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Media coverage of violent events is found to fuel a cycle of stress

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

These results are in line with a growing consensus among PTSD researchers, said Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who directs Stanford's Center on Stress and Health.

"Exposure to trauma, even at a distance, will elicit the kind of reaction you might have if you are witnessing an event yourself," he said.

The fact that one is experiencing the events on a screen and is not in immediate danger may mitigate the effects of the sounds, images and vivid accounts of trauma, Spiegel said.

"But we have these big brains that allow us to imagine what it's like to be there," he said. When it comes to processing raw images coming across our TVs, laptops and devices, our rich imaginations can conjure very real feelings of immediate danger, he added.

The study authors say their findings hold lessons for news outlets and social media companies, as well as for their audiences.

Media organizations "need to recognize the vital role they can play in broadcasting distress," they wrote. Amid "pressure to generate clicks and shares," providers of news-related content should resist the temptations of sensationalism and adopt "a more even-handed" approach, they added.

But news consumers, too, should "understand how they may be putting their long-term mental and physical health at risk by closely following along with collective traumas" as they unfold, the authors added.

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Spiegel agreed that news junkies -- especially those with a history of trauma -- need to be mindful of their propensity to become distressed and limit viewing habits accordingly. And parents should be vigilant about limiting their children's exposure to the sights and sounds of mayhem.

"Everything in their world is linked to them," he said. "So these events get woven into the story of their personal narrative, and that can make it more damaging."

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