Hello Cruel World: Media, Guns & Mean World Syndrome

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As we find ourselves yet again in the middle of an endless, and endlessly confusing, feedback loop of commentary about the effects of media violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we would do well to remember the work of the late media scholar George Gerbner.

Rather than asking whether people imitated the violence they saw on TV and in movies, Gerbner and his colleagues at the Annenberg School were most interested in the effects of media exposure on people’s general attitudes about the world. And what they found was as clear-cut as it was groundbreaking: that the more media violence people consumed, the more likely they were to have irrational fears that violence would be done to them.

Gerbner dubbed this media-bred cluster of exaggerated fears and paranoid fantasies “The Mean World Syndrome.” And to this day — especially today — it forces us to ask whether the very things we’re doing to “protect” ourselves against largely imaginary threats are actually what’s endangering us the most.

As gun lobbyists and politicians alike continue to exploit the tragedy of Sandy Hook to argue that we need even more guns to protect ourselves (even though violent crime in reality has been dropping steadily over the past few decades), Gerbner’s findings have never seemed more relevant.

To see how we keep asking the wrong questions about media violence and media effects, check out this clip featuring Gerbner from the film The Mean World Syndrome.