Santa Barbara killings: Is the Hollywood debate worth having again?

While trying to draw a straight line between Hollywood and violence is simplistic and potentially counter-productive, say some experts, it is also important not to dismiss the relationship out of hand.

Chris Carlson/AP
Messages in chalk are on the road in front of the IV Deli Mart, Tuesday May 27, 2014, where some of Friday night's mass shooting took place in the Isla Vista area near Goleta, Calif.

The debate over what role, if any, Hollywood played in the deaths of six UC Santa Barbara students – sparked online this week by a piece from film critic Ann Hornaday – echoes similar questions after other school-related killings.

In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999, questions about the role of violent videogames filled the ensuing media analysis. Similar concerns were raised after a lone doctoral student dressed as a villain from a Batman film opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012, killing 12 and wounding 58.

The most public part of the current debate was initiated by the Washington Post’s Ms. Hornaday, who wrote of the killer: “It's just as clear that his delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in.”

She also referenced the film “Neighbors,” a raunchy look at fraternity life, bringing a fiery defense from the director, Judd Apatow, who rejected the notion that films lead people to do terrible things. The debate has continued, with passionate followers on each side.

These emotion-laden arguments rarely find common ground. Nonetheless, some experts increasingly suggest that while trying to draw a straight line between entertainment and Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage is simplistic and potentially counter-productive, it is also important not to dismiss the relationship out of hand.

This debate is now a familiar part of the public dialogue following such horrific incidents, says Los Angeles forensic psychiatrist Praveen Kambam, who notes that the polarizing back and forth tends to divide into two camps.

“There are those who say that violence in the media causes the real-world violence, and there are those who say it has absolutely nothing to do with it,” he says, adding that the truth arising from the research so far is closer to somewhere in between those two poles.

His firm, Broadcast Thought, specializes in analyzing the risk factors that lead to violent behavior. He notes, for instance, that in a meta-analysis of 42 studies involving nearly 5,000 participants, psychologists Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman found a statistically significant, small-to-moderate-strength relationship between watching violent media and committing acts of aggression or violence later in life.

The research community itself disagrees. A considerable amount of research has come to light in recent years that media violence does NOT contribute to societal violence, says Christopher Ferguson, an expert on media violence at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. In addition, he adds via email, "youth violence and societal violence in general have been declining in past decades, despite more media violence." 

The question of what to do with a better understanding of the relationship between media violence and real-world violence is what tends to get the various camps in a lather, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

Some people express fears that the right to bear arms will be taken away, he says, while others worry First Amendment guarantees to free speech will be trampled upon.

“If you really buy the idea that movies and television are causing people to go on violent, shooting rampages, then the next step is to protect people, because that would be the only civilized response,” he says. Then the arts would have to be seen as a public health issue, he points out, “like tobacco or alcohol or drugs,” a connection he rejects.

On the other hand, Thompson is quick to add, “I do not for a minute say that the arts do not move us or change the way we think. What would be the point of art if it did not inspire or move us to see the world in a different way?”

The mental health professionals who are part of the response teams that arrive at schools and communities traumatized by these shootings say better access to mental health services is at least part of the solution.

“I don’t think policing media is what we need to do because plotlines and stories arise from the values and ethos of a culture,” says Michigan psychologist Randy Flood, who specializes in treating issues relating to masculinity. “This young man talked about retribution, but what was really going on was insecurity and fear, and he did not have the emotional intelligence to talk about the real issues he was having,” he notes.

However, while providing better access to mental health care may be a part of the solution, Kambam is quick to point out that focusing on mental health issues can be a disservice to those with mental illnesses.

“That focus tends to suggest that the mentally ill are inherently violent, which is overwhelmingly not the case,” he says.

Hornaday’s Op-Ed maintains that the film industry itself could provide more options for modeling behavior and notes that it is dominated by men. She points to a recent San Diego State University study that found that women made up only 16 percent of the directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 movies of 2013 and that women accounted for just 15 percent of protagonists in those films.

“It bears taking a hard look at whether we're doing more subtle damage to our psyches and society by so drastically limiting our collective imagination,” she writes.

However, it is also limiting to claim that the imagery in cinema traps a young man into any one type of vision of what’s possible, says Stephen Brown, chief film critic for

“Who’s to say what strikes one person to be inspired by the young sportsmen in ‘Million Dollar Arm,’ to identify with the conflicted protagonist of ‘Fruitvale Station,’ to be touched by the redemptive tale of ‘Chef,’ to be swept up in the heroics of an ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ or to be entertained by the culture clash and raunchiness of ‘Neighbors?’ he says via e-mail.

Nonetheless, says Mr. Brown, “In a perfect world, the Jane Campions and Kathryn Bigelows of moviemaking would get as many chances to bring even more great female-centric stories to the screen, but troubled folks seeking to connect certain dots in the movies are going to find a reflection of their warped reality one way or another.”

While some may not wish to address issues of artistic expression in the context of public health, Kambam suggests that the important message is that any violence needs to be addressed in the broadest context possible. Depictions of violence in media are only one component.

“The pie is much larger,” he says, adding that it includes everything from poverty, substance abuse, the presence of poor parental influences, as well as mental health issues.

The comparison to public health is useful, he says that, "it is worth investigating.”

[Editor's note: The original text of this article has been changed to incorporate broader research.]

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