April 1, 2006
The growing interdisciplinary field of journalism and trauma presents both challenges and opportunities to researchers. How do we combine tools from psychology, communication, and other social and health sciences to gather better, more in-depth information about the nature and effects of media portrayals of tragedy? What shared information do clinicians, survivor advocates, and media workers need to better work together and serve public interests? How do we investigate complex relationships between media content and public perceptions of trauma?
Two areas of research are particularly important in exploring how trauma-related news may influence our thinking in relation to traumatic stress: (1) analyses of media content and (2) examination of how particular modes of presentation affect public perceptions of trauma. These areas combine qualitative and quantitative methods drawing from research traditions of communication studies, social psychology, cognitive psychology and mental health disciplines.
With respect to content analysis, for instance, we know that reports of crime do not reflect the actual rates of crime (e.g. Barlow, Barlow, & Chiricos, 1995). Homicides are the most frequently reported crime in the news, though they make up the smallest fraction of crimes committed (e.g. Howitt, 1998). More minor crimes, such as theft, aren’t reported as often even though they make up the majority of actual offenses (e.g. Howitt, 1998). Furthermore, race, gender, age, relationship, and socioeconomic status for both victims and perpetrators of violent crime are not consistently included in news reports, which may promote biased perceptions. For instance, affluent white female homicide victims are more often recognized in the news compared to the more frequent, less affluent victims (Sorenson, Manz, & Berk, 1998). Perpetrators’ demographics are more likely to be included in a news story if they are black males in poor neighborhoods (e.g. Barlow et al., 1995). Otherwise such demographics are often omitted.
The manner of presentation appears important since media portrayals influence perceptions of trauma. Skewed news reports may mislead the public to believe that serious, violent crimes are on the rise. For example, the perception of crime as a pervasive problem has grown more than is justified by actual crime rates (Lowry, Nio, & Leitner, 2003). News coverage emphasizing violent crime has been related to elevated levels of fear and perceptions of personal risk in several survey studies across the nation (e.g. Reber & Chang, 2001). Public opinion and policy decisions have also been swayed in experimental conditions by non-contextual framing and the skewed perceptions that follow (e.g. McClure, Allen, & Walkey, 2001).
In addition to the selection of crime news by journalists and editors, the structure and manner in which a topic is reported can affect public perception. Many reporters use a “just the facts” approach when reporting crime news, often using the police as a primary or sole source (Bullock & Cubert, 2002). This manner of framing a news report as an isolated incident or set of facts disregards a larger societal role and omits context. When a domestic assault is reported, many traditionally written stories leave out contextual information. Prevalence rates, risk factors for domestic violence, and factors that contribute to the larger societal problem are often not included in news coverage.
Journalists have introduced another frame, a public health model of reporting, as one solution to non-contextual/episodic framing. This model promotes the inclusion of information about the frequency and consequences (i.e. economic, psychological, social) ofvarious types of crime as they take place in a particular community, including information on prevention strategies and risk factors for such crimes.
Experimental designs have shown that providing contextual information, prevention strategies, and risk factors within a story may shift readers’ perceptions of blame and personal risk (e.g. Coleman & Thorson, 2002). However, one study found that readers found public health model reporting to be less interesting (Coleman & Thorson, 2002). Reporters cite time and resource constraints as obstacles to obtaining contextual information and base rates for their stories (e.g. Thorson, Dorfman, & Stevens, 2003). Thus, the public health model of reporting may be difficult to accomplish, and its worth to readers is unclear at this point.
Important areas for future studies may involve collaboration between social scientists and journalists to achieve the greatest balance between delivering accurate information and promoting mental health and harm mediation among the public. Further research with solid methodology is needed to replicate or refute the current studies. Consumer effects of including or excluding contextual information should also be studied across various modalities of media to address questions such as whether televised trauma news has significantly different effects on individuals and the public than print news.