Violence, Reel To Real

In the film "Money Train," a man douses a New York subway token-booth clerk with a flammable liquid, lights a match and demands her money. When she pushes a bag of cash toward him, he tosses the match at her anyway, laughing sadistically that he isn't in it "for the money." For New York audiences, this was a horror revisited: in the 1980s, hoodlums terrorized subway clerks with firebombs and lighter fluid, The movie opened on Wednesday, Nov. 22, and grossed $15 million in its first five days.

But its impact seems to have extended beyond the box office. Late Saturday night, three days after the opening, two men in Brooklyn squirted flammable liquid into the token booth manned by Harry Kaufman and blew his small cubicle to pieces. Kaufman remains in critical condition, with burns over 75 percent of his body. By midweek two more 'token booths had been attacked or threatened by firebugs. The makers of "Money Train" ardently defended their film, claiming they were only depicting a real crime method. But the incidents read like the latest case of life imitating art-or perhaps life imitating art imitating life (graphic). Bob Dole, who had reaped political mileage denouncing the entertainment industry in May, again lambasted Hollywood last week, calling for a boycott of the movie: "Those who continue to deny that cultural messages can and do bore deep into the hearts and minds of our young people are deceiving themselves and ignoring reality."

This was an easy shot, especially in the wake of such a reprehensible crime. Who could defend the values of "Money Train," a witless orgy of gratuitous mayhem? But as with most quick attempts to connect entertainments with real-world violence, the story under this was far more complicated. For starters, the hoods responsible haven't been arrested; no one knows whether they even saw the movie. More significant, the incident offers only the most facile look at how violence in the media might affect us. Copycat crimes, even if they hold up underscrutiny, involve only a minuscule fraction of the millions of people who watch the same movie or show. Far more troubling is the question of how our daily immersion in violent media-in aggressive cartoons, brutal sporting events, graphic newscasts, shoot-'em-up movies and TV shows and harsh popular music-affect children and adults in the aggregate.

Beneath the huffy sound bites lie nearly 40 years of extremely murky scientific research on the subject. The evidence holds fascinating clues into how our entertainments act on our minds. But it is also far less certain than many of its adherents claim. Researchers routinely cite thousands of studies. Really, there are closer to 200; the rest are rehashes of data.The press in turn uneritieally repeats numbers like annual figures for how many violent acts kids see each year, without noting that the figures include acts of nature, cartoon violence and slapstick along with grisly fare. A closer look at the actual research literature reveals that what we don't know about media's effects is often as dramatic as what we do.

Nobody believes that media by themselves cause aggression. But Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan found in a 22-year study following kids from third grade through adulthood that the single best predictor of later aggression-more than poverty, grades, a single-parent home or exposure to real violence-was a heavy childhood diet of TV carnage. "Of course not every youngster is affected," says Eron. "Not everyone who gets lung cancer smoked cigarettes. And not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets lung cancer. But nobody outside the tobacco industry denies that smoking causes lung cancer. The size of the correlation is the same." Epidemiologist Brandon S. Centerwall goes so far as to assert that without TV there would be 10,000 fewer murders per year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes and 700,000 fewer assaults.

Much of the most effective research has been done on children, because they are considered most susceptible. As Centerwall puts it, "Later variations in exposure, in adolescence and adulthood, do not exert any additional effect." In the early '60s, Albert Bandura at Stanford was the first to show that kids learned behavior from TV, not just from their parents. Psychologists have used four theories of learning to describe how TV violence may influence kids: they learn to imitate what they see on TV, especially when it is rewarded; they learn from the frequency of violence on TV that it is normal; they become desensitized to real people's suffering, and they become aroused by images on television, triggering violent responses. Early researchers, following Aristotle, thought media violence might be cathartic, purging violent urges, but experiments have not borne this out.

