The Great Media Witch-Hunt

‘Media research’ is defined by Wimmer and Dominick as “an attempt to discover something” (2014) within the field of the media. Due to the vast and multifaceted nature of the media, however, this could involve investigating any issue within any one of the multitudes of channels and platforms through which we consume media in the 21st century. An examination or enquiry into a media-related topic should involve a systematic, accurate and objective research process, beginning with an initial observation, followed by the gathering of qualitative and/or quantitative data, the formulation of a theory and hypothesis, the further gathering and analysis of data and a final deduction that leaves the investigator with a greater understanding of the chosen topic or issue (McCutcheon, 2015: 21-22).

The aspect of the media that I am most interested in researching is the mass media’s tendency to, in cases of youth-related crises, identify a scapegoat as the target of a media-led witch-hunt and campaign of moral panic based on the academically divisive ‘causation theory’. This is especially evident in the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999 and the murders of Suzanne Capper in December 1992 and James Bulger in February 1993.

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The first case study involves shock-rock band Marilyn Manson, whose violent and sexual music and image became the target of a widespread media-led witch-hunt following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 (Jones, 2002: 126-127), when the perpetrators, high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were reported by the media to have been wearing the band’s t-shirts before committing the shooting (Moore, 2002). As a band that played heavy music with anti-Christian lyrics and a shock-goth image, it came as no surprise that Marilyn Manson were subsequently blamed for 36 further school shootings as the media pursued its witch-hunt against the band (Moore, 2002).

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The second case study involves the horror film Child’s Play 3: Look Who’s Stalking (1991) and the murders of Suzanne Capper and James Bulger. The first murder was that of 16 year old Suzanne Capper, wherein the perpetrator, McNeilly, “assumed the character of Chucky” by mimicking certain violent scenes from the film and continuously repeating the phrase “I’m Chucky, wanna play?” whilst torturing Capper (Foster, 1993: 2). In this case, it is quite evident that there is a direct cause-effect relationship between the viewing of Child’s Play 3 and the method in which McNeilly tortured and murdered Suzanne Capper. Three months later, however, the film resurfaced in the case of two-year-old James Bulger, who was murdered by ten year olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Apart from the media’s assertion that Bulger’s murder was inspired by Thompson and Venables’ viewing of the third Chucky film, which was later disproved, this case does not contain any evidence to suggest that the boys had seen or been influenced by the film (Faux & Frost, 1993: 1). In fact, the only evidence to suggest why the film was ever linked to Bulger’s murder is the case of Suzanne Capper, which sparked a widespread campaign of moral panic surrounding the impact of violent media, and particularly the Child’s Play franchise as a result of its child-like antagonist and horrific murder scenes, on the psychology of youth and the need for new legislation concerning video films (Morrison, 2003: 1).

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What these cases demonstrate is that the mass media is highly prone to creating scapegoats and spreading campaigns of moral panic in the wake of youth-related crises. Combined with quantitative and qualitative research, I believe that an investigation into this topic could uncover the perspectives of the public, the media corporations and the scapegoats on this issue, as well as the real-life effectiveness of these kind of media campaigns on legislation and public perception, in the hope of exposing the reason why causation theory is such a prominent aspect of current media reporting.

Reference List:
Bender, J 1991, Child’s Play 3: Look Who’s Stalking, Universal Pictures, USA.
Faux, R & Frost, B 1993, Boys guilty of Bulger murder, Times, London, pp 1.
Foster, J 1993, Horror fiction became reality, The Independent, London, pp 1-2.
Jones, S 2002, Pop music and the press, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, pp 126-127.
McCutcheon, M 2015, Lecture 2: What is media research?, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, pp 7-22.
Moore, M 2002, Bowling for Columbine, United Artists, USA.
Morrison, B 2003, Life after James, The Guardian, London, pp 1.
Wimmer, R & Dominick, J 2014, Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 10th ed., Cengage Learning, Boston, MA.

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About Tom Fogarty

I'm 20 years old. I live on the South Coast. I'm currently studying a double degree in Media and Communications at UOW. I'm in a hardcore band called Pariah. Thats about it, as far as I know anyway. View all posts by Tom Fogarty

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