Psychological Impact of News Coverage Related to Terrorism: Implications for Pakistan

Erum Hafeez

Erum Hafeez

Erum Hafeez, PhD
Institute of Business Management, Karachi, Pakistan

Considering Pakistan’s strategic position as a leading ally in the “War Against Terrorism” the country has been subjected to frequent terrorist attacks and suicide bombings for over a decade.  An increase in the intensity of these attacks since September 11, 2011 has caused millions of Pakistanis to lose their lives, families and homes.

With the advent of 24/7 news television channels in 2002, following the media privatization policy of General Musharaf’s government, it is currently possible for the electronic media in Pakistan to cover terrorism incidents live with powerful visuals.  Advancements in technology have also improved the coverage of news via other media interfaces (printed and electronic); now news reaches the masses as it happens, giving them the feeling of being present at the incident.

During the last decade, terrorism related news has been extensively covered by Pakistani news channels despite evidence (Johnston & Davey, 1997; see also Davey, 2012; Naeem, Taj, Khan, & Ayub, 2012; Daredia & Rasheed 2013) suggesting that such coverage may cause viewers and reporters of such incidents to suffer from trauma leading to anxiety, depression, emotional problems, and suicide.

On December 16, 2014, the horrific terrorist attack on the Army Public school in Peshawar shocked Pakistan and the international community.  The widely viewed coverage with graphic and gory details triggered a debate in the country about the traumatic effects of explicit media coverage on vulnerable viewers exposed to real-life violence through their TV screens.  Altafullah Khan, Chair, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Peshawar, and Erum Irshad, Chair, Department of Psychology, observed that “the repetition of graphic presentations has a traumatizing effect on the audience, especially children who are the very victims of the Peshawar incident.”  They also “deplored that Children looking at children endlessly, seeing their misery, and identifying themselves with them, makes the whole media exposure extremely traumatizing to the worst limits” (as quoted in Bureau Report, The News, December 27, 2014).

Several studies suggest that explicit media exposure to shocking incidents is a key factor contributing to anxiety, depression, and poor mental wellbeing of the audience.  Johnston and Davey (1997; see also Davey, 2012) examined the impact of negative television news bulletins on viewers’ moods and the catastrophizing of personal worries in Britain.  They exposed three viewer groups to edited news bulletins with either positive, neutral, or negative content.  Participants who watched the negative news bulletin reported being more anxious, sadder, and with an evident tendency to catastrophize about their personal worries compared to those who watched positive or neutral news bulletins.

Naeem et al. (2012) surveyed Islamabad residents enrolled on the electoral register during January-April 2009 to investigate the association between watching violent news on TV and the residents’ mental health.  They reported that 29.4% out of the 494 respondents “scored positive” (p. 79) for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 47.6% for depression.  Also, 45.3% of the respondents who reported experiencing both real-life trauma and watching traumatic incidents on TV reported PTSD symptoms compared to 20.8% of those who reported only experiencing traumatic events on TV.  The latter group of respondents was more likely to live in joint families and had statistically higher rates of depression and disability.

A survey of 400 adults in Karachi by Daredia, Zehra, and Rasheed (2013) found that the majority (68.3%) of respondents reported using TV as their main source of news.  In response to the question on the “Effects of watching breaking news of violence,” 41.5% reported experiencing “brief” effects and 28.8% “lasting” effects; 43.3% reported feeling “stressed after watching television news” (p. 29).  Also, 20.8% of parents reported “Forbidding their children to watch television news” many times (18.8% sometimes; 9.8% rarely) (p. 29).  Based on their survey results, Daredia et al. suggested that media channels consider appointing a health manager or psychologist to monitor news content to avoid sensationalizing violent incidents via graphic depictions.

Several scholars have remarked on the sensationalism in news media reports and its possible impact on the viewers’ mental health.  Davey (2012) argued that the news media have been increasingly showering masses with sensationalized and emotionally charged programs about “crimes, violence, war, famine, terrorism, political unrest and injustice.” Professor Franklin (1997) has aptly commented (as quoted by Davey, 2012) that in the contemporary news media “Entertainment has superseded the provision of information; human interest has supplanted the public interest and measured judgment has succumbed to sensationalism.  Franklin, B, Newszak and News Media, 1997, 4.”

Editor of Dawnnews TV, Osama Javaid (2009) suggested that Pakistani TV channels should avoid live coverage of terrorist attacks, bomb blasts, funerals and other disasters—“broadcasting bullet-riddled, blood-stained bodies of suspected terrorists, zooming in on the identifiable faces of rape victims, and incessantly screening the scattering of body parts after suicide blasts needs to stop.”

Since Pakistan is currently experiencing a war-like situation, confronting militants and extremists both within and outside the country, native mass media need to play a conscientious and constructive role in bringing news to the masses.  Perhaps, a more difficult task for journalists is to balance responsible objective reporting with the amount of explicitness in showing violent incidents.  Rationally, it would seem that depicting violence graphically would turn people away from violence, but that does not seem to happen.  On the contrary, graphic displays of violence on TV might reinforce perpetrators of violence to further engage in such behavior without regard to the effects such exposure may have on the mental health of the surviving victims, their families, and viewers.


Daredia, M. K., Zehra, N., & Rasheed S. (2013) Psychological effects of viewing news channels among adult population of Karachi, Pakistan. Pakistan Journal of Medicine and Dentistry, 2 (1), 24-32

Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C.  (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV newsbulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88, 85-91.

Naeem, T. R., Khan, A., & Ayub, M. (2012) Can watching traumatic events on TV cause PTSD symptoms? Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 126, 79-80.

2 thoughts on “Psychological Impact of News Coverage Related to Terrorism: Implications for Pakistan

  1. Pingback: From the Editor: The Media and Compassion Fatigue* | THE AMPLIFIER MAGAZINE

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