Supported by funding from the National Science Foundation since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Roxane Cohen Silver focuses her research on how major tragedies – both mass violence and natural disasters – are depicted in the media and how this may affect the health – physical and mental – of consumers.
After the events of 9/11, there have been a series of events that have allowed the Distinguished Professor of psychological science, medicine and public health and her research team to continue their important work: the war in Iraq, which began in March 2003; the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April 2013; the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014; the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016; and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and then the war between Russia and Ukraine.
In this UCI Podcast, we talk to Professor Silver about her findings and why graphic images leave an indelible mark on those who see them, how social media adds a new layer to the availability of that content, and what people can do to decrease the negative consequences that too much exposure to gruesome photos and videos can have on their health.
This episode was recorded in the podcast studio in the ANTrepreneur Center. The music, titled “Invisible Beauty,” was provided by Aakash Gandhi via the audio library in YouTube Studio.
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The UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to The UCI Podcast.
Our guest today is Roxane Cohen Silver, UC Irvine Distinguished Professor of psychological science, medicine and public health, and also the vice provost of academic planning and institutional research.
Her primary research interests include coping with traumatic life events and stress, and that encompasses both personal losses and collective traumas.
It’s been a time of collective trauma internationally with the recent edition of the Israel-Hamas War to the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. Those major global events are compounded by multiple episodes of violence here in the United States. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today, Professor Silver.
Roxane Cohen Silver:
Thank you for inviting me.
First, let’s begin with your research. How would you describe what you examine?
For the last 40 or so years, I’ve been studying how individuals and communities respond to adversity. And, in particular, over the last several decades, I have focused on what my colleagues and I call collective trauma.
My colleagues and I have defined collective trauma as events that occur in a community that impact individuals widely because it may be a mass violence event, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster – like an earthquake or a hurricane – in which everybody in the community is at risk of exposure and will likely be exposed to the events via the media. It’s also an event that the media takes from a local to a domestic or international audience.
When did your interest in this particular and very specific line of study begin and why?
I was not at all interested in the media, particularly when I began my work in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. And that was the first time that we saw in our data the importance of the media.
We noticed that the 9/11 attacks – although they occurred primarily localized on the East coast of the United States – were impacting people across the country and in fact, even across the world. And the only way that that information could be transmitted to people beyond the local area was via the media.
And in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, we saw that the more hours of that people were exposed to the 9/11 attacks via the television – the more hours a day they spent immersed in the news about the 9/11 attacks – the more likely they were to experience acute stress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the more likely they were to experience post-traumatic stress two to three years later, and in fact, the more likely they were to develop new onset health problems.
In 2001, people primarily received their news via the television and also in print media. But the media landscape has changed dramatically over the last 10-15 years. And now people carry very powerful cameras, in which they can take both graphic images of a tragedy and can take very graphic videos of a tragedy. And because of social media, they can disseminate that content very rapidly. And that content is not moderated in any way by an editor who previously made decisions about what would be shown on the television back 20 or so years ago. This new media landscape provided the opportunity for people to see graphic images about a tragedy across the world in seconds.
So, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, my colleagues and I published a paper that came out making clear the important role the television was playing in disseminating the stress of a tragedy beyond the local community.
And in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing – in fact, it was, I believe, the day after the Boston bombing – I was contacted by a journalist who had just read my paper about the 9/11 attacks. And she said, “You know, you were talking in this paper about the role of television, but what do you think is the importance now of the fact that people are getting graphic images via a tweet or via a YouTube video or even something that they didn’t expect that is just coming across their social media?” And I said, “You know, we really don’t know anything about that, but we’ll try to find out.”
And we began a study in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing in which we were able to look at this new media landscape. And we again saw that the more hours in which people were immersed in news about the Boston Marathon bombing, the more stress they reported in the immediate aftermath.
We also found over time – and we were able to follow several thousand people for several years – we found that over time, the more likely people were to engage in media in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing, the more fearful they were about terrorism. And so, when the next terrorist attack occurred, they were drawn to that media content.
They were also more likely to seek out images of terrorism. In fact, we found that individuals who engaged in a lot of media in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing – and who were more distressed or stressed about terrorism – were more likely to seek out images of beheadings that were perpetrated by ISIS. So, we asked people whether or not they saw the beheading videos that were quite prominent a few years after the Boston bombings, and in fact, they were more likely to seek out that content.
So, it appears that there is a cycle from which it’s very difficult for people to extricate themselves. The more media they engage in about a tragedy, the more stressed they are. The more stressed they are, the more worried they are about another tragedy occurring, the more likely they are to seek out content about terrorism or such tragedies, and the more likely they are to engage in additional media when the next tragedy occurs. And again, this cycle is very difficult to break.
So, your work has observed that the cycle of perpetuated seeking out of that kind of media exists, but has it been able to ascertain why?
Well, there are studies that have been done amongst clinicians who have investigated why it is that people who are so fearful of – let’s say things like spiders or snakes – can sometimes be incapacitated by that concern. And it is as if people who are fearful of spiders are constantly monitoring their environment to make sure they avoid spiders.
In the same way, we suspect that when people are very fearful about terrorism – or fearful about mass violence – they are monitoring their environment to learn more about whether or not these kinds of events are occurring, how they can avoid them, how they can gain some control over them. And this constant monitoring of the environment then allows them to seek out or to notice or to engage with stories about the next tragedy.
