Mal de Media - Part 3, Solutions



It was April 30, 1992. Los Angeles was ground zero. The acquittal of the police who were video-taped beating Rodney King was more than 30 hours old and the answer from angered citizens was spreading throughout the city. Fire, gun shots, looting, and "burn down the city" threats were popping from the mouths and graphics of the news rooms. In the Hollywood Hills I was in my living room, sitting for hours, glued with pupil-dilated attention to the television as it brought a gunfire-riddled street scene into my home. I saw my city on fire.

Sitting in front of the screen or pacing around the floor in front of it, I felt vulnerable and threatened. The more I watched, the more upset I became. Neighbors called, sharing their alarm. Media-repeated words and images ricocheted off walls of consciousness. My blood pressure rose. My temples pounded. Warnings were issued by city authorities. The dangers of leaving home were itemized like a way-to-die cheat sheet. And as the hours smashed ahead, it just kept getting worse.

Rumors of rioters driving into the canyon where I lived were already rampant and warnings, even alleged sightings of arsonists seen driving into the dry canyon woods, were virally spread with grim-voiced certainty. As the rampage grew in its sprawl and eye-witness reports piled up in my brain, I found myself circling a Defcon 4 anxiety attack. My mind moved to the nearby closet where my Colt 45 and my 22 caliber rifle were stored. It was only a matter of time. My fatalistic thoughts jolted my head back. I froze and just stared into the TV screen. It seemed like hours but it was only seconds.

Suddenly I saw the screen as foe, not friend. I lurched forward and tore myself away from the television, hurtled past the closet, into the outside... and journeyed through the looking glass.

I stopped on the deck and scanned the environment of sound and sights. The noisy, panicked voices in my head suddenly stopped. There were no sounds of gunfire, no fires, no looting -- nothing but the sounds of quiet.

As if on signal, all the tension drained out of me. Yet, nothing had actually changed in the world. I was just looking at and listening to a different part of it. At that moment, I understood the power of the visual image, especially the repeated visual image, as I had never understood it before. Television had brought the riots and my mind started its own riot of fantasy and prophecy.

This is an anecdote of a more general phenomenon of people's reactions to crises, man-made or mind-made, natural or unnatural. Research into media effects speaks clearly on this subject: As anxiety elevates, as perceived consequences heighten, the more people turn to the media during a crisis, during a threat to their existence or to their world as taken for granted, the more they want to watch; the more they feel the need to watch, the higher the need to get more and more information about what threatens.

TV watchers, radio listeners or Internet dwellers don't realize they are getting more nervous as they consume ever more media information, information which is often repetitious rather than illuminating, regardless of graphics which promise "breaking news" or "updates." In reaction, media-users immerse further in order to calm themselves, anxiety elevates, and the cycle continues. Yet, it is not simply that stress triggers stress-related physiological reactions but also that stress engages cognitive flights of "what if..." self-stimulation which further exacerbates physiological reactions and pushes nightmare scenarios onto the mind's center stage. Worry begets worry, scenarios beget scenarios.

Katrina, 9/11, earthquakes, presidential campaigns with implications that may tilt a world on its axis; they are all anxiety machines, all the fodder for Crisis television! These are sustained crises, crisis jags that feed the lizard part of the brain with a smorgasbord of alarm messages triggering flight, fight, or stay-put-and-worry reactions.

Historically, things are a hell of a lot worse on the matter of media effects since we were first privileged with 24-hour news networks (thanks, Ted). Yes, they often provide up-to-the-minute news and fill news holes (the spaces between the commercials) with visual arrays and talking and screaming pundits. But there is a grandly manifest down side to this abundance. They can fill hours, days, where minutes would have been sufficient to inform.

But information is good, right? No. Not always. We are awash in media reporting on American politics. True, some of this leads people to action they might otherwise not have taken. But consuming too much dire news, political or crisis-based, as the opening anecdote illustrated, can lead to information indigestion and trigger twin symptoms of social anxiety and feelings of political impotence.

For the political junkie, it seemed at first that a 24-hour news cable and, later, the Internet's proliferation of online newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and political sites and blogs, offered an informational menu of valuable, near-infinite individual voices and images.

In principle, this media gusher of push and pull political news platforms is simply extraordinary; a democratizing antidote to one-voice Murdochism. But principles are usually abstractions which tend to miss nuances and unanticipated consequences. They also miss the well documented tendency for webizens to take to the internet highway and then reduce it to 30 habitual off-ramps. Politically, we're creatures of habit, ideological tropists, inclined toward validating our opinions rather than seek conflicting perspectives, easily seduced by a low hanging fruit model of ideological information seeking.

