In 2004, Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles, published a poignant essay entitled Media Crisis Coverage: To Serve and to Scare. It was published in the Journal of Media Psychology.
Professor Fishoff examines what he calls the “dysfunctional partnership between the media and the public in our increasingly media-centric lives.” He describes the intimate, adrenaline-fueled dance between viewers and producers of television crisis coverage and observes:
“The thin line between gut-wrenching, vital information and a news-sponsored horror show begins its fade to oblivion.”
In 2001, days after 9/11, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project titled How Americans Used the Internet After the Terror Attack found that 81% of all Americans said they got most of their information from TV; only 3% of Internet users got most of their information about the attacks from the Internet.”
In his essay Media Crisis Coverage, Fischoff observed:
“During a crisis, many viewers, particularly those with 24-hour cable news shows, seek out the constant drumbeat of news coverage to stay informed and reduce the stress that accompanies uncertainty. But watching hours of crisis coverage footage can often have the opposite effect. Visual images go directly to the most primitive parts of our psyche, pushing all the fear buttons. Anxiety is elevated. People watch in order to calm themselves. The more they watch, the more they want to watch because the more anxious they feel. And the cycle continues.”
To reduce the psychological trauma and anxiety of being drawn into news/horror shows, Fischoff made a number of recommendations. One had to do with the size of the screen that viewers used to watch crisis coverage.
“Shrink the size of the image,” said Fischoff. “Here is another example of when size matters: According to Detenber (1996), size is important to emotional response. It is important to babies in perceiving others, and to adults when watching a movie in a theater. Image size positively affects the arousal and dominance dimensions of emotional responses. Size is a primitive heuristic (in animals, for example, who is prey and who is predator, or who is too powerful to safely take on) that influences a range of judgments. Films seen as large images on a screen elicit stronger feelings of arousal than the same films when viewed on small screens disbursing small images.”
After reading this essay, I began to wonder about two things:
- Will the trend toward getting news from the Internet, especially via smartphones and tablets, reduce the traumatic stress that people feel when viewing crisis coverage? Their screens are much smaller than televisions’ (70″ LED screens seem to be the current norm for new TVs).
- In times of real crises, such as 9/11, will people revert back to getting news from TV because of the “quality” of coverage it presents?
Fast forward ten years. By 2011, Pew found that “The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing.” The report also found that in December 2010, 41% of Americans cited the internet as the place where they got “most of their news about national and international issues,” up 17% from a year earlier.
Current Internet news coverage fundamentally differs from television news coverage. It tends to be more text than video focused, although this is beginning to change with increases in bandwidth. The comparative lack of video and sound remove much of the visceral “you-are-there” impact of crisis coverage. And if digital coverage becomes too repetitive, i.e., with endless reruns of the Twin Towers falling, viewers can easily switch “channels” or topics. The Internet offers millions of URL’s to choose from.
I suspect that the shift to digital news consumption will have a psychologically mitigating effect on consumers. I also suspect, for television producers, the real horror show will be their bottom line.