International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Media Matters

Posted 1 July 2001 in StressPoints by Terry Clark, Contributing Editor, Media

"The media are absolutely essential to healing," says an Oklahoma psychologist about his work with victims of trauma.

"I like working with the media because it gives me a wider circle of influence since I can reach people who may well never set foot in a psychologist's office," says Stewart R. Beasley Jr., PhD, of Edmond, Oklahoma.

Beasley, a clinician for approximately 15 years, has worked with many victims of trauma, PTSD and depression in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, tornadoes and job layoffs, as well as people affected by rape, automobile accidents, teen suicides and murder.

One-half to three-fourths of his practice has involved trauma victims, although the number of patients tapers off as time intervenes. He still is counseling a couple of people for PTSD six years after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

Beasley agrees that such coverage can "revictimize" victims, depending on how news is handled. He thinks it is especially true on anniversaries of traumatic events.

"Many people wonder, 'Why won't they let it go?'" he says, but he doesn't think it is one-sided. He believes that people in the media report what they think others are interested in, and somewhere in the middle lies a "good story" mentality. He knows of patients who refuse to watch any such rehashes, as opposed to those who are "glued" to the media, keeping scrapbooks as they thrive on the coverage. While some early coverage can be therapeutic, he says, the excesses are not.

He would advise the media to try to cover traumatic anniversaries from a distance, rather than up close. Media should focus on the healing taking place - on "how we're moving on. We don't need to stir up emotions."

Beasley makes a distinction between visual media and print and radio coverage that he says is important to clinicians. "Visual media coverage of such events is designed to bring emotional reactions," he says, which doesn't necessarily help PTSD victims. But print media and, to a lesser extent, radio are more objective, more "factual," he emphasizes -offering a more level presentation.

Beasley's tips for dealing with the media come from his assistance in debriefing and counseling two television station news staffs after the Oklahoma City bombing, and he has had calls from CNN as well as other contacts.

First, he says to the media, "Keep it short; keep it factual and only say what you can support." He also advises to be prepared to "give up control, because you will." Beasley reminds members of the media that they can't demand to see articles or video segments ahead of time. They will be used out of sequence, as partial quotes, sometimes out of context, because of the nature of the media business, where space and time are premium and style and structure standards set demands. For instance, Beasley's quotes at the top of this article were said well into the interview, but because they summarized the direction of the article and would grab attention, they were placed first, before any other quotes.

"What you say will be around a long time," Beasley warns, having found something recently on the Internet that he said in an interview in 1989. "Remember, if people see it in print, they assume it's factual," he says.

But he's convinced of the need for clinicians to have access to the media. He was first quoted in print when, as a college professor, he gave advice about depression that many experience during the holidays. People who do not seek help find assistance in the media. "It gives credibility to their problems and they can see that there is hope," Beasley says.

"The community press printing the news helps address the issues - it has a way of taking the pressure down, and it is an outlet for people to heal, in reading and in letters to the editors," he says. He doesn't believe so much that the press sets an agenda for a community but more that it reflects what is happening. He does believe the press has a huge power in affecting how a community feels and acts - angry or conciliatory.

Beasley says that the press gives citizens a feeling of what's really going on in a community, rather than a vague personal feeling or relying on rumors.

There also is evidence, based on the Oklahoma City bombing and other disasters, that the media are essential in assuring trauma victims that a normal world still exists out there, that help is available, that the victims are worthwhile and not alone, rebuilding a sense of community and humanity - keys to healing. Beasley sees more and more evidence that the media are being used to help others and are trying to use clinicians to be effective.