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The Role of Graphic Sounds and Images of a Mass Violence Event in Distress, Worry, and Helping Behaviors in its Aftermath


Exposure to media coverage has been linked to psychological symptoms, but less is known about specific aspects of this coverage (e.g., images vs. sounds) that predict deleterious outcomes. Additionally, literature has largely neglected potential positive correlates (e.g., helping behavior) of news coverage. Study 1 examined the relationship between frequency of exposure to Boston Marathon bombings coverage presented as visuals plus audio, visuals, and audio and symptoms of psychological distress in a representative national U.S. sample (N = 4,342) assessed within weeks of the bombings and followed over time. Results indicated that shortly after the bombings, all types of media coverage predicted acute stress, but visuals with audio predicted psychological symptoms 18 years later. Study 2 (N= 112 undergraduates) sought to replicate Study 1 experimentally by exploring whether the way graphic news coverage of mass violence events is presented produces differences in psychological symptoms. Participants were randomly exposed to one of four compilations of news clips of recent mass violence events in a laboratory setting (graphic video with audio, graphic video only, graphic audio only, or “talking heads”) and completed outcome measures online. The sample was too underpowered to detect any meaningful differences between all study groups, but post-hoc analyses comparing conditions containing graphic imagery to those without suggest that inclusion of graphic images leads to worse outcomes. In Study 3, undergraduates (N= 321) were randomly assigned to one of the same news coverage conditions as in Study 2. Participants were exposed to the clips online and completed measures assessing negative responses, intentions to help, and charitable giving. Findings revealed significant group differences in distress, fear, empathy, and changes in positive and negative affect. Those subjects in conditions containing graphic imagery exhibited worse outcomes. Graphic video with audio and graphic video only produced greater intentions to help compared to exposure to the “talking heads” control, but there were no group differences in charitable giving. Together, these studies suggest that traumatic media coverage containing graphic imagery (and to a lesser extent graphic sounds) may put individuals at risk for subsequent psychological symptoms, but it remains unclear whether graphic imagery can motivate individuals to take behavioral action.

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