Media ‘Fueling Distress’ With COVID-19 Reporting


Mass media should be mindful and take care to avoid stoking fears and distress when reporting on COVID-19, urges a study on the psychological impact of pandemic-related news.

Psychological resilience enables people to adapt to the challenges of life and maintain mental health when exposed to adversities. Published this month in Personality and Individual Differences, the study explored the effects of COVID-19-related news on the emotions and psychological resilience of people in India.

According to the study, people experience fear, social isolation, uncertainty and the possibility of losing track of their normal lives, owing to COVID-19 and restrictions associated with it, such as lockdowns and social distancing.

Difficulty in getting daily necessities, fear of catching the virus, lack of medical help, and vaccine apprehension leads to high levels of anxiety and distress, the study found, with negative reports in the media heightening these anxieties.

In an analysis of 141,208 headlines from global English news sources on the coverage of COVID-19, 52 per cent of news headlines were related to negative sentiments, whereas only 30 per cent of headlines were related to positive sentiments, the researchers said. The rest was considered neutral.

The study was conducted online during September 2020.

Shakshi Priya Giri, an author of the study and research scholar from the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University tells SciDev.Net that the study examined participants’ positive emotions, negative emotions and psychological resilience triggered by different types of news exposure.

“We found that the positive emotions of the participants were significantly higher for those who were exposed to news having positive content about the COVID-19 pandemic than those who were exposed to news having negative content, and also we found that the psychological resilience was significantly higher for those who were exposed to news having positive content about the COVID-19 pandemic than those who were exposed to news having negative content,” Giri says.

According to the researchers, while there may not be any clearly defined boundaries between what news is threatening and what is cautioning, still, mass media is expected to be sensitive to the emotions of people while reporting pandemics or any similar long-term uncertain and stressful events in the future.

“Mass media must make people aware about the current developments and warn people of possible consequences for their negligence, but not in a privative manner to inculcate the feeling of pessimism, fear, or chaos. Rather they must thoughtfully and carefully carry out preparation and presentation of news as subtle changes can affect the audience’s psyche in substantial ways,” Giri says.

Prasun Chaudhuri, senior assistant editor at The Telegraph, India, observes that by just publishing bad news such as rising death can make people lose hope while news about people coming forward to aid the sick and helpless do seem to lift public spirits and generally is “far more encouraging”.

Vikas Menon, additional professor, Department of Psychiatry, JIPMER, Puducherry, India, says: “In this research, the authors studied the impact of mass media on an individual’s emotional state and resilience. They found that the effect of negative news on positive emotions outweighs that of positive news on negative emotions. Further, they conclude that mass media can modify self-perceptions of resilience.”

Mass media has an important role in building resilience in the community after any disaster or pandemic, says Ramdas Ransing, associate professor of psychiatry at BKL Walawalkar Rural Medical College, in Ratangiri, India.“Sharing positive news helps to install hope in the community, creates a sense of coherence and security, builds trust and collaborative problem-solving efforts.”

*About the author: Sanjeet Bagcchi is a private medical practitioner with extensive writing experience, including for the British Medical Journal, Lancet, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Plos Biology, The Telegraph, Nature India, among others

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *