of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill1, Donald Allen Novian,
Tracie L. Holmes, University of Texas at San Antonio
Tom. L. Smith, University of California, San Diego
& VA Health Care Center
Online Publication Date: January 07, 2009
Journal of Media Psychology, V 14, No. 1, Winter, 2009
Keywords: Media, Emotions, Stress, Coping, 9/11
Abstract Few events have received the extensive television news coverage that was devoted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, commonly known as “9/11.” The current study assessed television exposure and attention, and emotional responses to this coverage in a population geographically removed from the attacks. The results indicate that greater levels of exposure and attention were related to increased distress, but that emotional response types shifted in significant ways over the week, with gender, but not ethnicity, predictive of such changes. People also engaged in active coping strategies including distraction, decreased viewing, and changes in social support seeking. These results suggest that emotional responses to news coverage of negative events do not happen in a vacuum, but are instead linked to deliberate viewing and coping choices, and are influenced by the personal characteristics of those involved. In an increasingly mediated world, effective coping and stress management are dependent upon a better understanding of these relationships.
Technological advances made during the twentieth century have resulted in significant increases in the immediacy and graphic nature of television coverage of current events. This is particularly apparent during moments of crisis or conflict. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, provide a perfect example. Live coverage of the attacks began immediately and preempted all other programming on most major television channel for days afterwards. Subsequent coverage involved repeated review of the events, speculation about their causes, and implications for future such attacks (Marshall, Bryan, Amsel, Suh, Cook, & Nerisa, 2007). While the gravity of the events merited extensive coverage, the stress engendered in viewers by such coverage is a novel bi-product of modern western cultures and has not been studied extensively.
The first disaster which had worldwide impact was the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatau in 1883, largely because a worldwide telegraphic network had just been installed. During the first half of the twentieth century media coverage of disasters, violence and wars was done primarily through delayed reports via radio and newsprint, with occasional newsreels, all of which were heavily censored. While radio broadcasts by reporters such as Edward R. Murrow, were conducted during World War II, and newsreel footage was available, such sources were still less vivid than live, real time television images. One exception was the first disaster ever broadcast live, that of the 1937 Hindenberg zeppelin dirigible explosion at Lakehurst, New Jersey, because the Hindenberg landing was being described by a radio announcer when it burst into flames. The strength of real time coverage of events can also be illustrated by the 1938 performance of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel, “War of the Worlds” on radio, which caused widespread panic until people were told that it was a fictional story. Clearly unprecedented technological and social changes in the latter half of the century drastically altered the ways in which local, national, and world events are covered and made available to news consumers.
During the Vietnam War (1959-1975) people became accustomed to television coverage of both military and civilian suffering, but by the first Gulf War (1990-1991), major conflicts were being covered in live time, both on the major networks, and on all news channels, the most prominent example being CNN (Cable New Network). Numerous studies indicate that the advent of 24-hour live coverage, in conjunction with increasingly competitive economic forces, greatly increased the availability, sensationalism, and ubiquitous nature of news coverage of such negative or disturbing events (Coleman, 1993; Shenk, 1997; Hickey, 1998). Seeing these types of live events as they unfold, including the actual deaths of victims, in your living room lends an urgency and personal involvement to events that in the past was reserved for participants in the crisis. While it might seem intuitively likely that exposure to such news would necessarily be linked to stress, significant attention has only been focused on these sorts of mediated experiences since the 1995 domestic terror bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
This is somewhat surprising given that television has long been regarded as a socializing agent which can cause fear, alienation, and mistrust in heavy viewers (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1986; Hawkins & Pingree, 1981; Rubin, Perse, & Taylor, 1988; Potter, 1993). However, early stress researchers tended to focus only on those stressors that affected a person directly (Safran, 1993), that caused a major disruption in an individual’s daily life or function (Brown & Harris, 1989), or that impacted individuals who were already experiencing mental health issues (Safran, 1992). This oversight is surprising in light of experimental evidence suggesting that television viewing in general can provoke temporary changes in mood or affect (Philippot, 1993; Gerrards-Hesse, Spies, & Hesse,1994), and that pictorial images can elicit the same psychological and physiological effects as actual exposure to certain stimuli (Bower, 1983; Newhagen,1998).
