As everyone from politicians to parents of slain children search for answers in the Colorado shooting, many observers say the high-profile event is just the latest example of both the progress and problems in dealing with violent, media-driven events.
We live in a society driven by increasingly sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everything virtually immediately, says UCLA assistant professor and psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim, adding, “and this has a good and a bad side.”
Cell phone video clips from the Aurora movie theater provided a nearly instantaneous real-time window into events as they unfolded. Television coverage has blanketed everything from Monday’s court appearance by shooting suspect James Holmes to the personal stories of the victims and survivors.
The positive side of such immediate, up-close contact, he says, “is that we collectively can respond as a society, we can send money and relief and bring people in to help because we can relate right away.”
The downside, he says, “is that we are seeing it all through the lens it is being presented to us in.” This means we are being drawn through the event according to the biases and prejudices of the technology and the people behind it.
“By and large,” he points out, “these media are driven by ratings and the need to attract the largest audience,” not educate or uplift them.
We have shifted from a cool medium that provides some distance to the “hottest possible,” says Bernard Luskin, president-elect of the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association in Washington. “This means we are right in the midst of events now,” he says.
But as technology progresses, he says he sees little progress in the ability to respond and handle the deeper implications of violence.
“The information is geared towards the needs of the people delivering the information rather than the deep, emotional needs for empathy and sympathy that the victims of real violence require,” he says.
At the same time, there has been marginal progress in certain areas, points out Dr. Karim.
In the case of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was found to have ignored warnings about child sexual abuse, he says, “we are very uncomfortable with the details of those victims' lives. It’s one of the last taboos with a significant stigma attached to it, and we don’t want to know the details of its impact or what actually happened.”
As a result, he points out how much the coverage was geared toward the penalties imposed on the university and the impact they will have on the school and its football team. Innocent bystanders, such as Penn State students, in the scandal may suffer, he notes, “but they are not the real victims in that case.”
But the sort of psychological insight that can be provided in a swiftly moving media environment is limited, says Mindy Utay, a former lawyer who is now a psychotherapist and blogger for the Huffington Post.
“Unfortunately,” she says via e-mail, “pop-psychology has given most Americans a superficial and often inaccurate idea of human emotions and motivations.”
She says Americans in general are much more sympathetic to the idea of mental illness than they were even a decade ago – especially now that mood disorders such as depression, postpartum depression and bipolar disorder are "out of the closet" – but they tend to view violence in simplistic terms.
“The shooter was bullied [Columbine] or the shooter flunked out of his Ph.D. program and felt like a loser [Aurora]. There's a lot of pop-psychology input that shapes how Americans view violence – and much of it is misguided,” she adds.
Greater understanding does not mean all victims are equal, points out San Diego psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss, who specializes in borderline personality disorders. Even in the cases where the genuine suffering of victims is highlighted, mainstream media focus on what will drive ratings.
“The more mundane suffering of genuine victims of everyday violence will not get the same kind of coverage that the homeless man whose face was cannibalized in Florida did,” he notes. Proliferating media also give individuals the opportunity to find their own level of response, he points out, which can be both good and bad.
You can locate like-minded people to help in a terrible situation, he says, “or you can find a group of people to support your worst emotions and go deep into the dark side.”