Some believe that the constant replaying of the World Trade Center collapse on television after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caused stress and anxiety for viewers across the country. Many people blamed the media’s graphic images for propagating widespread fear and depression beyond that attributed to news of the incident itself.
Never before had a national disaster of this magnitude occurred on American soil, and technology's immediacy made the event a second-by-second spectator event. For those in media psychology, this tragic event generated research studies that continue to raise as many questions as answers.
Professionals working in the field of Media Psychology use psychological theories, concepts and methods to study the impact of the mass media on individuals, groups and cultures.
In a recent article "Media Psychology: A Personal Essay in Definition and Purview," the author, Stuart Fischoff, says that irrespective of the subject matter being communicated, media psychology wants to know how a particular medium affects or influences how people think and relate, how it affects values or beliefs, and how it shapes leisure and work time. Can one mode of communication affect behavior differently than another mode?
The Purpose of Media Psychology
"Only by understanding how and why mass media influence our lives can we better cope with them and only by coping with them can we change them so that they serve us rather than control us," states Fischoff, emeritus professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology.
Fischoff says that it's important to study how the media influence behavior especially since our culture is "media-centric." He points to a culture obsessed with celebrity, and news that centers more on entertainment and entertainers than newsworthy issues. He also notes that recent research shows that people between the ages of 14 and 35 now spend more time surfing the Internet than they do in front of the television.
The rapid - almost daily- changes in technology and the resulting effects on culture makes this field of psychology one of the most dynamic and exciting areas today. And recent trends in social networking software such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace have increased the importance for businesses and organizations to understand how the media impacts behavior.
The case of 9/11 gave researchers an opportunity to study and recommend changes so that news organizations can inform the public during and after disasters without inflicting more damage.
In a 2009 study titled "Emotional Stress and Coping in Response to Television News Coverage of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks," researchers report that while the study did not definitively determine whether media viewing actually caused stress-related disorders, it did find a link between increased television viewing and stress after the first few days of news coverage.
However the study also states that after the first week of coverage, viewership dropped significantly, and that those who curtailed their media viewing reported less stress than those who continued to watch.
"The fact that people in this study reported deliberately moderating their viewing of stressful coverage by limiting what they watched or distracting themselves supports the idea that media viewing is an active process that does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is a choice made by individuals," the study states.
The study raised important questions. Why did some people continue to watch the events while others did not? And did coping patterns or past traumatic experiences affect viewing patterns? What recommendations can media psychology professionals offer to media organizations to produce better content, and how can these professionals help viewers self-monitor their viewing behaviors?
These and other questions will have to be answered by those interested in pursuing a career in media psychology. Research and teaching positions will require a PhD, while a master's degree in media psychology provides entry to positions with media outlets such as news organizations, film studios, and independent filmmakers.
If you are interested in understanding how the mass media influence behaviors and attitudes, and you would like to make a contribution to cultural health and well being, you should consider a career in media psychology.
Find out how you can become involved, request information from schools offering Psychology degree programs. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.