News-specific studies suggest that news bulletins edited to display negative material increased both anxiety and sad mood in viewers, who were also more likely to catastrophize personal worries after the viewing than those shown clips edited to display positive material (Johnston & Davey, 1997). Other studies suggest that cognitive, emotional, and personality factors also moderate the relationships between news media exposure and stress responses. For example, one study of levels of news media exposure, stress levels, irrational beliefs, optimism-pessimism, anxiety, and depression suggested that news media exposure and anxiety were positively related in those with low levels of irrationality and that news media exposure was associated with trait anxiety in those with low levels of optimism (McNaughton-Cassill, 2001). A related study suggested that general television exposure was predictive of negative ratings of problems nationwide, but not of problems in the respondents’ own communities, while attention paid to the television news was related to the perception that problem levels were high at both the national and community level (McNaughton-Cassill & Smith, 2002). Depression, irrational beliefs, and anger arousal were also related to ratings of problems in the nation in general, while anger arousal and lack of optimism were predictive of ratings of problems in respondents’ own communities. In other studies depression was shown to be related to coverage of negative news events such as the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War (Hobfoll, Bridges, Lomranz, Eyal, & Tzemach (1989), and the Gulf War (Lomranz, Hobfoll, Johnson, Eyal, & Zemach, 1994).
Studies conducted after the Oklahoma City Bombing indicated that media exposure to this event resulted in posttraumatic stress symptoms in adolescents, children, and teachers, who did not have direct contact with the bombing or its victims (Pfefferbaum et al, 2002; Maynard, Meierhooefer, & Miller, 2000) ). The sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 also resulted in public outpourings of emotion: behavioral responses such as the leaving of flowers and markers at significant sites, and increased distress about her death in those women who were exposed to high levels of coverage of the event and engaged in counterfactual thinking about the circumstances of the accident, but had no personal relationship with the woman (Pillow & McNaughton-Cassill, 2001).
The scope of these tragedies pales however, in comparison to the wholesale destruction, loss of life, and disruption of the economic and transportation functions of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and an entire nation which watched nonstop live television coverage. The news media response to these attacks was rapid and extensive. Television channels became all-news channels, and second-by-second chronologies of events were produced within a week of the event (Lasora, 2003). A random telephone survey conducted within days of the attacks suggested that 44% of adults reported one or more substantial symptoms of stress and that 90% had reported some evidence of stress (Schuster et. al. 2001).
A study of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in relation to the attacks suggested that rates of PTSD were significantly higher in New York City than anywhere else in the country, but that nationally the number of hours of television coverage viewed was associated with stress as measured by a broad stress index (Schlenger et al., 2002). This study did not however, take into account the amount of attention devoted to television coverage, which has been shown to interact with affective evaluations of television content (Joslyn, & Ceccoli, 1996). In addition, it did not assess prior history of PTSD or anxiety. Another study conducted in New York suggested that the interaction of being directly affected by the attacks, and television viewing frequency resulted in PTSD and depression, but that television viewing alone did not contribute to the development of these disorders (Ahern, Galea, Resnick, Kilpatrick, Bucuvalas, Gold, & Vlahov, 2002). Subsequent studies have determined that the experience of a variety of past stressful life events or depression increased the use of mental health services in the New York area (Boscarino, Galea, Adams, Ahern, Resnick, & Vlahov, 2004), triggered PTSD in people who had previously experienced trauma ( Ai, Santangelo, & Cascio, 2006), increased asthma severity and urgent health care utilization (Fagan, Galea, Ahern, Bonner, & Vlahov, 2003) and stress in a hospital inpatient population (Stout & Faroque, 2003.) Studies of trauma in general support the argument that subjective experiences are predictive of the development of PTSD independently of objective exposure to the event (Creamer, McFarlane, & Burgess (2005). Findings of this nature have led several reviewers to call for further study of these relationships and the role of television in exposure to stressful events (Safran, 1993; 2002; Marshall, & Galea, 2004; North & Pfefferbaum, 2004; Putnam, 2002.)
