Study finds the tone of media coverage influences the psychological impact of mass violence

It’s no surprise that the repeated viewing of grisly images can be emotionally harmful and exposure to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings has been associated with poorer mental health. But new research, published in PLOS One, indicates that the tone of media coverage can influence several psychological outcomes.

“Much of my research has involved examining the factors that influence the ways we perceive and respond to threats. At the time of the Boston Marathon bombings, I lived and worked in Boston and was struck not only by their devastating and far-reaching impact but also by the powerful ways the community banded together to support one another in their aftermath,” said study author Jolie Baumann Wormwood, an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“I became interested in how the media and the promotion of the ‘Boston Strong’ mantra in particular might be helping to shape these responses.”

For their study, the researchers recruited 95 participants from the Boston community. The participants completed a series of threat perception tasks three times over an approximately 9-month period, which began several months before the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings.

During each of the three sessions, the participants completed surveys on media usage, their recall of the bombings, and their current level of distress. The researchers also tested the participants’ eye blink startle reflex while viewing images of the bombings and assessed their ability to perceptually distinguish armed from unarmed individuals in a behavioral shooting task.

The researchers also monitored marathon-related media coverage from the four news publications that participants had reported using frequently.

Wormwood and her colleagues found that the media coverage was generally more positive in tone near the first anniversary of the bombing, and more negative before and after the anniversary. Furthermore, they found that participants tended to report more distress,exhibit less perceptual sensitivity to threats, and an increased startle reactivity when the media tone was more negative.

In other words, not only were they more subjectively distressed when the media tone was negative — the participants were also more likely to mistake an unarmed person for an armed person and had heightened physiological defensive responses.

“The ways in which we make meaning of incidents of mass violence can shape how they influence our ability to identify potential threats and even how our body responds to potential threats,” Wormwood told PsyPost.

“The more we focus on the positive stories that emerge following these tragedies (e.g., the strength and resilience of survivors or family/friends of victims or the community at large) the better able we may be at minimizing the kinds of diffuse and long-lasting harms they can continue to have on community members long after they occur.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“This is a preliminary, exploratory study with a relatively small sample size, so there are a number of important questions that still need to be addressed. To me, the most critical of these involve questions about causality because we did not manipulate exposure to different kinds of news content nor did we measure exposure to specific content directly,” Wormwood explained.

“Thus, it is possible that positive and negative emotion word-usage in news content about an incident of mass violence influences threat perception and bodily reactivity to potential threats among those who read the content. But it is also possible that it has a more indirect effect whereby it changes how people talk about the incident more generally and community members pick this up even without direct exposure to the content.”

However, the results are in line with an experimental study that Wormwood published in 2016. That study found participants tended to exhibit less perceptual sensitivity to threats after viewing images of the Boston Marathon bombings accompanied by news headlines focusing on death and destruction, compared to participants who saw the same images accompanied by positive headlines about first responders and the community.

“A third possibility is that word usage in news content merely reflects the ways the incident is already being discussed and thought about in the community instead of driving it,” Wormwood added.

“Another interesting direction for future work will be to extend beyond written news content to audio, video, or image content in news media sources, as these may have even greater power to shape emotional responding in the wake of incidence of mass violence than words alone.”

The study, “Psychological impact of mass violence depends on affective tone of media content“, was authored by Jolie Baumann Wormwood, Yu-Ru Lin, Spencer K. Lynn, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Karen S. Quigley.