Alison Holman was working on a fairly ordinary study of mental health across the United States. Then tragedy struck.
On 15 April 2013, as hundreds of runners streaked past the finish line at the annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded, ten seconds apart. Three people were killed that day, including an eight-year-old boy. Hundreds were injured. Sixteen people lost limbs.
As the world mourned the tragedy, news organisations embarked upon months – years, if you count the trial – of graphic coverage. Footage of the moment of detonation, and the ensuing confusion and smoke, were broadcast repeatedly. Newspapers were strewn with haunting images: blood-spattered streets, grieving spectators and visibly shaken victims whose clothing had been torn from their bodies.
And so it happened that Holman and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, found themselves in the midst of a national crisis, sitting on data about the mental wellbeing of nearly 5,000 people just before it happened. They decided to find out if that had changed in the weeks afterwards.
It’s intuitively obvious that being physically present for – or personally affected by – a terrorist incident is likely to be bad for your mental health. By chance, there were some people in the study who had first-hand experience of the bombings, and it was indeed true that their mental health suffered. But there was also a twist.
Another group had been even more badly shaken: those who had not seen the explosion in person, but had consumed six or more hours of news coverage per day in the week afterwards. Bizarrely, knowing someone who had been injured or died, or having been in the vicinity as the bombs went off, were not as predictive of high acute stress.
“It was a big ‘aha’ moment for us,” says Holman. “I think people really strongly, deeply underestimate the impact the news can have.”
It turns out that news coverage is far more than a benign source of facts. From our attitudes to immigrants to the content of our dreams, it can sneak into our subconscious and meddle with our lives in surprising ways. It can lead us to miscalculate certain risks, shape our views of foreign countries, and possibly influence the health of entire economies. It can increase our risk of developing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. Now there’s emerging evidence that the emotional fallout of news coverage can even affect our physical health – increasing our chances of having a heart attack or developing health problems years later.
Crucially, just a few hours each day can have an impact far beyond what you might expect. Why?
While some of this stress might be down to the new reality we’re all finding ourselves in, psychologists have known for years that the news itself can add an extra dose of toxicity. This is particularly apparent following a crisis. After the 2014 Ebola crisis, the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 anthrax attacks, and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, for example, the more news coverage a person was exposed to, the more likely they were to develop symptoms such as stress, anxiety and PTSD.
The impact of news is something of a psychological mystery, because most of it doesn’t actually affect us directly, if at all. And when it does, several studies have found that – as with the Boston Marathon Bombings – the coverage can be worse for our mental health than the reality.
One possible explanation involves “affective forecasting”, which is the attempt to predict how we will feel about something in the future. According to Rebecca Thompson, a psychologist at the University of Irvine, most people feel fairly confident in their ability to do this. “Like if you were to imagine winning the lottery tomorrow, you would think you would feel great,” she says.
Oddly, when you ask people how they actually feel after these “life-changing” events, it turns out they often have far less of an impact on our emotions than we expect. A classic 1978 study compared the happiness of those who had recently had their lives transformed by winning the lottery or becoming paralysed. The lottery winners were no less happy than the controls and only slightly happier than the accident victims. In short, we really don’t know our future selves as well as we think we do.
The same thing happens during a crisis. Thompson explains that right now many people are likely to be fixated on their future distress. In the meantime, this mistake is steering us towards unhealthy behaviours.
“If you have a really big threat in your life that you’re really concerned about, it’s normal to gather as much information about it as possible so that you can understand what’s going on,” says Thompson. This leads us into the trap of overloading on news.
For example, those who thought they were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress after Hurricane Irma made its way across Florida in September 2017, also tended to consume the most news in the run up to it. Ironically, these people did have the worst psychological outcomes in the end – but Thompson thinks this is partly because of the amount of stressful information they were exposed to. She points out that much of the media coverage was heavily sensationalised, with clips of television reporters being buffeted by high winds and rain while emphasising worst-case scenarios.
In fact, not only can news coverage of crises lead us to catastrophise about them specifically, but also everything else in our lives – from our finances to our romantic relationships. A 2012 study found that women – but mysteriously, not men – who had been primed by reading negative news stories tended to become more stressed by other challenges, leading to a spike in their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
“Men normally show quite high levels [of cortisol], so it might be that they just can’t go any higher,” says Marie-France Marin, a psychologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, who authored the study. However, the women also had better memories for the negative news – suggesting that they really were more affected.
Negative news also has the power to raise a person’s heart rate – and there are worrying signs that it might have more serious implications for our long-term health.
When Holman and colleagues looked into the legacy of stress about the 9/11 attacks, they found that those who had reported high levels at the time were 53% more likely to have cardiovascular problems in the three years afterwards – even when factors such as their previous health were taken into account.
In a more recent study, the team investigated if the news itself might be responsible for this – and found that exposure to four or more hours of early 9/11 coverage was linked to a greater likelihood of health problems years later.
“What’s especially remarkable about that study is that that the majority of people were only exposed to 9/11 through the media,” says Holman. “But they received these lasting effects. And that makes me suspect that there’s something else going on and that we need to understand that.”
Why do events that are happening to strangers, sometimes thousands of miles away, affect us so much?
Holman has a few ideas, one of which is that the vivid depictions found in televised media are to blame. She explains that sometimes the news is on in the background while she’s in the gym, and she’ll notice that for the whole time the reporter is telling a story, they’ll have the same images repeating over and over. “You’ve got this loop of images being brought into your brain, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. What we’re looking at is not a horror movie that’s fake. We’re looking at real life things – and I suspect that somehow the repetitiveness is why they have such an impact.”
Holman points out that the news is not – and has never been – just about faithfully reporting one event after another. It’s a form of entertainment, that the media uses to compete for our precious time. Many of these organisations are dependent on advertising revenue, so they add a sense of drama to hook in viewers and keep them watching. As a result, the prizes for being the most watched are great. In America, news anchors are major celebrities, sometimes earning tens of millions of dollars a year.
Even when they’re reporting on already-traumatic incidents, news channels often can’t resist adding an extra frisson of tension. After the Boston Marathon bombings, coverage often appeared alongside urgent, sensationalising text such as “new details” and “brand new images of marathon bombs”.
Holman is already looking into how the news coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting us, though her results haven’t been published yet. “I really wish that I could say ‘I think it will be OK, we’ve got it covered’, but I do think there are going to be some lasting effects for some people,” she says.
Part of the problem, Holman suggests, is that global dramas have never been so accessible to us – today it’s possible to partake in a collective trauma from anywhere in the world, as though it were happening next door. And this is a challenge for our mental health.
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