Individual factors such as gender and ethnicity are also of interest in the study of news media exposure and stress. Recent studies suggest that gender is predictive of responses to stress such as anger, fear impact, and risk judgments, with males reporting less pessimistic risk estimates than females (Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003) and college student women reporting greater distress following 9/11 (Wayment, 2004 ). In terms of ethnicity, research in this area has tended to focus ethnicity-related sources of stress (Contrada et al., 2000) and on the stress related to the portrayal of minorities in the media (Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). Less study has been devoted to whether emotional responses to negative news events vary as a function to ethnicity and what has been done is contradictory. For example, Adams & Boscarino (2005) found little difference in depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms between Latinos, African Americans and Whites after 9/11. Torabi & Seo (2004), however, demonstrated that African Americans were more likely than members of other ethnic groups to limit activities outside the home, to change their modes of transportation to avoid danger, and to talk less to others about terrorism in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Clearly understanding how ethnicity interacts with emotional responses to news media coverage of negative events would help in the understanding of such contradictory data.
RATIONALE AND HYPOTHESES
It is the premise of this paper that a greater understanding of the effects of media coverage of devastating events on mental health is crucial in a society that is becoming ever more connected electronically to events outside a person’s immediate experience. However, since media viewing does not occur in a vacuum, factors which have previously been shown to have an impact on responses to media including, gender, ethnicity and amount of viewing and listening time are considered. Emotional responses including anxiety, depression, and anger were assessed, as well as the impact of the event itself on viewers, and how they interacted with others about the events. The following hypotheses were proposed.
1) Television media viewers in a state geographically removed from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would report high levels of exposure and attention to coverage of the attacks immediately after the event, but that this viewing would decrease over the week following the event as people became saturated with information about the event and returned to their daily routines.
2) The more media exposure and attention people reported in response to the 9/11 attacks the greater their reported stress and ratings of the impact of the event was expected to be.
3) High levels of trait anxiety would be correlated with both increased media viewing and elevated levels of emotional distress.
4) People would attempt to cope with the stress of the events by spending less time watching coverage, by distracting themselves, and/or by seeking social support as the week progressed.
5) People's predominant responses to media coverage of the terrorist event would change over the course of the week.
6) Women would exhibit greater depression and anxiety in response to news media than men.
7) The possibility that Hispanics and Caucasians would differ in their responses to news media coverage of 9/11 would be explored. METHODS
The 392 participants in this study were recruited in a Texas University community in the two weeks following the 9/11 attacks (age range 14-74, 254 female, 138 male, 184 Caucasian, 170 Hispanic, 12 Asian, 12 African-American; 14 unspecified). The sample included students, staff, and faculty, as well as a small group of adolescents polled by distributing questionnaires to the children and young friends of the researchers and other faculty members. Only three of the subjects reported knowing someone directly affected by the attacks. Within 2 weeks of the attacks all participants completed a survey regarding their news media exposure and the attention they paid to such coverage on the day of the attack and the following 5 days, the emotions they experienced in regard to the coverage, their current stress levels, the impact of the event in general on them, and their levels of trait anxiety. All data were handled confidentially, and subjects were fully informed about the study and their right to refuse to answer questions or to discontinue the study at any time.
Information regarding participants’ age, gender, marital status, and ethnicity was collected.
Media viewing was assessed using a questionnaire modeled on the work of Pfau et al. (1998). Participants rated the exposure they paid to television coverage of the event using a 5-point scale ranging in 2-hour increments from 2 hours or less to over 8 hours. Attention was rated on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 representing very little attention, and 5, total attention. Subjects were asked to complete these measures for the day of the attacks and the following five days.
Individuals were also asked to indicate whether or not they had deliberately stopped watching disturbing coverage, whether they had deliberately distracted themselves to avoid the topic, and how much they had conversed with others about the event to cope using a 5 point scale ranging from very little to an extreme amount.
