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Two starkly diverging pathways for President-elect Barack Obama’s crucial, so far unknown, public stance toward crime issues are emerging. This brief discusses the Easy Path: Blaming youth, gangs, popular culture, and the media” that former President Clinton largely embraced. 

News reports are abuzz with a barrage of shocking new studies” declaring popular-media influences such as television, movies, rap music, and internet sites are pivotal causes of violence by youth. Unfortunately, decades of analysis show these types of studies employ among the weakest, least valid research techniques based on self-reporting surveys that typically involve leading questions; large losses of subjects over time; researchers directly or inadvertently influencing subjects to provide desired answers; very small numbers of teens reporting violent behavior; and results that conflict with standard crime statistics and each other. For example, only around 30 of the 1,600 teens surveyed in a recent study in Pediatrics reported both visiting violent Internet sites and committing a seriously violent act, numbers too tiny to permit valid conclusions (remember the famous study that found that Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood incite children to violence?). Reviews have found studies reporting negative media effects are far more likely to be published than equally good studies that didn’t, and each shocking new study” contradicts previous ones. 

The bottom line is simple: the more objectionable media these studies claim youth are consuming, the bigger the declines in teenagers’ rates of crime, violence, and violent victimization. The FBI reports that from 1990 through 2007, rates of serious violent and property crime among youths under age 18 plunged by 49%, including unprecedented declines in murder (down 66%), rape (down 52%), robbery (down 32%), and serious assault (down 28%). The National Crime Victimization Survey finds even larger declines in teens’ violent victimizations. The Centers for Disease Control reports massive declines in teenagers’ rates of homicide (down 60%) and gun deaths (down 55%). Further, the teens supposedly most influenced by media, younger ones and whites, show the biggest crime drops over the last 10 to 15 years.

Unfortunately, Americans of all ages, especially in poorer urban areas, continue to suffer much higher murder and gun violence rates than citizens of other Western nations. Compared to its richest adolescents, California’s poorest adolescent populations are 25 times more likely to be arrested for murder and 30 times more likely to be murdered. Media influences can’t explain even a small fraction of gaps this vast, especially given the fact that less violent cultures such as Japan have even more explicit and violent popular media.

American politicians’ temptation to play the easy pop culture” card hampers serious measures to counter true causes of our excessive violence. Turn off the TV” and put away the video games” play well on the campaign stump, but we need a president who, publicly and in policy decisions, will take on the tough issues.