Media more stressful for some than witnessing Boston bombs

Those who experience a terrorist attack firsthand are prone to suffer from acute stress. That much is obvious. But does living that experience repeatedly through the media’s coverage of the event cause even more stress?

This is the question Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California Irvine and her colleagues have asked in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. And the answer seems to be that those who followed media coverage for long enough did indeed have a greater chance of suffering from symptoms of high acute stress, sometimes even more than those who were present at the site.

The April 2013 bombing was the first major terrorist attack in the US since September 2001. The changed nature of traditional media and the introduction of social media in the intervening period presented an opportunity for researchers to understand how people cope depending on their exposure to such events.

For the study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they conducted an internet-based survey of nearly 5,000 Americans in the two to four weeks after the bombing. About 1% of respondents were present at the site of the event, a further 9% had someone close who was near the site and some 9% were also directly affected by the aftermath (because of Boston lockdown or other such reasons).

Contrasting this subgroup’s answers with those who were exposed to the event through the media, be it television, radio or via the internet, gave a clear result – acute stress occurs even among those who were not directly present at the event.

What was surprising was that if a person spent more than six daily hours exposed to bombing-related coverage, he or she was nine times more likely to report symptoms of high acute stress. It did not matter whether this person was directly exposed on the day of the event or whether the person lived in Boston or New York. While only 5% of the respondents reported suffering from those symptoms, there was a direct correlation between acute stress symptoms shown and the number of hours of bombing-related media exposure.


Andrew Smith, professor of psychology at Cardiff University, said, “These results don’t surprise me entirely. But one has to be cautious about the simplistic conclusion drawn here.” And indeed the study has many caveats.

First, Silver said, the study’s conclusions are not causal. So they cannot be certain that media coverage led to increase in acute stress symptoms. But a study following the September 2001 attacks did give similar results, in which those exposed to 9/11-related TV reported post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Second, there is a good chance that people who suffered from acute stress might have been the people who consumed media coverage as a way of coping with the experience. Sometimes this is beneficial but repeated exposure can push the viewer into a “self-perpetuating cycle of distress”, writes Silver. She tried to remove those biases by comparing the mental health histories from before the bombings of all those respondents whose data was available, and that is why she considers these findings robust.

Third, and this may be the biggest limitation, the study lacks a control group, where a similarly sized group of individuals on whom the bombing may not have had the same influence were asked to fill out the same questionnaire. Such an excercise could run into other problems such as differences between various cultures’ ability to deal with stress.

Finally, Neil Ferguson, a political psychologist at Liverpool Hope University, points out that the measurement Silver used to measure acute stress may not be water-tight. The SASRQ (Stanford Acute Stress Reaction Questionnaire) does not differentiate between stress-related questions from dissociation-related questions. This matters because dissociation, which involves detaching yourself from an event consciously or unconsciously, can be either a coping mechanism or a stress-inducing mechanism.

Perception matters

Based on the results, Ferguson said, “those who were less likely to be well-educated, employed and well-off financially were also more likely to be suffering from acute stress symptoms following the bombing and bombing-related media”. Which in itself isn’t surprising, but it is something worth factoring in when hinting at a causal link between media coverage of the event and acute stress symptoms.

To be doubly sure, however, Silver compared data of those exposed to 9/11 attacks, superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, either directly or via the media. She found that, in case of the 9/11 attacks and the Sandy Hook shootings, media exposure was associated with reports of acute stress. But in the case of superstorm Sandy, it wasn’t.

Brooke Rogers, lecturer on risk and terror at King’s College London, said, “This is a good example of how public perception of risk affects how we deal with a stressful event. Research has shown that public perception of risk depends on factors like fairness, ability to control events, trust in institutions that deal with the aftermath, familiarity to the event and if the event is natural or man-made.”

In case of superstorm Sandy, the event was considered to be a natural disaster, which no one had control over. Storms are something Americans are more familiar with. Also, having dealt with events like this before, people have more trust in the authorities.

“We must also remember that one of the main findings of the article is the tremendous resilience populations show,” Rogers said. Nearly 95% of the population was able to find a way of coping with the aftermath of the bombing.

Smith pointed out that there are many studies which have looked at stress caused by an event or by the media coverage of an event, but none till now have looked to compare which of those two correlate to more stress.

Despite the caveats, the study’s main conclusion is worth remembering. In Silver’s words: “Media outlets should recognise that repeatedly showing gruesome, distressing images is not in the public interest.”The Conversation

First published in The Conversation.

Image: rantes

The blogging dilemma

I have two opposing arguments in my head. One that wants me to support blogging and one that makes me ignore it. I can’t seem to convince myself to choose a side. But does it really matter if I choose a side?

The internet has given everyone a platform to publish. An ability to share their views and thoughts on absolutely anything with those of their choosing or with the world at large. Surely that is a good thing but as a consumer of media, I feel overwhelmed with the sheer volume of things being created. There is just too much to keep up with.

We have so many quality newspapers, great TV channels, lots of interesting people to follow on twitter, good friends to keep up with on facebook and of course, there is the non-virtual life stuff. With a limited 24 hours daily, I would be surprised to find anyone who is able to keep abreast with everything and not feel overpowered by it all.

