Today, the media plays an important role in the life of any person living in a developed society. We rely on the media for information and entertainment and obtain the vast part of our knowledge about world politics through mass media sources, such as newspapers, television, or the Internet. In times of disaster, media becomes the primary source of information. Natural disasters, wars, and terrorism are widely broadcasted in the news and discussed online.
In the case of a terror attack, media broadcasting has many consequences, both beneficial and undesirable. This paper aims to analyze the psychological influence of media broadcasting of terrorist activities and to argue that, because the majority of these effects are negative, the media broadcasting of terror attacks should be limited.
The psychological impact that media broadcasting has on people is justified by their dependency on the media. Lowrey (2004) studied media dependency in the aftermath of 9/11 terror attacks. The author explains the media systems dependency theory, which states that mass media are perceived to be able to satisfy the needs for information and sense-making in times of severe social disruption.
Indeed, terror attacks, among other disasters, shake the entire society, and the people are willing to get more information about the victims, the attackers, and the investigation process. Moreover, the dependency on the media may be higher after terror attacks than after other disasters, as the people fear that more attacks are about to happen: according to Lowrey (2004), “perception of threat is the most important determinant of overall media dependency” (p. 354).
Natural catastrophes only affect certain regions, and the threat is announced in advance; terror attacks, on the other hand, are unpredictable. Therefore, when people see a terror attack on the news, they begin to fear for their safety, even if the attack occurred in a different part of the country. The increased dependency on the media in the aftermath of terror attacks means that all segments of the population will be affected by the media broadcasting, including victims, their families, and the general population.
The primary victims of terrorism are those who were directly affected by the terror attack, i.e. they were part of the events (Silke, 2003). Victims are considered to be the most vulnerable group in the aftermath of any terror attack. Yet, the media coverage of attacks strives to show the eyewitness interviews and telling stories of the victims. The main psychological effect of media broadcasting of terror attacks on the victims is thus the difficulty in coping and increased trauma. Studies show that extensive media broadcast increases the symptoms of PTSD that can continue long after the event (Holman, Garfin, & Silver, 2014).
This is especially prominent in the primary victims. The PTSD symptoms are directly related to the person’s memory of traumatic events. Seeing the footage of the attack, thus, causes the person to remember the events more clearly, which can impair the treatment of PTSD and coping mechanisms. Moreover, depression and phobias that developed following the attack can be worsened by the increased media attention (Silke, 2003).
Families and friends are considered to be the secondary victims of terror attacks (Silke, 2003). This group is considerably larger than the first one and can thus suffer from collective trauma, which can also be worsened by the broadcasting of terror activities. Moreover, media broadcasting can serve to enhance the people’s emotions triggered by the attack, such as anger or fear. Lerner, Gonzales, Small, and Fischoff (2003) explain that these emotions are among the most common in the aftermath of terror attacks. Friends and families of the victims, on the other hand, are expected to experience anger rather than fear. Media broadcasting can increase anxiety, irritability, and grief in this group of people, thus impairing their coping mechanisms and prolonging the trauma.
The General Population
Depending on the scale of the event, the general population may represent the rest of the country’s citizens or even people from other areas of the world. This is due to the fact that the events with a high victim count receive more attention in the international media. Large-scale events, such as the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 or the 2016 Orlando club shooting, are widely broadcasted all over the world and can thus affect a larger number of people psychologically and emotionally.
The three main psychological effects of media broadcasting on the general population are collective trauma, fear, and anger. Collective trauma is a phenomenon that is especially prominent following the terror attacks. According to Holman et al. (2014), collective trauma means that the people who were not directly connected to the traumatic event, i.e. the attack, experience the same symptoms as the primary and secondary victims.
Similarly, Hayden (2001) explains that in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, people all around the country expressed symptoms of PTSD, such as emotional distress, hypervigilance, sleep disorders, irritability, and nightmares, even if no one from their family or friend circle was a victim of the attack. Collective trauma is widely attributed to media broadcasting. The disturbing footage, victim interviews, recordings of 911 calls, text messages found on victims’ phones – all of these are widely distributed in the aftermath of a terror attack. For instance, after the Orlando club shooting, the media released a series of text messages from one of the victims to his mother.
Those chilling messages were distributed all over the world by the news and social networks. According to Silke (2003), people experience collective trauma as they identify with the victims. Event footage, interviews, and other disturbing information that is broadcasted on the media, thus promote the process of identification with the victims, worsening the trauma.
