Can News Retraumatize Victims?

Crime victims whose cases are reported in the media are more likely to have negative emotional reactions to that coverage than positive ones, but there is no indication that such coverage leads to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, researchers say in a study published in the latest issue of the journal European Psychologist.

Swiss researchers Andreas Maercker and Astrid Mehr surveyed a group of crime victims to see what psychological effects news coverage had on those victims. Maercker and Mehr identified two "contradictory hypotheses": the "support hypothesis," which suggests that media coverage might help victims by providing social recognition or other validation, thus supporting recovery; and the "retraumatization hypothesis," which suggests that media coverage leads victims to reexperience the traumatic event, impeding recovery and leading to increased PTSD symptoms.

Maercker and Mehr write:

The results of the present study do not validate the support hypothesis. Positive emotional reactions were reported only rarely and respondents whose cases were reported in the media were not better off at the 6-month follow up. Only partial support was found for the alternative hypothesis of retraumatization. On the one hand, the high levels of distress reported in reaction to the media coverage lent support to the hypothesis. On the other hand, there are no indications that media reports are associated with longer-lasting negative effects on the level of PTSD symptoms. This partial validation of the retraumatization hypothesis should be investigated further, with more elaborate assessments and study designs.

As a practical consequence of our findings, we would like to stress that people who suffer more from PTSD tend to evaluate the media coverage of their case in more negative terms. We conclude that the media should be more careful in selecting individuals to interview or report on after a traumatic event. Persons with higher psychological well-being seem to have somewhat less negative responses to reports on their cases. Persons with lower psychological well-being may be retraumatized to a certain extent by finding themselves the focus of media attention. Again, this conclusion needs further evaluation and research.