My solution to the problem was the information diet. Oh yes, it works if followed like the bible. But unlike a normal diet, this diet is much harder because all it takes to break the diet is the click of a mouse. I do my best to keep up with the diet and what allows me to keep going this way is the presence of a cheat day. It is that one day a week when I allow myself the luxury of reading/watching/stalking whatever I like.

It’s on the cheat day that I open my google reader to find 100+ unread blog posts. I quickly skim through and read what I like (a few). It’s rare that I ever reach the end of the list before the end of the day. Those unread blog posts usually remain unread and the number of unread posts keeps growing. It’s those unread blog posts which have incited me to write this blog post (what an irony!)

I look at that growing number on my google reader and I feel like saying ‘what a waste!’. All those hours that really good people have spent writing those blog posts have gone to waste. And even if I forget the ones that I did not read, what is it that I gain from the ones that I do end up reading? May be a few moments of pleasure and wonder. If that’s all that blog posts are worth and if most will remain as unread posts in someone’s reader then isn’t blogging a big waste of time? These are thoughts that pursue me to ignore blogging.

But then I remember. Every week I derive immense pleasure in being able to share my thoughts here on this blog. I know people read the posts (at least a few). If their two minutes were spent reading this then I better write something that is worth their time. But it’s not just about them (although readers are very important), it’s also about me.  I learn every day. I can see a part of myself evolve with every blog post. There is a peculiar sense of joy in being able to convert a thought into a well-written piece of prose.

Beyond the reader’s pleasure and mine, there is something that we tend to ignore about the power of blogs. They can be places to gain some really good ideas. Steven Johnson explains this is in a superb talk (only 4 mins). He says that good ideas usually come from a process he calls the slow hunch. That usually, a good idea is a combination of two or more part ideas. This combination occurs when you allow them to brew in your head for sometime. This time allows them to come together in your head, if you have all the part ideas, or allows you to gather the remaining part ideas from people you meet, places you visit and things you learn.

Reading blogs can more often than not serve that purpose. A blog is usually a place where raw ideas are shared and they are given for free to the readers for use. You can find parts of that great idea which has been waiting for its remaining parts and waiting to mature. I subscribe to a selected few blogs through email. These are the blogs that I religiously read and I’ve found many really good ideas through them. It’s probably because I’ve taken the time to grab everything that is on offer which meant that I did not miss out on that part idea which I was looking for.

There is one another advantage of reading blogs which is commonly ignored. If you read someone’s blog and read enough of it, you connect with the person in a way which is very different from any other connection that you can have with the person. Whenever I have to look someone up on the web, I try to look if they have a personal website or blog. If it’s someone you want to impress then just the words, “I read on your blog..” are enough to make the person take notice of you and give you a great first impression.

So should I support blogging or ignore it? As with most answers in life, there isn’t a yes or no answer to this. There are certainly a lot of poor blogs out there. They simply don’t deserve your attention but then there are some which absolutely do deserve your attention. It’s for you to find them. As for whether you should blog or not? I think it’s a very personal choice and one that only you can make. May be this extended conversation on blogging will be of some help.

Written while listening to Chillout radio on

On a mission: To be a good writer

I started blogging because I wanted to write better and become a writer. Even after blogging for three years, that still remains my strongest driving force.  However, I’ve never done any serious research on good writing, so I thought I should get to it.

Like any generic google search the “How to be a good writer” search is full of links that don’t have enough content in them to be valued so high on the search results. I thought it would be valuable for the community if I utilise my time by demoting links which weren’t useful. It turned out I had to demote two results for every one that I found useful. Nevertheless, I persisted on my mission and I am now about to write a gist of what I learnt.

The wikiHow is a good start but just like most wikis has a lot of content but little structure within the content. Yet, I think the most valuable points from the wiki are that one must try and write everyday. Reading a lot will help improve vocabulary and grammar. Improving one’s vocabulary though will require active effort not just reading. Maintaining a vocabulary notebook might be a good idea. Plan your writing but write the first draft quickly. Be specific and tailor your writing to the audience.

MD Weems notes that one must start with what you know and start with small articles. “Your writing must instill confidence in a mind that is inclined to doubt you” says Robert Warren who makes two very good points on how to keep the reader on the writer’s side by being bold and confident and maintaining an optimistic, positive tone.

Most people seemed to suggest that one must always read their own writing and make edits and to gauge one’s writing it is best to have someone else read it and get their opinion. Reading will help you gain knowledge about different styles of writing and explore new perspectives.

To conclude, I would like to share some interesting quotes on good writing:

  • “Write without pay until somebody offers pay” and “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart.” — Mark Twain
  • The abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete. — John Gardner
  • Vigorous writing is concise. — William Strunk Jr.
  • Don’t write about Man, write about a man. — E.B. White
  • Is every word doing new work? — William Zinsser
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active. — George Orwell
  • Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter. — Sheridan Baker
  • We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them — Isaac Asimov
  • Ptahotep noted, “Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day.” Yes, but only if he writes from the heart, and not just for copious beer. — Marvin Olasky
  • “The first million words you write will be crap” — Anonymous

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