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Blaming the Media When Tragedy Strikes

When tragedy strikes, should we blame or exonerate the media?

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In the wake of the shared national distress that follows a tragedy like the recent shootings in Tuscon or those at Virginia Tech, heated debate arises around the notion of blaming the media. Tragic loss moves us to look for causes, in part so we can avoid repeating the pain, shock and loss we are experiencing.

Some argue that media, especially vociferous journalistic and partisan dialogue, are to blame for the tragedy. Others argue with equal passion for the greater power of other factors such as mental health, cultural values and the importance of parenting.

I argue that both of these perspectives have a real tendency to be tangential to the heart of the matter. Social psychologists like myself have long studied the human habit of searching for cause. For example, research has demonstrated that we tend to take the credit for our successes while avoiding the blame for our failures. We also tend to blame personal factors for other people's mistakes while pointing the finger at reasons in our situation that caused our own missteps. So while you failed because you're careless, I couldn't help coming up short because I was sick, overworked, or the sun was in my eyes.

The mistake we make when we blame or excuse the media's role in tragedy is in missing the fact that the media play a role rather than running the whole show. One single thing isn't the cause of a tragic event like Tuscon or Virginia Tech. Instead many factors contributed and interacted in the people and situations that made up the landscape of the event.

Another consideration is the emotional meaning behind the term blame and how it relates to another concept: namely cause. What causes violence? A variety of factors do. Does that mean the media, like news analysis or inflammatory web sites, do not cause aggression? The answer there is also "No, it's not that simple." Irresponsible journalism or politics can contribute to aggression in viewers. Such things can build pro-violence norms, reduce natural inhibitions towards aggression and trigger emotions such as fear that tend to instigate aggression.

And actually, to the degree that we could blame a single source for the tragedy, we are likely to feel even worse. Psychologists have found that the more easily we can mentally reverse a tragedy, the more keenly we feel its sting. This mental reversal is called counterfactual thinking. In everyday language, it is the ability to say "if only." If only the parents had been responsible, or if only the inflammatory web site hadn't been allowed, the painful loss could have been avoided.

Bottom line, media exposure plays a real but multifaceted role in our behavior, thoughts and feelings. I suggest resisting the urge to either blame or exonerate negative media coverage because either pattern is too simplistic.

And we also can't forget that positive media coverage can also act in complex ways and has the potential to support good feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Two examples that have moved the nation recently include President Obama's supportive words in Tuscon and the good feelings generated from regular press updates on the continued improvements in Rep. Gifford's condition.