Here is my latest in ABC’s The Drum “When tragedy strikes, even onlookers can suffer”. The impact of news overload on people’s stress levels was a big talking point, particularly on social media. So many people have messaged me to say the piece has touched on what they too had been thinking about or experiencing.
The piece reflects on my experience as a social media user and as a journalist covering tragic events. I talk more about the inspiration for the piece in this BBC world interview , check me out around the 12 minute mark.
After a week dominated by tragedy and death – and a 24-hour news and social media cycle broadcasting it to us – what impact could this have on our mental health?
“I have no philosophy, nor piety, no art of reflection, no theory of compensation, to meet things so hideous, so cruel and so mad, they are just … horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes.” – Henry James
It has been a crazy news week. The second Malaysian Airlines plane crash in five months – the first saw a plane just vanish off the face of the planet and the latter with 36 Aussies among 298 dead after MH17 was shot out of the sky – has seen two unprecedented once-in-a decade news events back-to-back.
You can add to that the alarming death toll in Gaza that has left hundreds dead, a third of them women and children.
The pictures of mangled bodies among plane wreckage and dead children in hospitals dancing on our screens has left many feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed.
The impact of these tragedies on innocent civilians has honed home the transience of life and stirred anger towards those refusing to take responsibility for the carnage.
What has compounded these crises, besides being in close proximity to each other, is our unprecedented 24-hour news and social media cycle.
There are many positives to our new media environment.
It means immediate and constant coverage and a stream of stories that keep us aware of what is happening in the world. It means new voices outside traditional media can make themselves heard.
Journalists and news organisations are now made more accountable as an increasingly savvy audience will call them up on blunders in brutally efficient social media campaigns. The most recent saw NBC journalist Ayman Mohyeldin swiftly reinstated after being withdrawn from Gaza.
But is there a downside to the 24-hour news and social media cycle?
It seems we are caught in a catch-22 situation; the greater appetite for coverage feeds the constant stream of output by media organisations struggling to milk the story of every angle.
But is the constant barrage of information and sometimes graphic content spilling over our screens and personal social media networks having an impact on mental health?
Studies show those exposed to more than six hours of daily coverage of a traumatic news event can suffer more stress than those directly affected.
Melbourne psychologist Monique Toohey says in seeing graphic images an unwanted and intrusive replaying can occur, particularly as people try to unwind and go to sleep.
What you see cannot be unseen. I use this statement with my clients who find themselves replaying horrific images and videos and stories in their mind, hours and days after they were exposed to them in their Facebook or Twitter feeds.
I’ve never seen so many sad people this week. Even hardened journalists looked at me with bleary eyes reporting news fatigue.
Whether it was on your phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, at work or in a social setting, the news was streaming in, often unbidden from all directions.
Most media outlets filter pictures, prefaced with warnings, carefully balancing the news imperatives of showing the gritty reality but also being respectful of the dead.
Some media outlets, including NY Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, featured graphic coverage that was much applauded. I think written accounts occupy a different sphere. It gives you the full impact of the scene without the physicality.
In this coverage it was the small details that gave poignancy and humanised the tragedy, in a way gory blood images could not. Also when a reader clicks on a written story, they have the option of continuing to read or not.
Images, however, cannot be erased. Twitter and most social media outlets expose users in their social spaces, who are not seeking that content. In the case of family members who have not been notified, the results of exposure can be especially tragic. While Facebook and Twitter guidelines implore users to act responsibly, it is largely a self-regulated sphere.
Many of my friends felt disturbed by the graphic pictures of dead Palestinian children in news feeds used as a kind of moral pornography in propaganda fashion – designed to shock and often featuring dated or wrong images that undermined their cause and disrespected the victims. These pictures accompanied by self-righteous ballasts, ironically made from the comfort of a first world living room just fed the often draining debates that have left people feeling more angry and dejected.
I don’t undermine the power of social media to provide solidarity, support and powerful emotional sustenance to those outside the tragedies to vent their anger, frustration and powerlessness and also organise to rally. But I know many people have become paralysed and switched off by the overkill.
Ms Toohey advises those who fear this exposure to protect their online spaces, moderate their activity and post responsibly.
Personal censorship is required and each individual should tune in to their emotions and know when to turn the TV off, scroll quickly past photos before they load and, rather, engage in helpful coping strategies.
By switching off occasionally and having time to reflect it can empower people to help in practical ways.
In covering major news events, what I was always reminded of but could rarely report was people’s grace and courage under the most unspeakable circumstances. Whether it was a murder victims’ family using the death to become activists against drink driving or a community rebuilding after being shattered by bushfire.
The capacity of humans to endure, hope and dream despite it all is what should give us hope. The stories of survival and resilience should inspire us to support those who have the courage to bear what we find difficult to even witness.