In a classic series of lab experiments in the early 1960s, researchers first frustrated a group of preschool kids, then showed them TV footage of a man hitting a "Bobo" or clown doll. Afterward, the kids who saw the violence were more likely to mimic it on a similar doll. Further studies showed that these kids would also spontaneously act out against a man dressed as a clown, indicating that TV violence might spin easily into the real world. In another twist, a group of kids saw a similar footage of a man hitting a doll, but then being spanked for his actions. These children were much less likely to attack the doll themselves.

These last results imply that what matters is the type or treatment of violence: that screen mayhem that's rewarded win encourage aggression, but when it's punished it win inhibit it. By this logic, a heroic John Wayne movie might be more damaging than a senseless slasher movie, especially if the villain is punished. The experiments also argue that simply tallying the number of violent acts is meaningless. In this case, seeing the most acts of violence (both a hit doll and a spanking) made kids the least likely to rumble themselves.

Working with adults, Brad Bushman at Iowa State has shown in lab situations that subjects not prone to aggression were not affected by what they saw, while those previously inclined toward violence were. "Highly aggressive people organize experiences in their memories differently," he says. Violent entertainment "activates their aggressive thoughts, angry feelings." Bushman came to his interest in TV violence the tough way. "My electronics teacher owned an audio store. Just before closing one day, two armed men came in and forced the owner and customers down into the basement, forced them to eat Drano and put duct tape over their mouths, just like in the movie 'Magnum Force.' At trial, one witness testified that these men watched 'Magnum Force' three times the day before."

Other researchers have questioned whether it was the by-perkinetic form of TV, more than the content, that prompted aggression. Two studies published in the early '80s found that programs with heavy action but no violence were just as likely to provoke aggression as those that contained actual mayhem. Dorothy and Jerome Singer at Yale further found that even innocuous programs like the quick-cutting "Sesame Street" or variety and game shows were so stimulating that they prompted aggression. (The producers of "Sesame Street" have since slowed the show down.)

The problem with lab studies, though, is that their conditions are artificial and limited. They take material entirely out of context, and don't look at cumulative effects of our real viewing patterns. The responses measured--punching a doll or pushing a shock button-are not real violent responses, only approximations. Further, the responses all come with the sanction of the experimenter. They seem like acceptable behaviors, with no threat of retribution.

Two of the most compelling field studies have looked at the way television changed a culture when it was first introduced. In 1973, Tannis MacBeth Williams studied the kids in a Canadian town before and after the town got TV. She found that creativity dropped and that within two years after the arrival of the tube, rates of hitting, shoving and biting among first and second graders increased by 160 percent.

In a somewhat related experiment, Centerwall looked at murder rates in the United States, Canada and South Africa after the introduction of TV. In each country, 10 to 15 years after television came in, murder rates doubled. Centerwall explained the lag by reasoning that it took that long for the first young kids exposed to TV to come of age. Even looking at other factors-the baby boom, urbanization, the rise of fire-arms-he claims that none was as viable an explanation as TV.

Neither of these studies dealt with the content of TV. Both suggest that it may be the fact of TV--the way it changes our social lives, decreases the time kids spend with parents, stimulates material de-sires-that makes our world aggressive, more than the body count in an episode of"NYPD Blue."

George Gerbner, professor and dean emeritus of The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying television and its effects since the 1950s. He argues that the question of whether violent media cause violence misses the point. "It's a shallow, superficial, law-enforcement approach." The violence on TV, he says, shapes a range of responses beyond aggression. So Gerbner devised what he calls a Mean World Syndrome: a measure of how television cultivates "feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and mistrust, and-despite its supposedly 'entertaining' nature--alienation and gloom." He contends that violence is used to define social relations between characters. "The primary message of violence on TV," he says, "is who can get away with what against whom." In a study covering 1982 to 1992, for example, the researchers found that for every 10 prime-time male characters who commit violence, 11 were victims. But for every 10 female perps, there were 17 female victims. The numbers are even worse for minorities. For every 10 women of color given power, 22 are victimized. The elderly and the poor are also common victims on television. According to Gerbner, viewers then bend their views of the real world according to these ratios. People who watch a lot of television, he found, believed that women were more likely than men to be victims of violence (in fact, men are one and one-half times as likely to be victims of violent crimes). "Some kids see themselves as more likely to be victims than other kids, and they develop a greater sense of vulnerability. Or if they see themselves as more likely to perpetrate violence without consequences, they develop a greater sense of being able to prevail through aggression." He also found that heavy viewers were more likely to call for severe punishments for criminals, and to have bought new locks, watchdogs and guns "for protection."

