Ebola and the Trauma of TV

In a recent column, David Brooks made a good point…

[throws up in mouth, rinses with water]

In a recent column, David Brooks mad a good point [cough, cough] about the role the constant news cycle plays in stoking fear and anguish over the Ebola epidemic:

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

As someone who was out on Boylston Street very shortly after the second bomb at the Boston Marathon bombings went off, this jibes with my personal experience: having seen the carnage in person*, I decided not to watch news reports about the bombings (trust me, the video didn’t tell the half of it). While I was discombobulated for a couple of days (in part, because the FBI wouldn’t let my neighbors and me back into our homes, even as they allowed the first story restaurant in my building to operate on Tuesday–but that’s a separate story), I really didn’t seem to be screwed up about it as a lot of people who weren’t even there. I’m not going to tell people how they should or shouldn’t feel, but that intuitively felt a little odd.

Fortunately, we have science for when our intuition falters (boldface mine):

The relevance of indirect media exposure became apparent again after last April’s Boston marathon. In the days following the marathon bombings, my University of California, Irvine colleagues and I decided to replicate our 9/11 study and examine the impact of media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings. We sought to look at all types of media: how much TV people watched, their exposure to disaster-related radio, print, and online news, and their use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo in the week following the bombings. We were especially interested in responses to social media coverage. Unlike traditional media that warn us about the gruesome nature of an image before showing it to us, social media typically display such images without warning.

We also wanted to compare responses to direct vs. indirect media exposure to the bombings—were these different ways of being “exposed” tied to more or less acute stress?

Two weeks after the bombings, we launched another web-based study with more than 4,600 people from all over the country—including nearly 850 people who were in Boston on the day of the bombing. As we expected, both direct exposure and indirect media exposure were linked to acute stress symptoms. However, the people who consumed lots of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings (six or more hours per day) were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those who were at the Boston Marathon. That is, indirect media exposure was associated with a wider range of acute stress-related symptoms—flashbacks, feeling anxious, wanting to avoid reminders of the bombings, etc.—than direct exposure to the bombings. Even when we took into account pre-existing mental illness or TV-watching habits that might draw people into media coverage, our findings did not change (Holman, Garfin, Silver, 2014).

The best thing that could happen to this country would be for all of the cable ‘news’ outlets to go under. Sure, there might be a persona or two you like (I’m guessing some readers are partial to Maddow or Hayes), but any benefits are vastly outweighed by the costs.

*And I didn’t get all of other people’s blood off of me and my clothes until about 24 hours later. Boring, if sad, story there. Suffice it to say, no good deed goes unpunished.

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