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For the past few months, the world has watched in horror as the invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold. Every day, viewers tune in to listen to more televised reports of indiscriminate bombings, civilian casualties, and fears/speculations of nuclear war. When journalists are not discussing the war in Ukraine, they often shift their focus to other fear-inducing topics such as global supply chain shortages, the rise in crime, pandemic deaths, or natural disasters. Reporting on international and local conflicts and other significant events is essential to raising awareness among the public of important issues and allowing journalists to counter misinformation and hold governments to account, yet the constant exposure to traumatic material can also be distressing for many viewers (Pfefferbaum et al., 2014). Although not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a potential cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is at least some evidence that media consumption can worsen mental health outcomes among adults and children (Pfefferbaum et al., 2019). Given the central role journalism plays in society and the impact mass media can have on well-being, it is worth exploring how our need for reliable information and connection through the news can be best balanced with our need for psychological safety.

In 2014, Pfefferbaum and colleagues published a review of existing findings extracted from 36 studies on disaster media coverage and psychological outcomes (e.g., terrorist events and natural disasters). They found that most retrospective studies described significant associations between media consumption and post-traumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic stress, stress reactions, anger, dreams, alcohol drinking, negative emotions, and complicated grief above and beyond other sources of disaster exposure. A later meta-analysis confirmed that media exposure had the potential to exacerbate mental health difficulties, especially post-traumatic stress, and lead to negative emotional or physical effects (Pfefferbaum et al., 2019). Similar findings were reported in a different study regarding depression and anxiety in adults (Pfefferbaum et al., 2021). These reviews and meta-analyses do not establish media exposure as a potential cause for PTSD but do underline its significant influence on mental health. It is worth stating that because of the overwhelming number of cross-sectional studies, researchers cannot exclude the possibility that people with more serious symptoms may be drawn to the news to cope (i.e., no causal relationships between media exposure and mental health symptoms).

Given these potential risks, how can therapists, journalists, and clients best keep themselves informed and safe during turbulent times? In recent years, the use of trigger warnings in classrooms and before newscasts (e.g., “Some viewers may find this reporting disturbing”) has generated much controversy. Recent scientific evidence suggests these warnings have little protective value for trauma survivors in classroom settings (Jones et al., 2020), although others would argue that it depends on the exact type of material being shown (Pfefferbaum et al., 2019). Another suggestion for journalists and therapists could be to abide by Mr. Rodgers’ rule of “always looking for the helpers” in moments of distress (i.e., “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” – Mikkelson, 2013). If stories of unprecedented horror can negatively impact mental health, then inspiring stories of hope of courage could have a positive impact as well. Looking at other solutions, some researchers have suggested that journalists should share information on mental health resources much like they already do regarding reports on suicide (Pfefferbaum et al., 2021). Educating the public on symptoms associated with PTSD, depression, and anxiety during newscasts could also prove helpful and could help raise awareness among hard-to-reach populations (e.g., “if you are feeling lonely, powerless, and have lost interest in your usual routine, please call your local helpline”). Another suggestion could be to discuss the matter with vulnerable people and approach media content with a more purposeful and mindful outlook. What is the purpose of exposing myself to the news today; What do I hope to gain from this exposure? What personal needs do I seek to answer through media consumption (i.e., coping, reassurance, information, curiosity)? How are these stories affecting me personally (e.g., worsening symptoms, increasing fear)? How can I best process these feelings? Is daily media exposure necessary or can I ration my media consumption without risking being uninformed or desensitized? Would taking an active stance against man-made and natural disasters through volunteer work not satisfy my need for information better than passively—and perhaps even compulsively—consuming news? By taking some time to reflect on our lived experiences, and how we want to engage with the 24-hour news cycle and manage our indirect exposure to traumatic events, we can empower ourselves and our communities to remain safe, compassionate, and well-informed in hectic times.

About the Author

Josianne Lamothe, MSW, PhD, received her doctoral degree from the School of Criminology at the Université de Montréal in 2021. Since January 2021, she has been completing her post-doctoral fellowship under Delphine Collin-Vézina and Nadine Lanctôt researching the impact of a trauma-informed training program on the mentalization skills of residential workers. Her research interests include workplace trauma and well-being, social work education, complex trauma, and child protection. She also works clinically helping workers suffering from mental illness reach their goals.


Jones, P. J., Bellet, B. W., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Helping or harming? The effect of trigger warnings on individuals with trauma histories. Clinical Psychological Science8(5), 905-917.

Mikkelson, D., (2013). Fred Rogers — ‘Look for the Helpers’. Snopes. Retrieved from: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/look-for-the-helpers/

Pfefferbaum, B., Newman, E., Nelson, S. D., Nitiéma, P., Pfefferbaum, R. L., & Rahman, A. (2014). Disaster media coverage and psychological outcomes: descriptive findings in the extant research. Current psychiatry reports16(9), 1-7.

Pfefferbaum, B., Nitiéma, P., & Newman, E. (2019). Is viewing mass trauma television coverage associated with trauma reactions in adults and youth? A meta‐analytic review. Journal of Traumatic Stress32(2), 175-185.

Pfefferbaum, B., Nitiéma, P., & Newman, E. (2021). The association of mass trauma media contact with depression and anxiety: A meta-analytic review. Journal of affective disorders reports3, 100063.