Repeated exposure to media coverage of collective traumas, such as mass shootings or natural disasters, can fuel a cycle of distress, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that individuals can become more emotionally responsive to news reports of subsequent incidents, resulting in heightened anxiety and worry about future occurrences.
“It’s natural for people to experience feelings of concern and uncertainty when a terrorist attack or a devastating hurricane occurs,” said senior author Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver, a UCI professor of psychological science.
“Media coverage of these events, fueled by the 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of mobile technologies, is often repetitious and can contain graphic images, video, and sensationalized stories, extending the impact to populations beyond those directly involved.”
Earlier research has shown that turning to media coverage of a collective trauma is a rational response for individuals seeking information as a way to mitigate their apprehension and cope with their stress, researchers note. However, this strategy may backfire.
According to the new study, repeated exposure to explicit content may exacerbate fear about future occurrences, which promotes future media consumption and greater anxiety when they do occur. There is an even greater risk of falling into this pattern for those who have experienced violence in their lives or have been diagnosed with mental health ailments, according to the researchers.
“The cycle of media exposure and distress appears to have downstream implications for public health as well,” said Dr. Rebecca R. Thompson, a UCI postdoctoral scholar in psychological science and lead author of the report. “Repeated exposure to news coverage of collective traumas has been linked to poor mental health consequences, such as flashbacks in the immediate aftermath and post-traumatic stress responses and physical health problems over time, even among individuals who did not directly experience the event.”
The national study of more than 4,000 U.S. residents was conducted by the researchers over a three-year period following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Participants were surveyed four times, which allowed the researchers to capture responses to both tragedies and examine how responses to the first incident affected reactions to news coverage of the second.
“Our findings suggest that media organizations should seek to balance the sensationalistic aspects of their coverage, such as providing more informational accounts as opposed to lengthy descriptions of carnage, as they work to inform the public about breaking news events,” Silver said.
“This may lessen the impact of exposure to one event, reducing the likelihood of increased worry and media-seeking behavior for subsequent events.”
The study was published in Science Advances.
Source: University of California, Irvine
Video: Media exposure to mass violence events can fuel a cycle of distress, repeated media consumption and subsequent distress. Credit: Narration by Rebecca R. Thompson, Ph.D.; Artwork by Sofya Ogunseitan.