In fact, during the pandemic, some journalists called this “doom-scrolling” – that is clicking from one story about tragedy to the next, to the next, to the next… almost without thinking. And people could find themselves spending a lot of time immersed in all bad news, all the time.
It’s very, very difficult to extricate oneself. And many, many of my friends and relatives – even over the last few weeks – have been saying to me, “I know you think I shouldn’t be watching these news stories. I know you tell me not to engage so much with the media, but I can’t seem to stop myself.” And I think that’s very, very true.
I personally do not engage in images about these tragedies. I’m quite deliberative in the amount of time that I spend. I only read stories. I sometimes cover my eyes to make sure I might not see some images that are sort of above the print on my computer screen. It takes energy to avoid these images, particularly images about the recent war. They are everywhere. And because of that, it is very, very difficult to not get caught up in the stories and in the graphic gruesome images that one can easily find.
Are the images worse than the words?
How does the impact differ? I guess would be a better way to ask that question.
You’re asking a question that my colleagues and I have been trying to examine for a few years. In fact, we started an experiment in which we brought students into the lab, and we showed them images about a story about mass violence. We had them only hear it via sounds, so almost like a radio. We had them read. And unfortunately, the pandemic stopped that study in its tracks. We intend to conduct another study this academic year.
But it’s a very, very good question. Some neuroscientists have tried to make the distinction between sounds versus images versus reading something – that’s really been far beyond what I had originally started out to try to understand.
What we can see in our data is that the more graphic and gruesome and bloody the images, the more likely people are to respond in a way that mimics the kind of psychological responses that you see when people are directly exposed to a tragedy.
The changing landscape – it started with television and then social media happened. And with the advent of social media, you alluded to the lack of an editor. From what you’ve seen initially, how does the addition of what could be considered untrue news affect the sample?
It’s a really, really great question, and one that some of my students are particularly interested in. In fact, I was just reading over the weekend that there have been some images coming out of the Middle East that appear to have been modified in some way – maybe AI-created. The lack of an editor and the easy availability of fake images, I think, really does complicate this because it leads, it may lead some people to say, “This can’t be real.” That wasn’t the case some years ago.
One of the issues about the images coming out of the Middle East right now was that many of the images were taken by the terrorists – by Hamas – as they were perpetrating their atrocities, and they were live streaming them.
The extent to which we see and become fearful of and become anxious about images – and worry about the war and terrorism – the extent to which we engage in images perpetrated – or the extent to which we engage in images that are taken by and transmitted by the terrorists and feel fearful in response – essentially, we are doing the terrorists’ job for them. Their goal is to create fear in the population. And when we feel fearful, when we see images that they perpetrate and then we disseminate them, we are in fact doing for them what they actually wanted, which was to create fear in the population. It’s very different from what happened after 9/11 when there were journalists and news editors who were deciding what images were going to be shown.
It’s also the case that because there is now – what has been labeled some years ago – “user-generated content,” that is not monitored by an editor, you see many, many more graphic and gruesome images than one did before. In the days after the 9/11 attacks, I had been told back at that time that there were editors that made the decision very soon after the attacks to no longer show images of people falling or jumping from the World Trade Center. Now, fast forward 20 years and the kinds of images that are easily accessible are far more graphic and far more gruesome, and likely have a stronger, more potent effect on people’s psyche.
So, what can we do to protect ourselves from that level of exposure –especially the non-edited exposure right now – in a way to keep that severe impact to our mental well-being from happening? Our emotional wellbeing, it just feels like it’s constantly being challenged.
I think that that is true, and I think it is very difficult. And I listen to my own research and I’m an example of somebody who, as I said, am quite deliberate about avoiding images. I don’t avoid the stories, but I avoid the images and the videos, and I think it takes energy. But I think it’s important for one’s psychological health to monitor the amount of media one is exposed to when it is all bad news all the time.
I’m not in any way advocating censorship. I’m not in any way encouraging people to put their head in the sand, but I am encouraging people to monitor how much time they are spending immersed in bad news all the time and immersed in graphic images of violence and tragedy and adversity.
It is not psychologically beneficial to do so. I encourage people to pay attention to how much time they’re spending immersed in these stories. I encourage people to try to take breaks between their consumption of the news – to perhaps identify a few times a day that they’re going to pay attention to the news, because otherwise it can really become overwhelming.
One can be watching the television, having one’s laptop with stories about a tragedy also open, and then their phone – they may come across a tweet about some other tragedy. And it’s this combined constant onslaught. I think that is what is really challenging.
It certainly challenges me. We’ve worked together now for a couple of years, and I remember the very first time I heard your sage advice about limiting yourself, “Don’t look at the videos, try to avoid some of the images that you know are going to be upsetting.” And I’ve tried to honor that, and honestly, it’s really helped me. So, thank you.
Thank you for saying that. I appreciate it.
Thank you so much for the time today and sharing both your work and some insight onto ways that we can move forward this horribly challenging, pretty gruesome time in a way that is less damaging for ourselves.
Thank you again.
For the latest UCI news, please visit our recently redesigned website news.uci.edu. I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation, which we recorded in the studio of UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.