- With constant access to what appears to be a never-ending cycle of violent headlines, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
- Some researchers have found a link between social media use and post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Having psychologists in newsrooms, tech companies, and television networks could help reframe news coverage and lessen its negative impact.
By Britt Duncan, M.A. and Douglas E. Lewis, Jr., Psy.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
What do news outlets like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN have in common? In addition to catering in recent years to sensational topics like violence, journalists often repeat stories from traditional media (i.e., newspapers) with nearly 85 percent of stories being repetitive with little to no new information. What is the emotional impact of this phenomenon, as people are able to watch repeated acts of violence? Is there a way that people can avoid emotional harm?
Let’s imagine a psychologist in the newsroom.
We have seen more deaths through news outlets and social media than we’d like to count. When Eric Garner was murdered in the street by police officers, the clip of him saying “I can’t breathe” was on every news station and social media platform on an almost endless rotation. Although there is research describing the link between experiences of racial discrimination and posttraumatic stress symptoms, the media, and its consequent social media pages, continue to deliver news without regard for all of its consumers. For almost every police-involved shooting since, a video has shortly followed.
What do we, as psychologists, understand about trauma? When someone experiences trauma, they experience a feeling of loss that can result in feelings of sadness, loneliness and apathy. Experiencing trauma can also lead to more risky behavior such as smoking, substance use, and other lifestyle habits. What does it mean when the next generation is being inundated with information that may lead to these effects? How can we instill hope back into groups of people who may be struggling with questions along the line of, “What’s the point?”
With constant access to what appears to be a never-ending cycle of violent headlines, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. What if we are all experiencing vicarious trauma due to the lack of intentional, respectful distribution of news? Trauma expert Olga Phoenix once connected the news to vicarious trauma, stating that vicarious trauma often occurs through “ongoing exposure to traumatic events,” citing events like news or social media coverage of police brutality, mass shootings, and the COVID-19 death toll tracker. Phoenix states, “Traumatic material then accumulates and begins to impact us cumulatively, like a snowball thrown on the top of the mountain that eventually becomes an avalanche." Some researchers have even found a link between social media use and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The American Psychological Association has acknowledged its role for failing to challenge racism, racial discrimination, and human hierarchy in the United States. From a prevention standpoint, wouldn’t it be nice to hear news through the lens of a psychologist? Imagine having a trained, compassionate lens to frame the narrative and reduce the intake of traumatic information when there is a school shooting or a police-involved death. Imagine having a world where there is someone who has the general public’s mental wellbeing in mind. Is it possible to cover these topics successfully with boundaries and without endless sensationalism? Having psychology consultants in newsrooms, tech companies, and television networks could assist us in moving forward. I understand there may be some hesitancy to infiltrating these spaces where we have not deigned to go. However, there is merit to the idea that psychologists could assist in delivering more psychologically minded news. Perhaps reframing the approach to news coverage will lessen its negative impact.
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