Media & mental health

By Asma Humayun

DISASTERS seem to occur more often now than in the past. Any acute and sudden event which is collectively experienced as traumatic may be classified as a disaster. It can be natural (earthquakes, floods) or man-made (terrorist attacks, traffic accidents).

Disasters have both short-term and long-term health consequences. These health consequences cannot be studied without focusing on the role of the mass media. The significance of the media in everyday life has increased dramatically. Last month, people all over the country watched the horrifying images of a truck exploding at the Marriott in Islamabad, guards who were struggling to extinguish the initial fire being killed a few seconds later and the petrified remains retrieved from the carnage. So what are the effects of these media messages on the well-being of the public?

In a disaster situation, the perspectives of the media and those concerned with public health are different. Journalists highlight conflict. They strive to assess the loss of life and property, to determine if the damage could have been prevented and who is to be held responsible. They are drawn to danger and drama, looking for pictures that tell the most compelling story, even when the images are disturbing. This is in contradiction to the public health view which promotes absence of conflict, minimises loss of life, and emphasises prevention, reassurance and recovery. So how could the media disseminate accurate information and still help prevent mental health difficulties?

Generally, there is a popular thirst for dramatic news. Sometimes journalists ‘produce stories’ instead of merely reporting news. Even some inherently staid stories may be presented in a manner where they quickly attain scandal status. Some, obsessed with talk of cover-ups, may sincerely believe that they are providing a balanced view. Even slight misreporting constructs a representation of reality for public consumption. It cannot be assumed that a story will be interpreted as intended or that all the interpretations of any one story will be the same.

Sometimes journalists personalise the story of human tragedy to make it more meaningful. Unusual or shocking events may also be hyped by the media. This means that the event is pushed forward mainly by self-reinforcing processes within news production that is hunting for ‘newer’ news on the topic. We know that media coverage affects public opinion and action. In terms of covering a disaster, what can and can’t be shown?

The media believes that the public demands to know the truth, and as such it is the responsibility of the media to engage in unbiased reporting during a critical time even if that means providing a gallery of grisly images.

Some believe that atrocities related to terrorism and the havoc of disasters are downplayed by censoring information whereas stark images catalyse public reaction. However, there is an argument that the persistent use of shocking pictures can induce an analgesic effect and desensitise the public.

Over time, people get used to horrifying images and the desired acknowledgement of horror is replaced by “It’s another suicide bombing.” With the growing use of cellphones and digital cameras, there is no shortage of pictures and movies from the disaster zone. The media itself is gradually becoming more graphic as the terrorist acts go on and the visual impact is unforgettable.

A picture of a bloodied dead person or a child amputee could be a powerful image. Sometimes the media selects safer pictures. For example, instead of images of carnage, shrouded bodies awaiting burial are shown. Are these white sheets supposed to disguise the ghastly consequences of a disaster?

Journalists are interested in hospital settings, to keep track of the injured or officials visiting the injured. Most victims are dazed, overwhelmed by their traumatic experience and not really ready for appearing before the camera. It is not uncommon to see a woman, not fully covered, being dragged into or out of an ambulance. What about personal space? How do their families feel? Is preserving their dignity less important than reporting their arrival at the hospital?

Then there is the matter of government officials (supposedly public servants) visiting hospitals. Why are they followed by a madding crowd of journalists carrying mikes and cameras? All medical care is suspended, wards are cleaned up and administrators suspend their day’s work to receive the officials. Do hospitals have a media policy?

Health-related concerns about the role of the media extend beyond the context of reporting disasters. For instance, media coverage is seen as a risk factor vis-à-vis suicide. Media reports of suicidal behaviour may have potentially negative influences and facilitate suicidal acts by people exposed to such stimuli. This is most likely when a method of suicide is presented in detail, when the story is portrayed dramatically, and when suicides of celebrities are reported. Younger people are most vulnerable to the influence of the media. The media oversimplifies the causes, attributing the act of suicide to factors such as poverty, marital difficulties or unemployment. The most common factor leading to suicide is mental illness which is often overlooked.

So what is the solution? The media can operate in different modes. The media can follow but it can also lead. It can play a leading role in the social construction of the problem after a disaster. Broadcasting ongoing events and disseminating accurate information, raising awareness of the need for disaster management and mass counselling are all part of quality media. The media can have a huge impact on the way a disaster and the risk issues involved are defined and perceived by the public as well as the authorities. The media should struggle to define what happened and why, and what can be expected in the future.

Its goal ought to be to define the problem, engage in causal interpretation and moral evaluation, and offer problem-solving recommendations. Soon after a recent tragedy, the BBC pointed out the lack of firefighting equipment and efforts to save trapped persons while some other channels were lamenting about the missing government functionaries.

The media should adopt policies designed to portray reality and to protect the viewer. It must not forget the fact that it is reaching a large audience of varying demographics including children. Policymakers, public health professionals and media personnel should collaborate on formulating an effective and safe policy and defining clear guidelines.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines say that when covering scenes of death and injury “pictures should not normally be close up and should not linger too long.” It speaks of the need for warnings, with particular care demanded for daytime and early evening reports.

To begin with, simple measures like broadcasting repeated details of horrifying scenes could be limited to late-night bulletins. Finally, safer and positive journalism should be promoted through training courses for media personnel.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.

Source: Daily Dawn, 27/10/2008

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