On February 22, 2011, in a second grade classroom in Glennon Heights Elementary School in Jefferson County, ┬áColorado, eight year old Aidan throws a violent temper tantrum. According to the report by the local NBC 9 News, Aidan was threatening teachers with sharp, broken pieces of wood saying he would “whack them with it.” Police were called to the scene where they ordered him to stop and put the stick down and Aiden refused. They then proceeded to pepper spray him twice and handcuff him.

As a journalist, the above account of the incident is the bare minimum of what I consider news. It has when, where, who, and what happened. The only factor missing is the answer to why Aiden acted this way. Here we see the reporter’s attempt to answer why:

“Child behavioral expert Dr. Larry Curry says he is observing a trend of young children becoming more violent, influenced by the Internet, TV and video games. ‘It’s a wakeup call to schools, it’s a wakeup call to parents,’ Curry said. ‘We’re going to see more and more episodes like this. This is not just an isolated situation.'”

Will he be violent? (stock image from sxc.hu)

This is the only mention in the article of video games and technology. After these two sentences, the report then turns back to describing the situation gives more information of Aiden and his mother’s viewpoint. We have no evidence that Aiden plays or even owns video games, yet the reporter thought it was relevant to quote Dr. Larry Curry saying that video games are causing violence in children.

The fact that the incident happened and is news worthy is not what I wish to call into question, it is the reporter’s decision to include the above statements which seemingly have no connection to the story.

We as human beings what to find a cause for things out of the ordinary. An 8 year old boy threatening to attack his teachers to the point of needing police action is not ordinary.

Virginia Tech, Columbine and other tragedies were horrific events where people did not act normally.

In his research titled Video Game Lightning Rod, Dmitri Williams of University of Michigan explains that media organizes and frames the world around us to be able to present it. Williams looked at how media frames video games and other emerging technology, providing examples of how both video games and the internet (which was new at the time) were blamed for the Columbine incident. He claims that video games were a “lightning rod” for conservative fears, an easy target. Video games have become that easy cause for unexplainable behaviors.

Winda Benedettie of MSNBC wrote in a 2007 commentary piece that news media is quick to blame video games, she specifically singles out Jack Thompson of Fox News.

According to Benedettie, within hours of the incident at Virginia Tech, Thompson was blaming the popular violent video game “Counter-Strike” for what happened.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/9Uc06vevb_4" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]

source: www.gamersmint.com

There was no evidence of the killer having played this or having any connection to gaming. A list of personal belongings from the killer’s room was released to the public and did not contain any video games, consoles, or video game related items.

However, Thompson told MSNBC, “This is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he’s a video gamer.”

I think that this is similar to Dave Cullen describing in his book Columbine how media was quick to blame the Trench Coat Mafia for the shooting in the high school. He basically says that we (the press and the public) want a simple, easy and obvious answer, and we want it fast. We have to make sense of the unexplainable.

I believe that the media uses this to justify their simplification: If we can blame something tangible, like the TCM or video games, it is possible to take action against it to prevent such tragedy again.

I think that the media should avoid implying that these simple answers are the only answer. In the case of Aiden, the article did not mention any other possible causes for his actions, except maybe an anger problem (but no mental illness). By simply placing the 2 sentences in the article, the media has implied that video games are to blame for Aiden’s rage. Media does not need to be as out-spoken as Jack Thompson to simplify behavior to one cause, video games.

Will she be violent? (stock image from sxc.hu)

We know that the human brain is not simple, it is not a basic cause and effect machine. It does not take violence in and spit violent action back out. Let’s stop simplifying our actions down to one root cause.

I wish to point out that I am not dissolving video games of all responsibility. As I said, the brain is not simple, so I cannot say that video games have no effect on our behavior either. In this post I am saying that simplifying causes of behavior is not appropriate nor acceptable in the news. From a journalism standpoint, this is not ethical because it leaves out other vital influences of behavior. I hope to shed light on this practice of finding the easy answer that on the surface explains some behavior but in reality is not the only factor.

References:

Williams, D. (2003). The Video Game Lightning Rod. Information, Communication & Society, 6(4), 523-550. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.