Shots - Health News
3:27 am
Thu July 10, 2014

Bingeing On Bad News Can Fuel Daily Stress

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 3:34 pm

If you're feeling stressed these days, the news media may be partly to blame.

At least that's the suggestion of a national survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The survey of more than 2,500 Americans found that about 1 in 4 said they had experienced a "great deal" of stress in the previous month. And these stressed-out people said one of the biggest contributors to their day-to-day stress was watching, reading or listening to the news.

The result comes as no surprise to Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She's been studying stress and the news media since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In that incident, a rental truck filled with explosives killed 168 people, including children in a day care center.

McNaughton-Cassill was hundreds of miles away. Even so, "I had small kids in day care and got kind of stressed," she says. And she realized that "certain kinds of news can push your own buttons and make you very anxious."

Since then, McNaughton-Cassill and other researchers have done many studies showing that certain types of news coverage can produce emotional responses associated with stress. The biggest effect comes from traumatic events covered in a sensational way — something that's hard to avoid these days, McNaughton-Cassill says. "There is so much more news available, and so many different channels that are competing, that they're trying harder to be sensational," she says.

Another factor is the growing prevalence of disturbing images delivered in something close to real time, McNaughton-Cassill says. During the Civil War, media outlets relied on line drawings that could take days or weeks to reach an audience. By the Vietnam War, nightly video was available. "And now, of course, we've got the reporter there waiting to see where the bomb hits," she says.

To see how that kind of coverage is affecting the public, a team of researchers questioned more than 4,500 people across the country about their reaction to last year's Boston Marathon bombing. The study found that "people who exposed themselves to six or more hours of media daily actually reported more acute stress symptoms than did people who were directly exposed — meaning they were at the site of the bombings," says professor Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine.

One reason for this extreme reaction may be that news outlets frequently "take a clip of images and they repeat that same clip over and over and over as they're talking about what happened," Holman says. The result can be symptoms like those of post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.

But consumers and the news media can take steps to minimize news-related stress, researchers say. News outlets can help by warning their audience before presenting something that's particularly disturbing. And consumers can avoid bingeing on news, especially after an event like Sept. 11 or the Boston Marathon bombing. "Just don't overdo it," Holman says.

That can be hard to do, though. There's evidence that our brains have evolved to pay close attention to potential threats, McNaughton-Cassill says. So we have to remind ourselves that absorbing every detail about a bombing doesn't help us survive. It just stresses us out.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now if you're feeling stressed, sorry about that, the news media may be partly to blame. That suggested by the results of a poll from NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The poll of more than 2,500 Americans found that about 1 in 4 said they had experienced a great deal of stress in the past month. And these stressed-out people said one of the biggest day-to-day contributors to their stress was watching, reading or listening to the news. That result comes as no surprise to Mary McNaughton-Cassill; she's a psychologist from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

MARY MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: I've been studying stress and the news media since actually the Oklahoma City bombing.

HAMILTON: That was back in 1995. The bomber detonated a rental truck filled with explosives and killed 160 people, including children in a day care center. McNaughton-Cassill says the news reports made her feel vulnerable, even though she lived hundreds of miles from Oklahoma City.

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: I had small kids in daycare and I was driving to work and I heard that they might of have bombed a children's center and got kind of stressed and it was the idea that, you don't have to know people there, doesn't have to involve you directly but certain kinds of news can push your own buttons and make you very anxious.

HAMILTON: So, McNaughton-Cassill began to take a scientific look at how news coverage affects stress. Since then she and other researchers have done many studies confirming a link. The biggest affect comes from traumatic events covered in a sensational way. McNaughton-Cassill says we see a lot of that in the age of 24-hour news channels, plenty of news websites and social media like Facebook and Twitter.

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: There is so much more news available, in so many different channels that are competing, that they're also trying harder to be sensational. So not only do we get more news, but it's more sensational.

HAMILTON: McNaughton-Cassill says another factor is the growing prevalence of disturbing images delivered in something close to real time. She says you can see how the use of these images has changed by looking at war coverage. During the Civil War media outlets relied on line drawings that could take days or weeks to reach an audience.

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: It was really Korea and then Vietnam where they started having reporters who were sending pictures back. And by now, of course, we've got the reporter standing there waiting to see where the bomb hits. So it's changed the visual impact a lot.

HAMILTON: And of course bombs aren't limited to war zones. Alison Holman at the University of California Irvine was part of a team that studied how more than 4,500 people across the country responded to the Boston Marathon bombing last year. She says the study found something surprising about people who immersed himself in news and social media in the days following that event.

ALISON HOLMAN: People who exposed themselves to six or more hours of media daily, actually reported more acute stress symptoms than did people who were directly exposed, meaning they were at the site of the bombings.

HAMILTON: Holman says one reasons may be the way of many news outlets cover traumatic events.

HOLMAN: They take a clip of images and they repeat that same clip over and over and over, as they're talking about what happened. So you see these images repeatedly.

HAMILTON: Holman says that can produce symptoms like those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But she says both consumers and the news media can take steps to minimize the risk. News outlets can help by warning their audience before presenting something disturbing and Holman says consumers need to be more conscious of their own media habits, especially after an event like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing.

HOLMAN: Just don't overdo it. I'm a firm believer in people being educated and being informed about what's going on in the world around them, I would never want to censor news. I do believe however, that maybe you can watch an hour, get a feel for what's going on and then shut it off.

HAMILTON: That can be hard to do though. McNaughton-Cassill says research suggests our brains have evolved to pay close attention to potential threats. She says that probably made sense when we were dodging predators.

MCNAUGHTON-CASSILL: If you saw someone else get eaten by a lion, you wanted to remember where the lion was, what the situation was like and all the details so you could avoid it.

HAMILTON: McNaughton-Cassill says these days we need to remind ourselves that absorbing every detail about a bombing doesn't help us survive. It just stresses us out. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.