inspire future mass shootings. One of the films that is known to have inspired real-life copycat crimes was the 1994 “Natural Born Killers”. The film has inspired a 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis, who gunned down two students and injured several others in 1996, in the Frontier Middle School shooting in Moses Lake, Washington. Loukaitis rented the movie at least seven times and quoted it religiously (tasteofcinema.com)
Emotional desensitization to gun violence in the media
The growing media violence portrayed in the news, films, and TV shows began to concern researchers in the early seventies. With technological developments and the growing popularity of cable TV and VHS in the eighties, people began to view media content in a completely new way. Meanwhile, teenagers and children could view adult content without parental supervision. This trend continued throughout the next decades. Today, media content can be accessed from pretty much anywhere thanks to smartphones and tablets. Digitalization provides a huge opportunity for people to transfer information. It increases the frequency of violence exposure. Just over half of children (53%) and 84% of teenagers in the U.S. own a smartphone, and thus, are able to access violent content at any given moment (Kamenetz, 2019).
Desensitization is a psychological process in which people become less anxious or shocked by media violence as a result of continuous exposure to violent content. Researchers have been concerned with the possibility that exposure to violence in films, TV shows, and other media, can result in desensitization and reduce feelings of concern, empathy, or sympathy of viewers toward victims. As a result of this, more people are becoming desensitized toward victims of real crime (Encyclopedia.com). This suggests that when people are exposed to the news of mass shootings across the U.S. they become less shocked by each exposure, and show less psychological reactivity to different forms of violence, including gun violence.
Moral Panic: gun violence in the media and public fear
Despite the research, arguments, and evidence suggesting that the audience is becoming more desensitized toward gun violence portrayed in the media and violence and crime in general, there is also evidence that suggests that exposure to violence in the media leads to widespread fear and panic. The concept of moral panic originated in the 1970s and describes the public’s fear and panic as a reaction to threat. It is linked to various forms of crime and deviance and delinquency. Crimes such as school shootings are causes of concern and should be taken seriously.
However, the media has the power to present school shootings and other crime-related content in a way that may make these events appear epidemic (Elsass et al, 2021). As a result, it can and does involve masses of people becoming irrational about a problem and overestimating how widespread it is. This is problematic, as according to studies, schools remain among the safest places for children. School shootings are statistically rare forms of crime.
Is exposure to gun violence in the media really so impactful?
Gun violence is a significant social issue in the U.S that impacts people of all ages and therefore, should be talked about. On average, every day, 321 people are shot in the United States. 111 people are shot and killed, and 210 survive gunshot injuries. Every day, 22 children and teens (1-17) are shot with a firearm. 5 die from gun violence, 3 are murdered and 17 children and teens survive gunshot injuries. Annually, there are 117,345 people shot with firearms in the U.S.. Every year, 40,620 people die from gun violence (Brady United, 2022). These numbers are frightening, they show the scale of the gun violence issue in the United States. The numbers are evidence that gun violence needs to stop. However, are the media really so impactful in inspiring future mass shooters?
Critiques of Hypodermic Needle Theory
There are various criticisms of the Hypodermic Needle Theory highlighting that just because someone encounters violent content in the media, does not lead directly to violent behavior. One of the main issues that this argument neglects is the fact that it completely ignores that people are not passive viewers. People, including most children, are not as vulnerable as the theory implies, can distinguish between fictional violence and real violence, and know that it should not be imitated. Although people learn from the media, learned behavior is abandoned in a short time.
However, violence encountered on the news is a powerful representation of real-world violence, and can certainly have an impact on society. The key question that is yet to be answered is to what extent does gun violence in the media impact society? Some critiques of the desensitization theory suggest that people who encounter violence in the media are actually less inclined to commit violent acts and crimes.
According to Cohen and Young (1981), people who view the effects of violence, especially the pain and suffering of the victim and their families, are more aware of the negative consequences of violence. Thus, people are sensitized to the violence that they are exposed to and therefore avoid it, making them less likely to imitate it.
In addition to this, some researchers, such as Feshbach and Singer (1971) suggest that people with violent tendencies and issues with aggression can find a safe outlet in viewing films with violent content. This allows for an emotional release, known as catharsis.
Cultural significance of gun violence in the media in anthropology
Anthropologists attempt to understand and explain human experiences in all of their complexity and diversity. Gun violence is one of the key social issues in the United States and understanding it from different perspectives is essential in order to prevent it. According to the National Rifle Association in the U.S., “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, and people are the key concern of anthropological research. Anthropologists explain human experiences and how they vary across time and place. Knowledge about gun violence, if studied from an anthropological perspective, through ethnographic accounts, can provide researchers with ways to prevent gun violence and explain why it occurs.
Gun violence in the U.S. is underlining the crucial problem of firearms law. However, it also shows a bigger problem of social inequality, racism, and mental health (Han and Antrosio, 2018). The ways in which gun violence is portrayed in the media show that certain groups in society are overrepresented in reports of crime and gun violence, while others are completely ignored.
Brady United (2022). “The Facts That Make US Act”. Available: bradyunited.org
Chomsky, N. (1997). “The Open Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda”. Available: library.uniteddiversity.coop
Cohen, S., & Young, J. (1981). The manufacture of news: Deviance, social problems and the mass media. London: Constable. Available: archive.org
Elsass, H., J. et al. (2021). “Moral Panic, Fear of Crime, and School Shootings: Does Location Matter?”. Sociological Inquiry Vo. 9, No. 2. Alpha Kappa Delta: The International Sociology Honor Society. Available: onlinelibrary.wiley.com
Encyclopedia.com. “Desensitization and Media Effects”. Available: encyclopedia.com
Feshbach, S., and Singer, R., D. (1971). “Television and Aggression”. Available: eric.ed.gov
Gerbner, G. et al (2002). “Growing Up With Television: Cultivation Processes”. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds.). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. Available: psycnet.apa.org
Han, S. and Antrosio, J. (2018). “The Editor’s Note: Enough: Anthropologists Take on Gun Violence”. Open Anthropology. Vol. 6, No.1. Available: americananthro.org
Kamenetz, A. (2019). “It’s a Smartphone Life: More Than Half of U.S. Children Now Have One”. Available: npr.org
McLeod, S. (2014). “Bobo Doll Experiment”. Available: simplypsychology.org
Pew, A., Goldbeck, L., Halsted C., Zuckerman, D. (2022). “Does Media Coverage Inspire Copy Cat Mass Shootings?”. Available: center4research.org