Self-Study Unit 3: Photography & Trauma

The field of mass communication study is largely build upon “effects research,” the study of how media content (e.g., movies, newspaper articles, propaganda, television programs, etc.) affects some segment of the population. This research goes back about three-quarters of a century and has yielded a wide range of useful findings. The most important caveat that has emerged over the decades is that not everyone is affected in the same way by the same “message” at the same time. In other words, there is no “magic bullet” effect.

However, it is not uncommon for people who have experienced emotional trauma to respond in common ways. They might typically respond with fear and anxiety, hypersensitivity, grief, depression, avoidance behavior and so forth. For some people, these responses may last for weeks, even several months, as they gradually decrease in severity. For others, however, their responses may not go away, and they will suffer from a more prolonged stress disorder that can be cognitively, emotionally, physically and interpersonally disruptive. A trained mental health expert would have the capacity to diagnose a cause for this syndrome.

Preliminary and ongoing scientific research clearly shows that visual images do affect brain activity in demonstrable and measurable ways. Using a process called positron emission tomography (PET), scientists are able to observe brain activity under various conditions such as response to a specific stimulus. (PET is used with other organs as well and is primarily a medical diagnostic tool.) This neurological research has shown, among other things, that certain parts of the brain significantly respond to visual stimuli such as “film-generated emotion” (Reiman et al., 1997). Through the PET technology, scientist can actually “see” the brain’s activity change when emotions are triggered by a visual input. Other research has supported this visual-emotion-brain activity connection (e.g., Paradiso et al., 1997).

There isn’t a large amount of research on how traumatic images affect news consumers in particular, but mental health experts who specialize in trauma know that news reports about a traumatic event can have an impact on the psychological life of an individual not only immediately after the event but for years down the road. Those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, are particularly susceptible to having their symptoms triggered by reminders of their traumatic event, especially during anniversaries of the event or when perpetrators come up for trial. These dates usually signal a recurrence of media coverage and can be difficult for victims or survivors in the process of recovery.

Photographs of the terrorist attacks in New York City are sure to be shown many times in the future as the news media observe September 11 anniversaries or refer to the attacks for other reasons. These photos are likely to affect a large number of people who were profoundly traumatized by the actual event and are reminded of it every time they see images of that tragedy. (Various studies have estimated that hundreds of thousands of New York residents have suffered from PTSD after the attacks.) Because the attacks continue to be so newsworthy, it is inevitable that reminders of the event will be part of the news menu for a long time. Mental health specialists strongly recommend that people who feel they are suffering from PTSD seek professional help. The news media, too, should be careful not to sensationalize their coverage or re-victimize those who have already suffered enough.

One recent case where a community expressed anger toward the news media for what it perceived to be invasive and sometimes insensitive news coverage was in Columbine, Colorado, where on the morning of April 20, 1999, two students opened fire on their classmates, leaving 12 students and a teacher dead. (The gunmen took their own lives.) Local and national news media descended on this community and began to report the tragedy, creating conflicts with many members of the community who preferred to grieve in private away from the cameras and the reporters.

A documentary called, “Covering Columbine,” by Meg Moritz of the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, shows students, journalists and community members talking about the media coverage surrounding the worst school shooting in U.S. history. A description of the video (which can be obtained for classroom use from the Dart Center) appears on the Dart Center web site:

“Newspaper and television reporters and editors discuss such issues as using graphic images of violence in their stories, notification of family members when fatally injured children were shown, and news coverage of subsequent traumas occurring in the Columbine community.”

While there are still considerable problems that emerge between the media and community when the news media converge on a tragedy or disaster zone, it is reassuring that more self-reflection also seems to be occurring so that sensitivity and professionalism might help guide future newsgathering practices. It would be naïve to expect that tabloid-style news coverage of tragedy and disasters will disappear overnight — if ever — but more and more individual journalists and news organizations are having discussions about the negative and positive effects that their news coverage has had on the community and on themselves.

Simpson and Coté have included a chapter called, “Pictures and Sounds of Trauma,” in their book, Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma (2000). It is an important supplement to this online module. A profile of award-winning photographer Lynne Dobson, then with the Austin American-Statesman, follows the chapter.

Written by Migael Scherer, the profile describes a photojournalist with both skill and sensitivity. Scherer writes:

“Dobson is well aware of her potential to revictimize people in the course of crime coverage, even as she feels the competitive pull of pack journalism. ‘I try to keep my head on straight, to remember that the people involved have a life beyond the event.’ A long lens, unobtrusive angles, and putting her camera aside to connect with survivors helps, as does focusing on what readers will think and feel. ‘Readers care about people,’ she says. Because Dobson is aware that readers will be interested later, she always keeps an eye out for follow-up ideas” (p. 147).

Reports about international crises — war, famine, disease, brutality and other major conflicts abroad — can have mixed effects “at home.” Journalist, photographer and scholar Susan Moeller has written extensively about the subject of “compassion fatigue” (and its cousin, “donor fatigue”), a phenomenon in which news stories about particularly egregious events abroad elicit less compassion from readers and viewers because they do not perceive that there is anything that can be done about the situation, and they find it difficult to understand the complexity of factors that result in unspeakable crimes against humanity. As such, they “tune out.”

“We fall into compassion fatigue,” Moeller writes in the Summer 2001 issue of Media Studies Journal, “after seeing graphic images and hearing graphic tales that mean little to us beyond the fact that ‘people are being hurt’” (p. 110).

Moeller cites the horrific case of Rwanda, in which not only genocide but brutal mutilations occurred, often against children, who survived. The public response to the genocide in Rwanda was reticent, not because people did not feel discomfort — some complained about the graphic images in newspapers and magazines — but because they felt helpless and thus not compelled to respond in a concerted manner. Certainly there were calls to relief organizations, but not in the volume one might expect given the severity of the situation.

In contrast, when cholera broke out in Rwandan refugee camps and were reported by the international news media, calls to relief agencies poured in. This was something that people felt they could meaningfully contribute to; their dollars could buy real relief for suffering people, if only a blanket or rations.

What motivates people to care, Moeller suggests, is much more complicated than most people realize. Pity alone is not enough. Those who feel they are being manipulated by the news media may care less than more about suffering people. Moreover, she adds, “You have to know a subject well before you can care about it, whether “it” is golf or a war in Sierra Leone. If you get skewed information, not enough information, or information that is too offensive, you are unlikely to care about the topic” (2001, p. 111).

The deteriorating state of international news coverage does not help improve compassion fatigue. When news media move from one international crisis to another, aiming for the most graphic and extreme story angles, the audience may watch but “disconnect.” The opposite of compassion fatigue — civic engagement — “occurs when members of the public find that their own interests are in synch with the community’s needs and standards” (p. 111).

Moeller’s studies of international news coverage, which heavily incorporate analysis of photojournalism’s role in society and history, can be found in two extensively researched books, Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat and Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. (See Part 6 for full citations.)

The bottom line is that images can affect cognition and emotions in powerful ways, and this includes images of events not directly experienced but transmitted via the news media. Photojournalists often become the eyes for people who cannot themselves be first-hand witnesses to traumatic events. They help show us the who, what, when, where and why. In providing this important public service, they may inadvertently or carelessly traumatize their subjects, especially in the frenzied pace of a disastrous situation. But photojournalists have also used their special skills to show what humanity looks like in the midst of tragedy, and many have done this in humanely and with respect for their subjects and their readers. News organizations can also be humane and respectful when making important decisions about what images they publish, how often, and why. Many already have policies in place that govern their photojournalistic practices. Awareness of the psychological impact of images helps sustain this professional consciousness.