Predominant emotion by day
Subjects were asked to select their predominant emotion for each day from a list including shock, fear, helplessness, depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, and an open other category. In order to explore the relationships among these variables 3 clusters of emotional responses, anger, anxiety, and depression, were created. The grouping of these emotions was based on the content of the questions, and parallels basic emotional research indicating that these 3 particular emotions are associated with specific types of appraisal of stressful events and risk (Lerner & Keltner, 2001; Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003; Fischhoff, Gonzalez, Lerner, & Small, 2005; Small, Lerner, & Fischhoff, 2006.)
The first of our variables, entitled MAD, was used to describe anger and was made up of anger and shock responses. The second, called BAD to reflect anxiety, was made up of anxiety and fear responses. Finally, SAD was created to represent sadness, by including helplessness, guilt, and depression items.
The Index of Clinical Stress (Abell, 1991) was used to measure subjective stress. This 25 item scale has high internal consistency. The Cronbach Alpha for this study sample was .94.
Impact of Event
Participants were asked to complete the 15-item Impact of Events Scale (Horowitz, Wilner, & Alvarez, 1979) with the terrorist events of 9/11 specifically in mind. This measure assesses intrusive experiences including ideas, feelings, and dreams as well as avoidance of reminders of the event and is believed to have good internal consistency. The Cronbach Alpha (Cronbach, 1956) in the current study sample was .84.
Trait anxiety was assessed using the Speilberger State/Trait Anxiety Inventory (Speilberger, 1983). This well-researched scale consists of a self-report scale that measures trait anxiety. Item 8 was inadvertently omitted from the questionnaire rushed to participants, so trait anxiety means may be slightly lower than published norms. However the Cronbach Alpha of .80 was within the acceptable range for good reliability.
As predicted in Hypothesis 1, television viewing was high on day one, and dropped over the following week. Eighty-four percent of participants watched 3 or more hours of television on the day of the attacks, with 21% of those surveyed reporting greater than 8 hours of viewing. However, on the Sunday after the attacks, only 20% of people watched more than 3 hours of coverage, and only .8% of those watched more than 8 hours. See Table 1. A repeated measures Anova across the 6 days surveyed demonstrated that this drop in television viewing was significant (F(5, 1930)=153.48, p<.01, eta2=.47), as was the drop in attention paid to what was viewed (F(5, 1930)=215.90, p<.01 eta2=.36)
Means and Standard Deviations for Television Exposure and Attention by Day
ExposureAttention Day Mean Standard Deviation Mean Standard Deviation
Note: 9/11 occurred on Tuesday, data in this study were collected through the following weekend. Ratings were made on 5-point scales ( Exposure: 1= 2 hours or less, 5= greater than 8 hours; Attention:1= very little, 5=total)
Greater levels of exposure to news media coverage of the events of 9/11 were modestly but significantly correlated with increased reports of stress (r= .21. p<.01) and of strong emotional responses to the impact of the event (r=.21, p<.01), as predicted in Hypothesis 2. Likewise, higher levels of attention were significantly correlated with stress (r=.13, p<.01) and with the impact of the events (r=.25, p<.01). Trait anxiety was predicted to be associated with television exposure and attention, and distress in Hypothesis 3. The results indicate that trait anxiety was modestly but significantly related to levels of exposure (r=.11, p<.01), higher stress (r=.40, p<.01), and increased event impact (r=.17, p<.01), but not to levels of attention paid to the media. See Table 2.
Correlations between Exposure and Attention to Television Coverage of 9/11, Clinical Stress, the Impact of Events, and Trait Anxiety
In regard to Hypothesis 4, Cochran’s Nonparametric tests suggest that the viewers deliberately spent less time watching coverage of the events of 9/11 as the week went on (Cochran’s Q(5)=17.68, p<.01), and more time distracting themselves from coverage (Cochran’s Q (5)=24.2, p<.05). Emotional support derived from talking and emailing others about the event dropped over the week as well (F (5, 1875)=76.3, p<.01 eta2=.17).
