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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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New NPR study shows news can contribute to daily stress

New NPR study shows news can contribute to daily stress

A new study of 2,500 Americans has found that one in four people say they experienced a “great deal” of stress over the past month. Consuming news, they said, was one of the biggest contributors to their day-to-day stress.

The survey, which was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard School of Public Health, is similar to one that the University of California at Irvine released last December. The UC Irvine study suggested that repeatedly consuming traumatic news can cause acute stress. Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings, the 4,675 adults who participated in the study were exposed to bombing-related media via print, radio, social media and television. With each additional hour they were exposed to it, their acute stress symptoms increased, even though they hadn’t experienced the bombings first-hand. Symptoms included feeling anxious, feeling detached from a traumatic event or avoiding reminders of it, and experiencing intrusive thoughts.

In a story about its research, NPR quoted Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who has researched the connections between media and stress for two decades:

“The biggest effect comes from traumatic events covered in a sensational way — something that’s hard to avoid these days, McNaughton-Cassill says. ‘There is so much more news available, and so many different channels that are competing, that they’re trying harder to be sensational,’ she says.

“Another factor is the growing prevalence of disturbing images delivered in something close to real time, McNaughton-Cassill says. During the Civil War, media outlets relied on line drawings that could take days or weeks to reach an audience. By the Vietnam War, nightly video was available. ‘And now, of course, we’ve got the reporter there waiting to see where the bomb hits,’ she says.

By now, we know that consuming traumatic news can cause people to feel stressed. But what about the effects of post-traumatic news — stories that show how people are learning to rebuild and recover in the aftermath of tragedies? Given that resilience is an acquired skill, how might news stories about restoration and revitalization help people and communities to become more resilient? This question has been at the heart of our thinking around Restorative Narratives, and it’s one we plan to explore more in the coming months.