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August 16, 2006

Media Effects Study Links WWE with Date Fighting--Seven Years Ago

For those who haven't already read the barrage of material made available on the study published in Pediatrics recently, I'll give you a short recap:

In 1999, a team of professors from Wake Forest University made headlines with a quantitative study that found a correlation between watching professional wrestling and participating in fighting while on dates among teenagers, in a study that also highlighted other potential negative behaviors associated with watching pro wrestling.

While the study was not published at the time, it did receive a substantial amount of attention and was covered by most of the major news outlets. Then, last week, when a written essay based on the study and releasing the full results of the study was published, major media outlets once again reported on it.

WWE Owner Vince McMahon was livid. On last week's episode of Monday Night RAW, WWE announcer Jim Ross lashed out and the study and promoted Mr. McMahon's response to be made available on the WWE Web site for fans, and also on the company's corporate site for investors.

That response claimed, among other things, that the study was "junk science" and that the findings were both dated and unsubstantiated. Of course, in true McMahon fashion, Vince went on to say that the study was produced by "some obscure professor who finally got someone to read his paper and is trying to get his name in the media." WWE certainly didn't hide from the issue, even linking to the study on its Web site to bring further attention to the results from fans and engage in a dialogue, although WWE was definitely issuing their response in "wrestling promo" mode.

The WWE site also included an exclusive interview with Dr. Robert Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Thompson questions what he sees as an insinuation of cause and effect, stating that he sees too many variables that cannot be controlled in trying to prove such a relationship. In the story, Thompson says, "These studies are demonstrating a correlation. For example, if the tree in my backyard gets bigger, the hair on my head gets thinner. There's a direct correlation there, no question about it; one happens, the other happens. But there's certainly no cause there, or I would've chopped down that tree a long time ago."

University of Cincinnati Doctoral Student Michael M. Wehrman wrote a sociological response to WWE's response defending the methodology of the Pediatrics study, even while he surmised that the Wake Forest study did not provide much sufficient explanation. Wehrman, who writes that he is a WWE fan and who published his response on a popular wrestling Web site, questions whether someone with a humanities background like Thompson has the intellectual tools to write any criticism of the Wake Forest team's media effects research.

I have to come down solidly on the side of Thompson in this case. Here's my own take:

I agree with Wehrman in that we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, to grab at a hackneyed idiom, when it comes to quantitative data. Although I don't agree with most media effects research and the shaky conclusions that data tries to draw, I don't think that it is never valuable. I just disagree with sweeping generalizations that try to quantify very complicated processes, and I disagree with the premise that media is a primary factor in changing anyone's behavior in such a direct relationship.

I can't agree that humanities academics like Thompson and wrestling executives like McMahon completely lack the intellectual tools necessary to critique a study like this one. I have no problem with his contention that Pediatrics is not some quack publication and is one of the most respected in its field, but it doesn't mean that only other sociologists are equipped to critique this. Maybe Thompson and McMahon miss some of the particular nuances of the research form, but there is a larger question of the value of media effects in general in providing any substantial evidence.

One of my mentors has described it as a difference between people who believe in black and white and that you can definitively understand the world and people who believe that everything always requires further nuance and explanation. And, media effects and quantitative research indicates some degree of "being able to know the world" in irrefutable numeric ways.

Where Wehrman goes too far in his defense of the study is in his claim that, even though he finds the study offers more "non-findings that acquit wrestling viewership from violent/antisocial tendencies" than any substantial merit in the data that the media has been sensationalizing over the past week, he says that "it is inappropriate for the WWE and Robert Thompson to attempt arguing with researchers, who clearly they cannot engage is competent discourse with" (sic).

As someone who straddles academic and popular writing and working in a research group that is dedicated to engaging with the industry, the viewers/readers/listeners, and acadmics alike, I have fundamental issues with this claim that most people are not competent enough to understand these big academic concepts. When it comes to research like this, if your process is so fundamentally complicated that there's no way anyone could understand it without a Master's or doctorate in the social sciences, than I am going to be a little skeptical of your findings in the first place. If it takes going through a labyrinth to get there, then your idea is probably not that solid in the first place (as Gary Hoppenstand reminds us when he puts theory in its place).

That doesn't mean the Wake Forest team is invalid themselves or that Dr. Robert DuRant, who led the study, has any axe to grind with WWE, nor necessarily that he was trying to make a name for himself with the study. I have correspondend with DuRant on a couple of occasions, including his sending me an advance copy of his published study while I was working on a research project on professional wrestling a couple of years ago. We never engaged about the particulars of his study and my own skepticism of media effects research, but I think the problem is more with media effects in general and not DuRant's specific study.

This is not the first time that sociologists have attempted to prove the ill-effects of wrestling. Professional wrestling programming has been the subject of such studies since the late 1960s, although most research has been inconclusive at best. The problem is often not as much the intial studies but the fact that broadcast and print journalists are always clamoring for such studies to sensationalize and then rarely ask any complicated questions, as if these numbers just fell from the sky.

For those looking for a nuanced approach to dissecting media effects research, check out wrestler and bestselling author Mick Foley's Foley is Good and the Real World is Faker than Wrestling, in which he dissects a study by Indiana University's Walter Gantz regarding the number of instances of what is considered anti-social behavior in WWE programming. Foley's critique is among some of the most sophistacted out there, although he obviously doesn't have the advanced degree some feel is necessary to speak about such issues. By the way, in my last semester here at MIT, I am teaching a course on pro wrestling and am hoping to put together a live debate between Foley and Gantz regarding the study.

Obviously, I have a stake in this, being a wrestling fan and analyst myself. And I admit that bias. But what we're debating here is the larger question of the validity of media effects study and the potential loss of true insight we have when we engage too heavily in these types of questions. And, while DuRant may be called out by WWE and Thompson for the study, my own contention lies even more squarely with the media industry, whose constant deadlines and sensational nature calls for reporting on statistics and tidy little studies like this one much more often than it does engaging with qualitative research that may require a higher level of engagement.

In other words, putting your trust in media effects research is like putting your faith in Nielsen numbers...sure, it may sound pretty solid, provocative even, on the surface, but that's the problem. There's just not much depth or meaning to many of these numbers collections.

And why is such a rant relevant to far more than just World Wrestling Entertainment? It's because this war affects all of convergence culture. The fact that the media industry pays little attention to academia except in cases of "troubling reports" through quantitative studies disturbs me. Maybe we should require all journalists to get a degree in sociology before they can report on these studies in the future.

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