The terrorists are coming

In considering how to make the news more accessible to folks with anxiety and PTSD, highly emotional and distressing news events like terrorists attacks are cases of interest. An October 2014 Washington Post article by Shana Gadarian, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, summarized the author’s research on the effect of sensationalist TV coverage of terrorism on Americans’ hawkishness — their support for military action and domestic security measures. The article was timely: In the weeks prior to the publishing of her article, Gadarian notes, the Islamic State was mentioned on CNN more than 3,800 times.

Gadarian’s research had been conducted in the wake of 9/11, and found that watching TV on a regular basis increased the hawkishness of those that believed future attacks on the US in the short term were “likely or very likely”. She conducted another study in 2006 that selected 3 random subsets of a sample of 1,220 americans to watch TV stories unrelated to terrorism, related to terrorism with neutral images and no emotional commentary, and related to terrorism with scary visuals that emphasized threat, respectively. Neutral and emotional pieces both increased respondents’ hawkishness, but those who watched stories about terrorism with scary visuals and emotional commentary answered questions about foreign policy more hawkishly than those who watched stories that provided the same information about the same incident in a less visceral and emotional way.

Gadarian says that terrorism is newsworthy because it is inherently dramatic and threatening, and that “media competition means that journalists and editors have incentives to use emotionally powerful visuals and story lines to gain and maintain ever-shrinking news audiences.” It is here that Gadarian’s research is illuminating in a social media context. Our newsfeeds are sites of competition for reader/viewership just as fierce as cable TV, and possibly fiercer, because news posts on social media have to compete for our attention right alongside non-news content and life updates about our friends. For for-profit media outlets, churning out the kind of emotional, eye-grabbing, heart rate-spiking posts we described earlier this week make a lot of sense.

Besides the fact that it incentivizes competition, social media, as an information platform, resembles cable TV in a couple of other ways: it never stops, and it can have an impact on mental health. In a 2015 Huffington Post article, HuffPo health writer Carolyn Gregoire interviewed British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, who said that “negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.” This is to say that when we’re confronted with distressing news or imagery, we internalize it, which affects our mood and outlook on our environment in general.

The bad news here is that we certainly haven’t seen the last terrorist attack, and that those with anxiety issues who get their news from feeds are apt to continue to be affected by these attacks in a profound way and even kept from consuming important coverage. We can find good news in Gadarian’s research, which proves that the method of information delivery really does matter when it comes to news-related mood effects. However, the incentives towards emotionality in the news feed space may mean that solutions for reasonable information delivery won’t come from the outlets, most of whom need to get eyeballs on their content to be competitive.

The responsibility for the encouragement of sane coverage may rest with the platforms themselves. Just how this might be done is a topic for a separate post, but it’s worth considering whether a news feed could be structured to incentivize even-handed coverage of distressing events.

-JT

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