In order to evaluate Hypothesis 5 that predicted that emotional response would vary across the week within individuals, Cochran’s comparisons of the percentages of people reporting their predominant emotion on each day of the week suggested that shock was a common emotion on the first day, but diminished significantly over the week (Cochran’s Q(5)= 736.33, p < .01). Reports of fear decreased significantly as well (Cochran’s Q(5) =13.68, p<.01). Helplessness was high on the first day, and then dropped across the week (Cochran’s Q (5) =40.03, p<.01) while depression climbed significantly over the week (Cochran’s Q (5) = 14.68, p<.01). Reports of guilt did not change significantly over the week (Cochran’s Q (5) =2.83, p<.73). The change in anger across the week was significant (Cochrane’s Q (5) =24.07, p<.01).
Comparisons of changes in membership between our three emotional groups indicated that 72% of participants fell into the MAD category on the day of the attacks. However, these percentages changed over the week, with only 31% of participants falling in this category by the end of the week. At that point 24% fell into the BAD or anxious category, and 19% into the SAD, or depressed category. The remainder classified themselves as Other either at the beginning or the end of the week, and so were not included in these analyses. See Table 3.
Percentages of Participants by Emotion on Tuesday 9/11 and 6 days later (Sunday) Emotion Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
BAD 11.6% 17.2% 20.5% 21.6% 22.3% 24% Note. The remainder of the participants fell into the “other” category and were not included in this analysis.
A series of ANOVAs were conducted to evaluate the relationships between gender, ethnicity, and television viewing and our emotional change groups in order to determine whether women and Hispanics were more emotionally distressed by viewing coverage of the events of 9/11 as predicted in Hypothesis 6. The results in regard to television viewing indicated that there was a significant interaction of gender and change in emotional group for both exposure (F(1, 265)=3.364, p<.05), and attention (F(1, 265)=3.19, p<.02). An evaluation of the means in both cases suggested that women were more likely than men to become depressed (SAD) by the end of the week, while men were more likely to become anxious (BAD).
When comparisons were made between our two largest ethnic groups, Caucasians and Hispanics, in regard to television exposure, there was no significant effect for ethnicity or the interaction of ethnicity and change group. However, there was a main effect for emotional change overall (F(1, 236)=.021, p<.05), which suggested that a change from MAD to SAD was most common. For television attention there were no significant main effects for ethnicity or emotional group, and there was no interaction. Gender, ethnicity, and emotional change were also evaluated in relation to television exposure within an ANOVA. However, only the gender by emotional change interaction was significant (F(1,236 )=12.97, P<.05), with females again being more likely to become SAD over the week than males.
The results of this study support our initial hypotheses, and corroborate the findings of other studies (Schlenger et al., 2002), by indicating that the majority of respondents from a state geographically removed from New York City were exposed to significant amounts of television coverage of the events of September 11, 2001 in the first few days following the attacks. As might be expected, this exposure dropped off over the week following the attacks. Data regarding attention paid to this coverage indicate a similar pattern as viewing dropped off over the week. While this drop is presumably linked to a return to daily activity, and a decrease in new information available through the media, it is also consistent with the idea that at least some participants made a conscious choice to limit repeated coverage of the stressful events.
The fact that people in this study reported deliberately moderating their viewing of stressful coverage by limiting what they watched or distracting themselves supports the idea that media viewing is an active process that does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is a choice made by individuals (McNaughton-Cassill, 2001). This finding is also consistent with data indicating that two months after 9/11, approximately 25% of one research sample reported actively avoiding reminders of the events (Silver, Holman, McIntosh, Poulin, & Gil-Rivas, 2002). Respondents in the current study also reported that as the week wore on they decreased their efforts to communicate with others about the event. While this might appear counter intuitive based on studies of other communities in crisis where social support seemed to mitigate event related emotional distress (Kaniasty, & Norris, 2004), the key difference may be whether responders were actively involved in the crisis, or bystanders whose involvement in the crisis was literally media driven. Decreasing conversations regarding a negative event that has not directly impacted your own life may actually represent a strategy for minimizing reminders and/or for avoiding ineffectual “venting,” both of which have been suggested as possible effective approaches to emotion focused coping (Maguen, Papa, & Litz, 2008).
