Media Coverage of Terrorism: A Meta-Analytic Assessment of Media Use and Posttraumatic Stress

By Houston, J. Brian | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Media Coverage of Terrorism: A Meta-Analytic Assessment of Media Use and Posttraumatic Stress


Houston, J. Brian, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This meta-analysis integrates twenty-three studies of media coverage of terrorism and posttraumatic stress (PTS) to examine cumulative effect and potential moderators. Overall, a significant effect size (r = .152) for exposure to coverage of terrorism and PTS was found. Studies assessing PTS symptoms/reactions found greater effect sizes than studies assessing PTS disorder; studies assessing multiple media were associated with greater effects than those limited to television; youth samples yielded greater effects than adult samples; and studies of samples located farther away found greater effects than those of samples in the same city as the event.

Research in media effects has documented ways different media can influence emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.1 For example, research has documented a relationship between viewing violent television content2 or playing violent video games3 and aggression, between exposure to sexual media content and becoming sexually aroused,4 and between viewing certain types of media content and feeling fear.5 In addition, a relatively new body of media effects research focuses on how media coverage of terrorism is related to posttraumatic stress (PTS). This metaanalysis reviews and integrates the literature on media coverage of terrorism and PTS to determine the cumulative effect on PTS outcomes of exposure to terrorism coverage and to explore how characteristics of the event, the individual, and the research method moderate these effects.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSDX PTSD is the most common outcome studied in relation to trauma research.6 PTSD is a popular measure because it is a diagnosable mental illness that can have profound negative effects. PTSD has been found to interfere with ability to work, to affect social and family relationships, and to be associated with an increased chance of attempted suicide.7 PTSD is a psychiatric illness with seven criteria to be met before diagnosis is positive.8 These include being exposed to a traumatic event (Al) and responding with intense fear, helplessness, or horror (A2); followed by persistently reexperiencing the event (B); persistently avoiding reminders of the event and numbing responses (C); and exhibiting increased arousal (D). These symptoms (B through D) must endure for more than one month (E) and must impair functioning or cause clinically significant distress (F).9 Meeting some or many, but not all, of these criteria - although potentially problematic for the individual - will not result in a clinical diagnosis of PTSD.

Whether or not exposure to a traumatic event through the media is sufficient to meet Criterion Al of the PTSD diagnosis is a matter of controversy in psychiatry.10 One authoritative source" allows for exposure to occur even if the event is witnessed (i.e., not experienced directly), and does not specify that the event must be witnessed "in person."12 Therefore, witnessing an event through the media may be sufficient to consider an individual exposed. Some researchers in psychiatry do not believe witnessing a traumatic event through the mass media is sufficient to satisfy Criterion Al;13 others disagree.14 This is a clinical debate, but regardless of whether or not it is sufficient to meet Criterion Al, it may still result in PTS symptoms or reactions.

Notwithstanding this debate, research investigating how media coverage of terrorism affects adults and children has often utilized some measure of PTS as an outcome. The connection between media use and PTS can be theoretically explained by consulting information processing theories, which have influenced models of media effects15 as well as models of PTSD.16 According to an information processing perspective, media content information is encoded, processed in short-term memory, and stored (or not stored) in long-term memory.17 Information processing theories also provide a basis for a cognitive PTSD model, with traumatic information experienced, encoded with high levels of fear, and stored as part of a trauma network in long-term memory. …

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