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News.jpgThe past several years have ushered in a cascade of compounding collective trauma,1 including ‎the COVID-19 pandemic, a rise in mass shootings across the United States, a war in Ukraine, ‎and, most recently, catastrophic wildfires in Canada, whose smoke has threatened public health ‎across North America. Decades of research has robustly demonstrated that media exposure to ‎collective trauma can portend deleterious mental health outcomes for both adults and children; ‎such negative psychological outcomes include elevated posttraumatic stress symptoms, acute ‎stress symptoms, depression, anxiety and other mental health ailments.2 Such responses may ‎have long-term implications for physical health: after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more ongoing ‎fear/worry about terrorism was associated with increased cardiovascular ailments three years ‎following the attacks.3 Importantly, as the populace is exposed to more media exposure about ‎more traumatic events over time, the negative effects of this exposure may accumulate, with a ‎potential dose-response relationship between exposure and negative responses.4‎

In addition to the amount of media exposure, the content of that exposure also matters for mental ‎health. For example, following the 2014 Boston Marathon bombing, those who reported more ‎exposure to graphic images reported more psychological distress over time, even after adjusting ‎for total hours of exposure.5 In turn, that distress had measurable associations with functional ‎impairment. During early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, greater exposure to conflicting ‎information regarding the outbreak was associated with increased distress.6 ‎

Yet concurrently, during times of crisis, the media is the mechanism that people turn to for critical ‎information and updates. This is particularly important when collective traumas are experienced ‎through direct (e.g., physical proximity), indirect (e.g., knowing someone exposed), and media-‎based exposure. A critical tension emerges. There is the potential for multiple exposures to occur, ‎negatively impacting mental health. But people must stay informed about the crisis to learn how ‎to protect themselves and others from the threat in order to reduce the severity of event-related ‎trauma. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals were exposed to distressing ‎news coverage while they were grappling with severe disruption to daily life, individual sickness, ‎and even death of a loved one. Yet they needed to stay informed regarding vacillating mitigation ‎strategies and local epidemiological data regarding outbreak severity and prevalence. During the ‎recent Canadian wildfires, psychological distress from direct exposure to harmful smoke may ‎have been compounded by media exposure. Yet it was critical for individuals to know how ‎dangerous the air quality was and how to best adapt to protect their health and the health of their ‎loved ones.  ‎

Recent research has sought to explore how the media can be used as a conduit for necessary ‎information without creating additional psychological distress. In a longitudinal study of a ‎representative sample of Gulf Coast residents assessed for responses to catastrophic hurricanes ‎as well as COVID-19, exposure to traditional media (e.g., television and online news) was ‎associated with increased protective behavior in response to both COVID-19 and hurricanes.7 ‎However, increased exposure to social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, YouTube) was ‎associated with decreased efficacy regarding health protective behavior in response to COVID-‎‎19; social media exposure to hurricanes was associated with neither an increase nor a decrease. ‎This suggests that where individuals obtain their information regarding a collective trauma may ‎impact their psychological and behavioral response to it. ‎

Taken together, research demonstrates the need for accurate, clear, and non-graphic information ‎during collective trauma. Clinicians should be aware offor the potential for media exposure to ‎influence psychological distress, potentially exacerbating existing mental health ailments. ‎Suggestions include limiting the amount of time spent consuming news, particularly information ‎obtained from social media. With respect to policy and scholarship, it is imperative to discover ‎ways to communicate information regarding collective trauma in a non-sensationalized, ‎informative manner. Future research should continue to explore how to best navigate the tension ‎between spreading distress and informing the populace, in order to provide critical, empirically ‎grounded recommendations for media and mental health professionals. ‎

About the author

Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, is an assistant professor of Community Health Sciences in the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA. Her program of ‎research explores 1) how negative life events and collective traumas (including natural disasters, climate-related hazards, epidemics/pandemics, and terrorist attacks) impact individuals and communities across the lifespan; 2) how community-based interventions can help alleviate the harmful effects of trauma exposure, particularly in populations with high health disparities; and 3) how psychological responses (including affective responses and threat perceptions) guide protective behaviors in the face of community disasters. Dr. Garfin uses a biopsychosocial, multi-methodological approach to examining these issues, which includes longitudinal, epidemiological surveys; qualitative focus groups; biological indicators of the stress response; and community-based clinical trials. Her work is currently funded by National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, and the Department of Defense. 


‎1. ‎    Silver RC, Holman EA, Garfin DR. Coping with cascading collective traumas in the United ‎States. Nat Hum Behav. 2021;5(1):4-6. doi:10.1038/s41562-020-00981-x
‎2. ‎    Garfin DR, Silver RC, Holman EA. The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: ‎Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Heal Psychol. Published ‎online 2020. doi:10.1037/hea0000875‎
‎3. ‎    Holman EA, Silver RC, Poulin M, Andersen J, Gil-Rivas V, McIntosh DN. Terrorism, acute ‎stress, and cardiovascular health. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(1):73-80.‎
‎4. ‎    Garfin DR, Holman EA, Silver RC. Cumulative exposure to prior collective trauma and ‎acute stress responses to the Boston Marathon bombings. Psychol Sci. 2015;26(6):675-‎‎683. doi:10.1177/0956797614561043‎
‎5. ‎    Holman EA, Garfin DR, Lubens P, Silver RC. Media exposure to collective trauma, mental ‎health, and functioning: Does it matter what you see? Clin Psychol Sci. 2020;8(1):111-124. ‎doi:10.1177/2167702619858300‎
‎6. ‎    Holman EA, Thompson RR, Garfin DR, Silver RC. The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic: A ‎probability-based, nationally representative study of mental health in the U.S. Sci Adv. ‎‎2020;5390:eabd5390. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd5390‎
‎7. ‎    Garfin DR, Thompson RR, Wong-Parodi G. Media exposure, threat processing, and ‎mitigation behaviors in Gulf Coast residents facing the co-occurring threats of COVID-19 ‎and hurricanes. Risk Anal. 2022:1-17. doi:10.1111/risa.14032‎