News about tragedies make us unhappy – and hungry for more


Flowers placed for the victims of the Pulse night shot in June 2016.
Image: Gerardo Mora (Getty Images)

A new study on Wednesday may just reaffirm its worst fears of sticking to Twitter or cable news during a mass tragedy as the latest shooting at school. This suggests that being exposed to media coverage of these events can create a vicious emotional cycle that not only puts you in despair, but also makes it more likely that you tune into the next widespread atrocity.

For their study, published in the journal Science Advances, researchers at the University of California, Irvine used the research firm GfK KnowledgePanel, a service that offers small rewards in cash to users for each online or phone survey conducted. Although the service has its limitations (people who regularly perform paid surveys may not be representative of the general population), it also allowed researchers to study the same group of people for a relatively long time relatively easily, in this case around three years .

They interviewed nearly 4,500 people shortly after the April 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon that left three people dead and more than 250 injured. Among other things, these volunteers were asked about their emotional reaction to the bombing, their exposure to media coverage of the attack and how they were concerned about future tragic events.

As other studies have shown, people who had more exposure to the media about the tragedy were more likely to feel stressed, even when they were questioned again six months later. At the two-year anniversary of the bombing, they were still more likely to feel worried about the future. And when they were interviewed at least five days after the filming of the Pulse nightclub in June 2016 in Orlando, Florida, those same people were also more likely to report media coverage of the event. As before, the people who tuned in the most coverage of the Pulse trigger were then more likely to feel uncomfortable about it.

"These findings reinforce the earlier work of our lab (and others) that has consistently demonstrated an association between event-related media consumption and stress symptoms following a collective trauma, such as a mass violence event," said Rebecca Thompson , psychologist. at UCI, told Gizmodo via e-mail. "Our study is unique because it is the first to demonstrate the pattern of repeated media exposure to mass violence and suffering over time and over several events, among a large sample of individuals who have been followed for several years."

It is fair to ask how responsible Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can be to fuel this cycle, since they often amplify our worst impulses and regularly allow bad actors to spread false or misleading reports of a public tragedy (including with the recent fire of the cathedral of Notre Dame). Thompson and his team took into consideration the many ways people get their news by asking volunteers about their exposure to seven different sources of media consumption, including social media. But they did not reveal the frequency with which people received news of any channel, nor the individual impact that these different channels could have on our collective psyche.

"This question is the focus of ongoing work in our laboratory," Thompson said.

Depressing as the study may be, it is hardly the first to show a similar "contagion effect" of the media. Surveys have regularly shown that media coverage of a celebrity's suicide may increase the risk of viewers experiencing suicidal ideation or attempting suicide on their own. But just as public health organizations have created guidelines on responsible suicide reports for the media to follow (even if they often do not), Thompson says there are ways for the media to mitigate the desperation they cause to the public.

"For the media, we recommend moderating the sensational aspects of the news coverage of these events so as not to provoke excessive worry and distress among viewers," she said.

Spectators themselves can take steps to protect their emotional state when the next mass tragedy inevitably occurs.

"For those who are at home, we recommend more attention when making choices about how much media coverage they are consuming," she said. "Using media to obtain information during a mass tragedy is not in itself psychologically harmful, but not allowing it to become consumed by these events when they occur can minimize some of the problems we are seeing in our interviewees."


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