Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

If Agony and Numbness From Media War Coverage Generate Mental Aching, Why Watch?

We need valid information about all the nations of the world, but this coverage has psychological effects on all of us.

It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” General William Tecumseh Sherman

Initially, comfort is unnoticed until the grating brutality and rawness of killing and the spilling of blood become streams on the land that comfort becomes discomfort for us. Then we undergo something unexpected — numbness to it. “People exposed to media violence become ‘comfortably numb’ to the pain and suffering of others….”

We are thousands of miles away from the brutality, the inhumanity, and the illogical action of senseless killing. Yet, we watch it night after night until it begins to blunt our emotions to its horror. The tamping down of emotion and the increase in acceptance result from our intensely available, always-on media coverage. But it became evident before the internet reached its tentacles into our homes during the Vietnam War.

Night after night, we saw the bombings, the flames of whole villages turned into ashes, and screaming residents running down the street in flames. The killing of citizens, too, was captured for our viewing as the gun was placed near a man’s temple and the trigger pulled. How many times do we need to see this incredible violence before our mind goes into a form of protection — numbness to it?

Vietnam became known as “The Television War,” and battles were streamed into our comfortable evenings ceaselessly. Television and film have proven to be effective media to convey messages, and TV press coverage has increasingly become the medium of choice for most citizens. Whether choosing a network for its political leanings or its assertion of being fair and balanced in its coverage, we are still faced with emotion; how much are we affected by it, and how much does it influence us.

Over the years, since the inception of the cathode ray tube and the introduction of TV into homes worldwide, researchers have analyzed how viewers watched, but mainly they were interested in children. We’ve seen how children’s shows influence their willingness to watch shows like “Sesame Street,” but its ability to raise their I.Q. scores. Television is a powerful force.

The emotional numbness in TV viewers has been investigated by several researchers who have found that prolonged coverage of horrific situations, such as the Vietnam War, produces habituation where there are less intense reactions to these images. The more the images are displayed and the longer this goes on, the less emotional reaction is experienced by viewers. There has also been a turnover from news to infotainment that apparently is meant to justify the coverage.

As one research paper indicated, nightly news-watchers sometimes watch as many as five terrorism stories in a row. The opinion of violence researchers that coverage of the 9/11 attacks increased the awareness of terrorism, but how emotional they were about this material rather than the topic of terrorism itself is unclear. Research from London related to the frequent attacks by the Irish Republican Army indicated this may have been responsible for emotional numbing once an attack took place in London.

Seemingly contradictory, one positive result has come out of it; extensive coverage of this type decreases the terrorist’s intimidation of their intended enemies. But is that why people continue to watch this coverage so regularly? Do viewers want information, or do they want to steel themselves in the event of an attack and, possibly, receive tidbits on how to protect themselves, how to anticipate a terror attack, and what to do if they have some concerns about an attack?

Media is intended to provide citizens with information about their world, but it also brings into their homes emotions that they may not wish to experience in person. Who would want to stand by and watch someone be executed? In fact, watching such actions on TV creates a watcher who is powerless to do anything.

Curiously, there is an element in this war coverage that is essential in one form of therapy espoused by Joseph Wolpe. Wolpe’s idea of systematic desensitization led directly to reciprocal inhibition and then to exposure therapy. Simply put, it means that you cannot be both aroused emotionally (gauged by muscle strain) and relaxed simultaneously. Consider this situation of war coverage on television.

People watch this coverage in the comfort of their living rooms or other rooms of their homes, and in that environment of comfort and relaxation, they are exposed to the horrors of warfare. Wolpe’s idea for treating people with serious anxiety disorders depended on constant exposure, albeit from low levels to higher ones, to upsetting stimuli such as pictures of warfare or injured persons. He didn’t use warfare, but we can substitute it in this instance.

The more the person is exposed, gradually, to the stimulus of war, the less likely they are to be aroused emotionally by it. It creates, in effect, the feeling that it is no longer extraordinary and, I venture to say, rather prosaic in nature. Can war ever be prosaic? Of course not, but we can see that we can be numbed emotionally to it if we are continually exposed to these violent images.

The media, therefore, are in some incredible manner, providing us with the means to tolerate bringing warfare into our lives without the emotion that should be attached to it. How should we view this? Certainly, they are not altruistic in this, and, in fact, we know the media credo is, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

The more horrendous and outrageous what we see increases the ratings for the media and, as a result, their income. How can they maintain our attention? Increase the horror and break through the existing numbness.

Why do we watch this horror show? The researchers have provided the answers; once numbed by it, you can watch yet again and tell yourself that it’s in the interest of maintaining your knowledge of world events.

Ask yourself why people watch horror movies. Do you know? Do people enjoy being frightened and accepting the outrageous idea of walking dead or zombies?

Do we want the stimulation to counter the numbness that TV may have created? Is Hannibal Lecter someone we enjoy in some way? There is sensation-seeking behavior that can be satisfied in some viewers, and there is also safety in knowing we can’t be touched by the creatures.

The most widely studied trait in the research on horror is sensation seeking. According to Zuckerman, sensation seeking is the ‘seeking of varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.

In this regard, sensation seeking is in the service of relieving boredom, and horror films may satisfy that need. Does watching war coverage do the same? This is a good question for researchers to probe.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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