As predicted, there was also a relationship between greater media exposure and psychological distress about the disaster. Both exposure to the media, and attention paid to this coverage in the first few days, were related to the strength of the impact of the event on individuals, and to reports of symptoms of clinical stress. While it is not possible in this study to definitively determine whether media viewing is the cause, or result, of such stress responses, the findings do suggest that television viewing and emotional responses to distant, tragic events are linked, and conceivably influence each other.
Trait anxiety was related to news media exposure, but it is not clear whether such anxiety is the cause or result of such viewing. It is possible that high levels of trait anxiety influence self-reported recall of responses to stressful events. Future longitudinal studies, particularly those including the measure of state anxiety, might be able to better elucidate this relationship.
Clearly, simply assessing the total amount of exposure a person has to a media event does not adequately explain its impact on their emotional state. Variables that were not assessed in this study including the individual’s appraisal of the meaning of the event as explicated by Terror Management Theory (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003), appraisals of perceived life threat (Ozer et al., 2003) and coping ability and preferences (Gil & Caspi, 2006; Zeidner, 2005) are also likely to impact choices regarding amount of media exposure, approaches towards social support, and subsequent emotional state. Future studies would do well to assess how emotions and attitudes influence the process of regulating exposure to media coverage of stressful events. It is possible that individuals with high threat perceptions and high levels of perceived control selectively increase their viewing in an effort to increase their sense that they are coping with the situation, while others with different combinations of threat perception and coping options choose to avoid such information, much the way people show variable approaches to stressful medical information according to the health locus of control literature (Wallston, Maides, & Wallston, 1976). Such factors might also account for findings such as those of Rubin, Brewin, Greenberg, Simpson, & Wessely (2008) following the bombings in London on July 7, 2005 indicating that only 31% of Londoners reported substantial stress following the event, and 32% an intention to travel less, despite widespread media coverage of the events.
Our results also clearly indicate that emotional responses varied across the week. As might be expected, people were initially shocked and angry about the attacks. However, this emotional consistency did not persist throughout the week. Significant numbers of participants became SAD, or depressed, while others switched to feeling BAD, or anxious by the final time sample. Women were most likely to become SAD, which is consistent with the demographic distribution of depression in the population (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990). Although it’s possible that this is simply a function of the tendency of women to admit to feeling depressed, it may also be that there is a gender based difference in sensitivity to stressful events, which can be triggered by media viewing of stressful events.
This finding also ties in well with research suggesting that women developed posttraumatic stress disorder in relation to the events of 9/11 at a higher rate than did men (Pulcino, Galea, Ahern, Resnick, Foley, & Vlahov, 2003) and supports the research of Richman,Wislar, Flaherty, Fendrich, & Rospenda (2004) that indicated that women who were experiencing work place stress were more likely to report increased anxiety and alcohol consumption after 9/11 than were men. Interestingly, measures of guilt did not change across the week. This is a useful observation in that it indicates that people did not simply report all of their emotions in a uniform or systematic way, but actually distinguished between their experience of different emotions across time. Consequently, this measure of guilt serves as an anchor to substantiate the argument that self-reports of changes in emotional experiences over the week following the attacks were not uniform.
