Many people are unable to resist news coverage of traumatic events, such as disasters and terrorist attacks. As horrific as they are to watch on television and read about in newspapers and magazines, many still find it nearly impossible to turn away. It is difficult to know why the information is so hard to resist. Some say that people are hoping for information because they are fearful of future events and want to be prepared; others say that people are watching and reading in an effort to digest and process the event; still others say the media is intentionally creating seductive and addictive images almost like those seen in an action movie.
Whatever the reason, it is important to understand the effects on the community that this type of exposure may have. Research generally finds an association between watching media coverage of traumatic events and stress symptoms. However, most studies cannot answer the important question of whether watching television of the event makes people worse or if people who have more severe stress reactions are the ones who choose to watch more television coverage of the event.
In a national survey of U.S. adults, three to five days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, people reported watching an average of eight hours of television related to the attacks. Those who watched the most coverage had more substantial stress reactions than those who watched less television coverage (2).
In the same national survey, parents reported that their children watched an average of three hours of television related to the bombing, with older adolescents watching more than younger children. Children who watched the most coverage were reported to have more stress symptoms than those who watched less coverage (1).
Before September 11th, 2001, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 was the most deadly terrorist act perpetrated on US soil. One hundred sixty-eight people were killed, over 700 were injured, and more than 16,000 individuals in the downtown area were affected by the blast. In addition, approximately 12,000 people were involved in the rescue effort in a variety of different contexts. Because of the serious nature of this event, the media covered the bombing extensively.
In a study of 85 adults seeking mental-health services six months after the bombing, the number of hours of bomb-related television watched did not correlate with increased PTSD symptoms (3).
Two-thirds of a large group of Oklahoman school children in grades 6 through 12 reported that, in the seven weeks after the bombing, "most" or "all" of their television viewing was bomb related. Children in this group who watched bomb-related television reported more PTSD symptoms seven weeks after the bombing than children who did not watch as much bomb-related television. This was true for children who lost an immediate family member and for those who did not lose a close family member. However, children who were related to a deceased victim reported more difficulty calming down after watching bomb-related television than children who did not lose a close family member (4-5).
Similar results were found in a sample of over 2,000 middle-school children (grades 6-8) from Oklahoma. Again, approximately two-thirds reported that "most" or "all" of their television viewing was bomb related. Interestingly, television exposure was directly related to PTSD only in children who did not see, hear, or feel the explosion and who did not know anyone who was killed or injured in the explosion. These findings suggest two different possibilities. The first is that watching bomb-related television may contribute to an increase in PTSD symptoms. Alternately, it may be that the children who were the most distressed chose to watch bomb-related television (6).
Two hundred thirty-seven Israeli adults were divided into two groups. One group was exposed to television clips of terrorism and political violence; the other group was exposed to news clips unrelated to national threat. Individuals who watched the terrorism clips reported more anxiety than those who watched clips unrelated to terrorism (7).
In a sample of adults, those who had an intimate friend or relative killed in the Mount St. Helens tragedy reported that the media was a hindrance to their recovery. Adults who suffered property loss reported that the media was neither a help nor a hindrance (8).
Dr. Neal Cohen was New York City's mental health commissioner at the time of the crash of TWA Flight 800 and one of the psychiatrists who provided services to family members. In an article in Psychiatric Services, Dr. Cohen wrote, "The mourners involvement with the media had both positive and negative impacts. Certainly the media helped to allay the feelings of powerlessness that frequently afflict those stricken by a tragedy. However, the presence of reporters and cameras also imposed a heavy burden on family members. The most personal aspects of mourning could too easily become the subject of a television news feature (9, p. 462)." (8).
In a letter to the Medical Journal of Australia (1986) about the effects of trauma-related media on adult trauma victims, psychiatrist Alexander McFarlane wrote, "media exposure following a trauma may reinforce the victims' feelings of vulnerability and fixate their images of death and destruction." Media exposure also "may increase the risk of the development and maintenance of chronic PTSD following a trauma" (10, p. 664).
Sixty-five percent of a small sample of children from Kuwait reported viewing televised images of violence, death, and grotesque mutilation related to the Gulf War. This type of television exposure was associated with increases in PTSD symptoms (11)
Clearly the media plays a critical role in the aftermath of a traumatic event. The media provides needed information, makes announcements, and gives instructions regarding services that are available to victims and their families. They are a resource for the community and can provide a source of hope.
However, too much trauma-related television viewing may have a negative impact, especially on children. Providers should tell patients:
Literature regarding children and television more clearly asserts that too much viewing of disaster-related television could be harmful. Statistics from before September 11(th) tell us that televisions in the average American household are on for more than seven hours a day (12). This doesn't necessarily mean that one person is watching TV for seven hours straight, but, nonetheless, the TV is on. Different people may watch at different times, or the TV may be on as someone is cooking or engaging in some other activity. As such, children in most American households are probably being exposed to images of traumatic events for many hours each day even though no one has made a conscious decision to expose these children to these images.
If parents allow young children to watch the news at all, experts suggest that parents watch the news WITH their children and talk about what they are seeing. For example, if parents allowed their children to watch coverage of the September 11(th) attacks, children may have needed it explained to them that despite seeing the plane crash into the building over and over again, this was a single incident on one day. Also, parents can help their children put the news into context by explaining that:
Unfortunately, it is true that most reported news is bad news. We don't hear about the plane that landed safely or the car that made it to and from its destination without incident. Children need to be reminded that what they see on the news does not represent the way things are everywhere.
Most importantly, parents need to allow and even encourage children to ask questions. Children may have irrational fears after watching a news report because they misunderstand something. If they share those fears or ask clarifying questions, parents can help alleviate their anxiety. Parents can tell the child that a lot of people are working hard to make the situation safer for the future. If a child seems to be watching too much news coverage of a traumatic event, the parent can redirect the child's attention to other more productive and positive activities.