Fear and anger are the most common emotional responses to terrorism, as outlined by Lerner et al. (2003). Fear is strongly associated with trauma and is manifested in anxiety, sleep disorders, nightmares, and phobias. Nevertheless, fear can also have a positive effect, as it can lead to people being more cautious and wary. In a sample of 973 Americans, Lerner et al. (2003) found that fear increased the perceived risk levels, thus leading people to take precautionary measures.
Anger, on the other hand, is a far less desirable consequence of terrorism. In particular, the media portrayal of terrorism can lead to people stigmatizing and discriminating certain religious and ethnic groups. For example, a study by Persson and Musher-Eizenman (2005) showed that young people who reported high levels of daily news exposure following a terror attack were more prejudiced towards African Americans and Arabs. The particular frames used by media agents in the aftermath of terror attacks have led to the belief that the Islamic culture and religion is responsible for terror and violence. The anger and prejudice against a certain cultural group are a significant threat to the multicultural society of the United States, as it can cause an increase in hate crimes.
They discussed the psychological effects of media broadcasting of terrorism are predominantly negative or even dangerous to society. The key benefit of limited media broadcast is that the effect of terror attacks on the victims, their families, and the general population will be less prominent. By limiting the rights of news channels to release disturbing images and victim interviews, for instance, the government will allow for enhanced coping and faster recovery of the victims and their families.
Furthermore, as the collective trauma is largely blamed on the increased media coverage, the prevalence of this phenomenon will be lower, which will lead to a decrease in the prominence of PTSD symptoms in the general population. Overall, the nation will be able to recover from the attack much faster. Moreover, the limited broadcast will create a weaker emotional response. This can be beneficial, as the people will be less likely to show anger and prejudice towards certain cultural and ethnic groups.
The objective, factual portrayal of the events would provide fewer opportunities for hate crimes and social dissidence, which will enhance the security and help to prevent further attacks. Finally, Silke (2003) argues that collective trauma, fear, and emotional response are among the key desired outcomes for terrorists. Terror attacks are designed to create significant turmoil in society and incite fear. By limiting the media coverage of terror attacks, the government can control the people’s responses to them, thus showing that future terror attacks will not achieve the desired effect.
The main disadvantage, however, is that limiting the media broadcast affects people’s rights to freedom of speech and freedom of information. American society is built on democratic values that emphasize the importance of allowing people to spread and access information freely. Limiting the media broadcast, on the other hand, may lead to the dissatisfaction of people and impair their trust in the government.
Nevertheless, I believe that the benefits of limiting the media coverage of terror attacks far outweigh its implications. By providing a dry and factual summary of the events, the media will be less likely to trigger intense emotional respondents, which will allow the country to recover faster and discourage further attacks. The limitation of media broadcasts can also help to ensure that no undesired effects are produced on children. According to the study by Comer, Furr, Beidas, Weiner, and Kendall (2008), exposure to detailed news coverage of terrorism triggers anxiety and increased threat perceptions in children. Ensuring that the news only provides factual information that is valuable to the citizens’ safety will also allow for reduced anxiety and fear among the children.
Overall, it is clear that the role of media in the aftermath of terror attacks is prominent and important. People rely on the media for information about the victims, the attackers, and the government’s response. The freedom of speech and information has led to media broadcasts becoming more and more detailed and disturbing, which can trigger a variety of undesirable psychological consequences both in the victims and in the general population.
These psychological consequences can affect the recovery process and pose a threat to the safety and security of people by increasing the prevalence of hate crimes. Although the limitation of media broadcasting would conflict with the core American values, it is a necessary measure to ensure faster recovery of the nation after the attack, as well as to discourage terrorists from using violence in the future.
Comer, J. S., Furr, J. M., Beidas, R. S., Weiner, C. L., & Kendall, P. C. (2008). Children and terrorism-related news: training parents in coping and media literacy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(4), 568-578.
Hayden, D. C. (2001). Media personnel and the psychological effects of disaster. Television Broadcast’s DigitalTV, 24(10), 32-34. Web.
Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(1), 93-98.
Lerner, J. S., Gonzalez, R. M., Small, D. A., & Fischhoff, B. (2003). Effects of fear and anger on perceived risks of terrorism: A national field experiment. Psychological science, 14(2), 144-150.
Lowrey, W. (2004). Media dependency during a large-scale social disruption: The case of September 11. Mass Communication & Society, 7(3), 339-357.
Persson, A. V., & Musher-Eizenman, D. R. (2005). College students’ attitudes toward Blacks and Arabs following a terrorist attack as a function of varying levels of media exposure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35(9), 1879-1892.
Silke, A. (Ed.). (2003). Terrorists, victims and society: Psychological perspectives on terrorism and its consequences. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.