BUFFALO, N. Y. — Calling all broadcast news journalists: including the most disturbing and hard-to-stomach elements of a violent incident on air may actually pay dividends, a recent study finds.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo conducted a psychological experiment, in which participants were shown one of three clips of a television network’s coverage of a deadly ISIS attack.
One clip only showed the Islamic State militants transporting soon-to-be victims to the execution site; a second clip contained additional footage, but froze before the act of terror was committed; and a final featured the militants’ entire act of terror.
Lead researcher Matthew Grizzard says his inquiry was designed to question the widely-held, yet unempirical assumption that showing violent content during news segments serves no purpose beyond perhaps entertainment.
The assistant professor may be onto something.
“When subjects watched the most graphic clip, they felt the most acute levels of anger and disgust, moral emotions that predict increased desire for intervention,” Grizzard discloses in a university press release.
“We see increases in moral sensitivity and a greater desire for humanitarian and military interventions designed to stop violence motivated by exposure to more graphic portrayals,” he adds.
Many communications theory experts may argue that clips that edit out gore still create further disturbance in a viewer’s mind, as they can fill in the gruesome details with their own imagination.
Grizzard’s findings, however, do not support such a viewpoint.
“If that were the case, we would have seen more anger and disgust in the more sanitized clips,” he explains.
While Grizzard does not outright advocate that networks show graphic content, he does believe that video content should accompany almost any violent story that’s aired.
“Otherwise, you are failing to include the actual consequences associated with human tragedies,” he argues.
Moreover, “if you’ve made the decision that people need to know about this, then why pull back and not show them why they should care?” he concludes.
Considering the average journo’s unambiguous creed against airing sensationalist content — the Society of Professional Journalists asks professionals to not “pander to lurid curiosity” — it will be interesting to see whether these findings turn any heads.
The full study was published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.