In spite of undisputed effects of negative news on the psychological and physiological health of people, we are assaulted daily with news on violence. It is worse on the social media. So people ask, “Where is the control button or has the world lost its humanity?”
These days hardly would you turn on the television, open up a web browser, or scroll through Twitter, WhatsApp without being assaulted with news of a new world of violence and inhumanity. On many channels, news on violence – shootings, plane crashes, ISIS beheadings, crime, war and human rights violations – are constant.
When a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurd, was washed ashore on a beach in Turkey, the picture was repeatedly reported worldwide to whip up sympathy for refugee crisis. He was one of the 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos that day. The picture depicted the dark-haired toddler, wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts, washed up on a beach, lying face down in the surf not far from Turkey’s resort town of Bodrum. Even children were not spared that horror.
As it has turned out, the story changed nothing. Today, in the full glare of TV viewers and newspaper readers around the world, the northern Syrian city of Aleppo is being painted in ruins; even hospitals and aid convoys are routinely bombed to kill.
“Whole neighbourhoods have been levelled by enormous explosions that have systematically targeted main roads around the city and all exits out of it, as well as marketplaces, hospitals, bread lines and fuel queues,” according to a newspaper report. “Those who remain in eastern Aleppo, roughly 40,000 from a prewar population estimated at about a million, have been without electricity or running water for more than a year.”
Nigeria has had a fair share of this barbarism in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents. Villages upon villages were razed and fleeing residents shot point blank. Bombed human bodies were a regular sight.
“We cried all day editing the feeds from the incidents, and if we were to show all what we got, society would be worse for it,” admitted a newscaster of a popular TV channel in Nigeria.
Responsible media organizations do warn viewers and readers about the little of these horrific scenes they report but occasionally, we do see dead bodies and human parts on the pages of some papers or on prime time news bulletins.
However, in Nigeria, news on violence seems to be a small percentage of the total. But even the little could be depressing and emotionally-charged. In much of the social media, however, the sensitivities are ignored. One evening I was looking forward to nice dinner when I got a WhatsAPP message from a friend for me to share with my contacts. It was a warning about how some cab and “keke” drivers charm their passengers into numbness and later kill them for rituals. It came with an image of fresh human parts dripping with blood, cut and arranged neatly, with the head looking up! A dark-complexioned woman of about 45-years, killed obviously for rituals. I rushed to throw up and lost appetite for dinner; my mood turned sour for the rest of the day!
Effects of news on violence
Sour mood is one of the effects of so much violence in the news. I suffered a mood change that evening; scientists have confirmed it happens. “Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story.”
Researchers continue to work the physical and psychological effects of the prevalence of violence in the news. They say why news of violence affects us so much is that attention is controlled in the brain stem through the reticular activating system (RAS). Naturally, this functions as an alarm so that an animal gets moving quickly if it detects a dangerous predator. But where are we fleeing to these days.
View from Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital Yaba
Consultant Psychiatrist at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital Yaba, Dr. Richard Adebayo is reported to have noted that the upsurge of terrorism could fuel major psychological impacts such as shock and acute stress reaction.
He said the direct and indirect victims, the survivors of the violent events or the injured, those who were present or nearby, those who were exposed to trauma as a result of their attempts to help victims, those who watch it in the news, face psychological reactions, such as sleeping disorders, eating problems, headaches, increased level of arousal, cognitive confusion, poor concentration, memory difficulties, distressing dreams or nightmares, intrusive thoughts or images among others.
Loss of humanity
One obvious observation is that we seem to be losing our humanity, the quality or state of being human; being kind and caring to other people or even to animals. We are no longer our brothers’ keepers anymore! Generally, we are becoming desensitized.
Violent news and trauma: According to a team of researchers at the University of Bradford in England exposure to violent imagery on social media can cause symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, explained as a persistent emotional reaction to a traumatic event that severely impairs one’s life.
In the study, 189 participants were shown images and provided with stories of violent events, including the Sept. 11 attacks, school shootings and suicide bombings.
The researchers’ analysis showed that 22 percent of those who participated were significantly affected by what they saw.
The study also found that people who view violent events more often were more affected than people who saw them less frequently, and that people who described themselves as extroverts with outgoing personalities were at a higher risk to be disturbed by the images.
A national survey in the US showed the following effects:
Adults: three to five days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, people reported watching an average of eight hours of television related to the attacks. Those who watched the most coverage had more substantial stress reactions than those who watched less television coverage.
Children: In the same national survey, parents reported that their children watched an average of three hours of television related to the bombing, with older adolescents watching more than younger children. Children who watched the most coverage were reported to have more stress symptoms than those who watched less coverage.
Vicious cycle effect on mood
British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, who specializes in the psychological effects of media violence, has observed that viewing negative news means that one is likely to see their own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when they do start worrying about them, they are more likely to find the worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.
According to Davey, the way that negative news affects your mood can also have a larger affect on how you interpret and interact with the world around you. If it makes you more anxious or sad for instance, then you may subconsciously become more attuned to negative or threatening events and you may be more likely to see ambiguous or neutral events as negative ones.
“These images change our overall mood to a more negative one — more sad or more anxious — and it is this change in mood that leads to psychological changes in the way we attend to things around us (e.g. we are more likely to pick out things in our environment that are potentially negative or threatening),” Davey explains. “This can have a vicious cycle effect on mood generally for some time.”
Vulnerability of children: Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of exposure to violence in the home and the media. Effects include reduced sensitivity toward others, being more fearful, and behaving more aggressively. In a recent study, adolescents who had high exposure to violence in the media and video games, besides behaving more aggressively, also showed that the parts of the brains involved in thinking, learning, reasoning, and emotional control were less active than in adolescents who had lower exposure to violence. Children also tend to exhibit long term effects into adulthood, with highly aggressive children more likely to become violent criminals.
Children and adolescents are also especially vulnerable because they typically do not have the broad world view or self-soothing skills necessary to cope with the distress induced by witnessing violence and cruelty. And they may not get the support they need from adults.
Copycat crimes: Violent news influences some people with troubled minds. They are so fascinated by the news that they try to copy or excel in it
Back to the question: Is the media reporting too much violence? Maybe we have to flip the question to get it right. Is there too much violence in the world now? Yes! Violent behavior has been around since the beginning of time but there seems to be an increase with the upsurge of terrorism with technologically enhanced opportunity to broadcast it by the criminals themselves.
But is the media right to show so much of it? With proper care of human sensibilities, the media is right to tell the news the way it is. The atrocities of ISIS must be reported, (without the graphic details of the beheading of people, etc), and Aleppo must be shown the way it is, if for nothing to attract humanitarian support, and expose the wickedness of people who drop bombs on defenseless people, including innocent children.
News reports must be the truth and nothing but the truth with a high degree of decency and professionalism. It has been observed, however, that some sections of the media exploit the truth that negative news sells.