Many researchers, though, question Gerbner's method of counting all acts of violence alike. He answers that no heavy viewer distinguishes between "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and "Arsenic and Old Lace" and that on TV, even natural phenomena like storms convey a message about power. His work also invites a counter explanation: people who are predisposed to fear the world are also more likely to stay home and watch TV. Gerbner argues that because we watch TV all our lives, there is no such thing as predisposition, "no before and after. TV cultivates the predisposition."

Even if the evidence is inconclusive, it's hard to dismiss the likelihood of some connection between media and aggression. So what to do? Gerbner rejects the V-chip--a device that would allow parents to block out programs coded for violent content--as "a technocratic fantasy. It's a mindless mechanism. Who programs it? Do you let the fox guard the chicken coop? If government decides, it's unconstitutional."

Both the Singers and Huesmann have designed programs to try to inoculate children from the harmful effects of television. Huesmann asked a group of second graders to help make a videotape on the effects of TV violence, exploring how TV works: how it is not real life; how copying TV can hurt real people, and so on. Tested later, the kids showed a high skepticism toward media violence; they were also less aggressive in class. Parents can try similar techniques at home, or push schools to educate young kids about the biases and distortions of television. Unfortunately Huesmann does not think the effects of his program will be long-lasting. "I don't believe this kind of curriculum alone can solve the problem. It needs to be coupled with reduction in media violence."

For four decades the entertainment industry has resisted such pleas, no matter how great the pressures on it. The body of research against media violence, though spongy, grows larger each year. We may never understand fully just how our entertainments shape our behavior. For now, all we can say for sure is that the subway clerk Harry Kaufman lies in a hospital room, burned in a crime similar to one in a movie. It's cause for cautious examination, not sound bites. The research has a long way to go, further than its believers claim. But you still might think twice before letting your kids watch Power Rangers.

"Money Train" is just one of the movies and TV shows blamed for inspiring violence. But like that film's token-booth torchings, many of these "imitation" crimes happened first in real life.

This 1976 film in which a New York cabby (Robert De Niro) attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate was reportedly the inspiration for John Hinckley Jr.'s shooting President Reagan in 1981.

A mere half hour after seeing this 1984 TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett, a Milwaukee man burned his estranged wife to death. Fawcett played a real battered wife who killed her husband that way in 1977.

Two teenagers were killed and another critically wounded (inseparate incidents) when they copied a scene from this 1993 movie showing drunken college football players in a game of "chicken," lying in the middle of a highway at night. The scene was later cut.

In 1993 they made a torch of an aerosol can, and three Ohio girls burned their room. In another Ohio incident, a more blamed the cartoon duo for her son's starting a fatal fire.

This 1994 Oliver Stone film, which depicts a 52-victim killing spree, was banned in Britain and Ire]and because of "copycat" murders in the U.S. and France.

Besides shoot-'em-up shows, researchers have found that a wide range of programs spark aggression, including game shows, ads, even "Sesame Street."

Children imitate violent behavior when they see it on the screen, especially when it is rewarded-as in the idolization of sports heroes.

Since the Vietnam War, TV news and documentaries have brought a new level of graphic bloodshed into the living room, often during family hours.

Kids are most susceptible to TV violence. Yet kids' shows like the Power Rangers are five times more violent than prime-time fare.