Given the paucity of data on emotional responses to news media exposure as a function of ethnicity, we viewed this aspect of the current study as exploratory, and in fact did not find any significant main effects or interactions among ethnicity, emotional responsivity, and news media viewing. This may, in part, be due to the fact that the participants were drawn from among students, staff, and faculty at a University and so may be more acculturated than participants with less exposure to mainstream cultural ideas and language. It has long been known that ethnicity specific stress can affect both people's experience of stress, and how they cope. (Enrique et al. 2004; Contrada et al 2000;Hobfoll, 2004). However, research regarding the role of ethnicity in response to disasters is still relatively new, and contradictory. For example, Torabi & Seo (2004) found that after 9/11 African Americans made more safety related behavioral changes than did Caucasians, while Adams and Boscarino (2005) found no differences in mental or physical health among African American, Hispanic and Caucasians living in New York after the terrorist attacks. Although there is a robust literature regarding the ways in which minority members are portrayed on television (Mastro and Greenberg, 2000) and on the responses of minority viewers to minority related coverage (Fujioka,2005; Albert, & Jacobs, 2008), less is known about the influence of ethnicity on responses to media coverage of negative news events such as disasters, which impact a wide variety of people. Future studies would do well to assess whether news media exposure does impact people differently as a function of ethnicity in certain contexts, or if, in fact, whether the overall findings of the study would change if the range of participants varied. Clearly further research needs to be done regarding the influence of ethnicity and culture on stress responses to disasters.
Although it must be acknowledged that the data collected in this study were retrospective, the fact that participants were able to distinguish their viewing and their emotional responses in differential ways across the time period suggests that they did not simply deliver standard responses across the survey. The strength of the observed emotional responses to the media coverage of the events of 9/11 bolsters the concept that the line between real life experiences and mediated ones is breaking down (deZengotita, 2005). People who are far from the scene of a tragedy are now being exposed to visual and auditory presentations of the event which make it hard to maintain emotional distance or objectivity, although participants clearly reported making efforts to consciously manage their exposure through viewing choices, distraction, and limiting their conversations about the event.
Evidence for resilience in the face of major disasters (Bonanno, Galea, Bucciarelli, & Vlahov, 2006), also suggests that understanding the links between media exposure to stressful events and emotional distress could reveal factors which promote positive coping. On a societal level, understanding people’s responses to news media coverage of stressful events is crucial as recent data suggests that media-induced emotions can influence appraisals and decisions regarding public policies (Lerner, 2003), and that government and media responses in turn amplify emotions, such as anxiety, among the public (Ahern, Galea, Resnick, & Blahov, 2004.)
On an individual level, we need to understand these links in order to effectively predict who might be at risk for adverse responses to particular types of news media stress, and to develop coping strategies and stress management techniques to help them deal with this technologically driven aspect of modern life. Teaching people to watch media in objective ways and to critically evaluate what they see in terms of content, source, and reliability could also improve their ability to cope with negative news coverage. Such training could be particularly important in regard to disaster coverage as research suggests that media exposure to traumatic public events can lead to an increase in memory distortions for viewed material (Ost, Grana, Udell, & Roos af Hjelmaster, E. (2008), which could result in inappropriate or exaggerated emotional responses. Ironically, we currently spend far more time teaching people to critically evaluate literature and film than on how to think about the news and marketing they see on a daily basis.
On a media level, much remains to be learned about how best to structure news coverage in ways that viewers find useful, and not just sensational. One possibility would be a greater emphasis on presenting information in context (historical, statistical, likelihoods, etc), instead of in absolute or emotional terms. For example, media reports of damage or death due to wildfires often imply that the severity of fire damage is increasing exponentially, when in fact rising levels of damage largely reflect increases in the number of people settling and living in wildfire risk areas (Schwab & Meck, 2007 ).
However, even better explanations of risk statistics may not be enough to alter a viewer’s responses to disaster coverage (Bond, 2008). Research on risk assessment suggests that people tend to give priority to strong feelings when making judgments about risk, despite evidence supporting less emotional, more rational choices (Slovic, Peters, Finucane, & MacGregor, 2005; Wilson & Arvai, 2006). Given the pressures on the media to draw viewer attention and advertising, it is unlikely that we will see media outlets voluntarily reducing their efforts to capture viewer attention through graphic, emotional, sensational stories and images. A greater emphasis on the impact of such coverage in the social sector coupled with an increased understanding of the viewing process does have the potential to mitigate some of the stress of living in an increasingly mediated modern world.
Correspondence should be addressed to:
Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D.
One UTSA Circle
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas 78249
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