I'm no different, of course. Even after my epiphany during the L.A. riots, daily I sample dozens of sites, all linking to dozens of other sites. Accessible sites expand exponentially, with teasers, fragments and links, designed to lure me further in with hints of unearthed nuggets portending and usually revealing more rottenness in the Denmark of American politics. I go willingly. There will be a price to pay, even though I may take a momentary and perverse pleasure in adding to my repository of all loathsome things Bush-Cheney, or the Palin-McCain administration (as she has recently described the order of merit at a Youngstown, Ohio rally). Republicans feelings similar angst would, of course, plug in other names. .

Ingesting too much talk about how the self-anointed armies of God are on the verge of turning America into a theocratic police state may, in some ways, be as bad as ingesting too little. Do the words American Taliban trip too lightly from my lips? Yes.

But, ingest I do. I am not alone either. I have my social network of ingesters. We feed each other tidbits; send each other racing across hyperspace to read new or variant McCain-Palin slips of the tongue revealing true motives. So many sites. So little time.

Polls rain down on us, telling us a dizzying array of often-depressing, occasionally spiriting, often contradictory information about a nation ideologically riven, comprised of people so not like us we can't possibly understand, worse, live with them--in the same country.

Or so it seems in the heat of crisis.

Inexorably, at day's end, gathering more evidence of the open wound called America Politics turns out to be as palliating as a gum abscess. But contemplating solutions to my media overload syndrome, leads to even more questions:
Is there some reading diet, some mélange of news ingredients which arouses the tastes of vigilance but stops short of plunging me into an excess of fear of the kind that inspired America's bomb shelter kibbutzniks of the 50s or the psychosis of survivalist camps in Idaho?

How can you tell if your prudent alarmism is transitioning into incipient paranoia?

Much of my media malaise on display in this series of blogs may just be media overload. Information is not emotionally neutral, especially hot-button information when accompanied by memorable visual images. Crises, natural or electoral, with their inevitable cauldron of television talking heads, ideological hacks and clueless "experts," fake "breaking news" and alarmist headlines have produced actual PTSD in some viewers, stress and transient depression in many others. Anecdotal reports and self-report surveys rather consistently conclude that watching terrible images of death and destruction over and over, can produce numerous stress-related clinical symptoms including agitation or depression. Repeated exposure of such horrifying or distressing events has been labeled "retraumatizing" (Spicer-Brooks, 2001).

In our age of terrorism, political polarization, and human-aggravated natural disasters, news cycles reek of rumors or fleeting facts until displaced by other rumors and fleeting facts. Many viewers stay electronically tethered, often in hopes of staving off an engulfing sense of impotent outrage over Mother Nature or man's nature. That's precisely why political appeals to fear upset viewers and lead them to embrace the fear-arouser who offers him- or herself as the überpatriot, the salvation, or "the soccer mom who spoke truth to power."

Social support in this regard is a double-edged sword. Either sitting alone with one's thoughts and fears, or reading kindred skeptics and outraged pessimists (selective attention), the end result can be the same-panic, fear and worst case scenarios! When one is going over the top with fears and frets, turning to others can often help in bringing the hysteria down and the reality testing up. But sitting in with a group of like-minded apocalyptics (selective congregation) or listening, day after day, to like-minded shock jocks, can make matters worse, can polarize attitudes and send anger, violent thoughts, exaggeration, and apprehension soaring.

So, what can I remember to do when media-fixated? What can you do? In the end, we must use media, or actually anything we physically or mentally ingest, as we use medicine. We can use or we can abuse, we can sample or we can mainline. When in a natural or political crisis we need to monitor our bodies and minds sensitize ourselves to changes in diet, sleep, recurring thoughts, catastrophizing, hyperventilating, or radicalization of thoughts and actions. We must take breaks from the media to still the messages, and venture into places of comfort or serenity. We must test reality, check out rumors and not just accept them because we'd like them to be true. We have to push ourselves to confer with people whose opinions we respect people who are liable to either agree or disagree with our renditions of reality. In a word, we must avoid "supersizing" the media.

Finally, research shows that taking some sort of constructive action to allay one's upset is one of the best medicines for media indigestion. If that means working for a candidate, writing a check, marching at a rally, sending out emails to friends to encourage their voting, or canvassing the opposition to persuade them to your side, they are all valuable ways to keep reality in check and temper exaggerations and alarmism. Doing something constructive with one's angst is always better than just taking in more distressing information which can lead to depression, emotional paralysis, or rash and regrettable action. There's enough of that already. Why add to it?

And for those who read the previous blog, well, the mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows was-my wife! You remember, the critic of my Jewish angst. She came with some chicken soup for angst-easing...No, I'm joking. She brought me fresh cup of coffee and told me it was very generous of me to share my anxieties with my blog readers. "Spread it around," she quipped. She quips.



About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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