Study shows ties between traumatic media coverage & acute stress

A study conducted by the University of California Irvine looks at how media coverage of traumatic events can affect people’s mental health.

The findings, published this week, suggest that repeatedly consuming traumatic news can cause acute stress. Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings, the 4,675 adults who participated in the study were exposed to bombing-related media via print, radio, social media and television. With each additional hour they were exposed to it, their acute stress symptoms increased, even though they hadn’t experienced the bombings first-hand. Symptoms included feeling anxious, feeling detached from a traumatic event or avoiding reminders of it, and experiencing intrusive thoughts.

Those who consumed six or more hours of bombing media coverage each day were nine times more likely to experience high acute stress than those who consumed less than an hour of it each day, the study found.

Six hours seems like a lot, but not when you consider how many people have the TV or radio on for extended periods of time, or keep Twitter and Facebook open on their computers throughout the day. On social media, the news people consume can be painfully raw; it’s easy to stumble across graphic images that bystanders post — images that news organizations might not otherwise publish.

UC Irvine’s E. Alison Holman, the study’s lead author, shared her reaction to the findings:

“We suspect that there’s something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds that keeps traumatic events alive and can prolong the stress response in vulnerable people,” she said in a release. “There is mounting evidence that live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and encourage fear conditioning. If repeatedly viewing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and promotes rumination, there could be serious health consequences.”

Holman’s co-author on the study, UC Irvine professor Roxane Cohen Silver, said that in their previous work they found “repeated exposure to violent images from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the Iraq War may have led to an increase in physical and psychological ailments up to three years .”

Journalists have an obligation to share news about tragedies like the Boston bombings and the Newtown school shooting. But repeatedly telling the horrific “what happened” stories can do more harm than good. There’s value in reporting follow-up stories that focus less on the tragedy itself and more on the healing process — by looking at how communities are banding together, how individuals are struggling but learning to cope, and how they’re remembering loved ones they lost. Stories, videos and photographs that convey healing can help balance out the stories that convey trauma and that subsequently generate stress.

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