Sometimes you need to stop watching
© St. Petersburg Times,
The feeling came after four hours of watching Tuesday's horrific events on four TV sets, as images of an aircraft plowing into the World Trade Center replayed dozens of times.
I needed a break.
Pulse racing, I walked to a bench, where I sat while a light rain dampened my forehead. I barely noticed.
Media psychologist Stuart Fischoff, of California State University, understood completely.
"Visual images (go directly) to the most primitive parts of our psyche . . . pushing all the fear buttons," Fischoff said. "And the more you watch, the more you want to watch . . . like a siren song. You don't realize you're getting more nervous, so you watch in order to calm yourself, and the cycle continues."
Viewers may have sought out the constant drumbeat of TV news coverage to stay informed and reduce the stress of uncertainty. But watching hours of grave reports and horrific video footage can often have the opposite effect, providing a direct emotional link to the anxiety of the crisis, however distant.
TV coverage of the aftermath continued to consume the airwaves Wednesday, with the major networks and cable news channels reporting continuously and commercial-free (non-news TV outlets that simulcast news reports Tuesday, including TNT and VH1, returned to regular programming).
Still, as reporters outlined the search for conspirators and aired new footage of the devastation in lower Manhattan and Washington, experts offered simple advice.
If it gets too upsetting, walk away. At least for a while.
"Contextually, (the media) makes things look like they're right next door," said Ken Killebrew, an assistant professor of broadcasting at the University of South Florida, noting that the college received several calls from students fearing their lives were in danger. "Everything's still here, and for most of us, our families are still here. People need to step back, compartmentalize it and disengage a little."
Such detachment is easier asked for than achieved, especially given news outlets' most controversial decision Tuesday: to show images of people leaping from upper levels of the trade center to their deaths.
"We have to look at this as a war. . . . We're going to see images that are horrendous," said Jim Church, news director at CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10. "We have to remember that our first priority is to inform the public."
Al Tompkins, a former TV news director and an instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the St. Petersburg Times), says it's appropriate to show such images but not to repeat them excessively.
"I believe it was totally justified (early, but) the repeated showing of those images does exactly what terrorists want -- to scare people into action or inaction," Tompkins said. "Just as we learned with (graphic footage) from Columbine High School, there comes a time when you need to stop showing those images."
Tompkins wrote a story for the Poynter Institute's Web site (www.poynter.org) advising parents to explain what happened to their children, watch news coverage with them and acknowledge their fears.
"Kids have a right to know what's going on, too," he said. "And adults need to need to know their children will be watching them for cues to respond."
That's advice echoed by Fischoff, who commended ABC anchor Peter Jennings for his humanism -- tearing up a bit Tuesday night as he remembered a talk with his child -- while chiding CBS anchor Dan Rather for his stiff energy.
The psychologist suggested watching news coverage with friends or family to ensure that any grief or fear is tempered by feedback from others.
"Don't live inside your own mind and lose control of your own fear," Fischoff said. "People tend to watch alone and create a far more horrific reality than exists."
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