A picture’s worth a thousand nightmares

After reading a study from UC Irvine showing that “People who watched more than four hours a day of 9/11- and Iraq War-related television coverage (in the weeks after the attacks and at the start of the war) reported both acute and post-traumatic stress symptoms over time,” I began to think about the way that we cover traumatic events not from a sensitivity and awareness standpoint but from a media outlet standpoint. Though Roxane Cohen Silver says that the study means that people should be aware of the negative effects of continually consuming graphic visuals of trauma, not that the media should be censored, I question if that’s the right approach.

Obviously, anything that can be labeled as “censoring the media” in our First Amendment-loving nation is going to be almost automatically viewed as taboo. And no, I don’t think the government should make a law requiring the media to show less traumatic visuals. But I wonder if the media should take it upon themselves to do the censoring. Not just in terms of content but in medium.

The question of print versus broadcast typically just comes down to the M.O. of a publication. We’re a TV station, so we’ll cover 9/11 with broadcast; we’re a newspaper so we’ll write about 9/11. Duh. But rather than just being a different option to tackling a subject, it seems that, having read this article, visual forms actually have a concretely distinct impact. The use of video can have an actual psychological influence on the consumers. 

This makes me wonder if coverage of traumatic events should be more print-heavy. Yes, newspaper should still have the important discussions about which photos to use, but that issue aside, I wonder if it’s crucial for people to consume the majority of their trauma coverage in text form. Not only can text provide better context than an eidetic video clip, but it appears that it also lowers the risk of psychological damage. And while Silver says that the onus should be on consumers to know not to watch too much of the footage, it doesn’t seem like a sound strategy for media outlets just to hope their consumers don’t consume too much of their product. 

In our current journalistic ecosystem, this might be a moot point (for now, at least). CNN isn’t going to avoid covering another 9/11, god forbid one ever occur, no matter what UC Irvine says. But as the media landscape shifts into a more and more multi-platform system, the standard outlet might one day choose story-by-story whether to cover an issue with a print article or a video piece or an audio slideshow or what have you. Then, this theory would come into play. I think there should be serious consideration — as odd as it might first seem to viewers familiar with graphic visuals on cable TV — to covering a traumatic story in a print-first format for the sake of the readers’ well being.

I don’t know if that is a mindset that would ever be implemented, but the article suggests to me that it’s worth a thought.


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