What does the news industry need to know about the science related to survivors, the public and news consumption?
General Background. One of the cardinal symptoms of traumatic reactions, and specific symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, is both an avoidance of trauma-related cues and psychological and physiological distress upon exposure to such trauma-related cues.
Clearly, news reports regularly contain such trauma-related cues (sounds, images). This type of exposure to reminders of the event(s) can be extremely distressing to survivors, and many find it quite difficult to calm down after such exposure. This is the basis of the traumatic response that is supported by ample theoretical, clinical and empirical evidence.
Media Exposure and Psychological Symptoms in Trauma Survivors. To date, there is limited scientific data about the effects of terrorism and media exposure upon survivors, although the consensus among clinicians is that survivors should monitor their consumption of trauma-related media and prepare for such exposure with a plan about how to reduce resulting symptoms that may be triggered.
For example, experts suggested that survivors limit viewing of news after September 11, 2001, and many experts currently are suggesting to survivors that they tape anniversary programs so that survivors may regulate their exposure and decide if, when and how to watch these programs later.
Among the few studies conducted, the following scientific evidence is available:
Media Exposure and Psychological Symptoms in Those Not Directly Affected by Terrorism
Media Exposure and Psychological Symptoms in Samples Where Trauma History Was not Assessed ( but likely existed for some proportion of participants)
Other Related Factors
Reminders that occur without warning are particularly troublesome because they contribute to a sense of helplessness, emotional imbalance and lack of control. In the face of these events, opportunities to anticipate and exercise choice and control with regard to exposure to potential triggers can aid them in regaining a sense of agency and control over their lives.
Second, among adults directly affected by terrorism, rates of PTSD and depression were correlated with frequency of viewing specific images of people jumping from the World Trade Center in the immediate months following the events. Among the general public, it appears that viewing such images was not associated with rates of disorder, although, there is data that suggest that temporary anxiety may be associated with viewing such news.
It is important to note, however, that although a relationship between the amount of terrorism-related news consumed (especially viewing broadcast images) and trauma-related distress clearly exists, the direction of causality remains unknown.
Specifically, it is unknown if watching terrorism-related television contributes to PTSD symptoms or if those with PTSD symptoms choose to watch more terrorism-related television. There also is a possibility of a reporting bias (or memory or attention bias) such that those who endorse PTSD symptoms also may endorse more exposure to media-related images.
Advice to Viewers
Children, regardless of relationship to the event, also should be encouraged to watch less terrorism-specific television. In addition, it makes sense to discuss with children their understanding of the events and try to make them feel as safe as possible.
Advice to networks
Efforts to promote a sense of control are complicated by the fact that trauma-related cues can be quite specific to the individual, making it impossible to identify with certainty all reminders that might be emotional triggers for them. However, it is clear that many reminders are so potent or so much a part of a traumatic experience that they are nearly universal in their relevance to survivors.
Graphic imagery and sounds from the crash sites are likely to be of this type for the 9/11 survivors and surviving family members of those killed in the attacks. The viability of selecting universal images is bolstered since this technique has been successfully used in research paradigms studying attention bias and physiological responses among individuals with PTSD who have experienced specific types of trauma (Vietnam veterans, rape, war, etc.).
As noted above, providing victims with some degree of control over an otherwise uncontrollable time in their lives is likely be a tremendous comfort to them and may aid in their healing process. Furthermore, evidence shows that victims and survivors of traumatic events struggle with profound feelings of helplessness. In the face of these events, opportunities to exercise choice and control about triggers can aid them.
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