Friday, 22 August 2014

Reader reactions to news of terrorism depend on the images that are used

After viewing images of terrorists, people reported feelings of anger and fear
How readers' emotions are affected by media reports of terrorist attacks depends on the photos used to accompany the story. That's according to an analysis by Aarti Iyer and colleagues, who say these different emotional reactions in turn lead to support for different government policies.

Over two-hundred British adults (aged 18 to 68; 92 women), many based in London, read a news summary of the London terrorist bombings that occurred on July 7, 2005. Afterwards, the participants were split into two groups - one group was shown photographs that displayed the terrorist attackers, including head-shots and security camera footage. The other group was shown photographs displaying victims of the attacks, including wounded people and distressed bystanders.

Participants who viewed the images of terrorists subsequently reported feeling a stronger sense of injustice (than those who saw the victims), and felt more of a sense that the terrorists were dangerous and threatening. In terms of emotions, viewing the images of the terrorists was associated with higher levels of fear and anger. In contrast, participants who saw the images of the victims were afterwards more conscious of people suffering, and they tended to report feeling more sympathy.

Although a direct comparison found no difference between the two participant groups, in terms of their subsequent support for various government terrorism policies, Iyer and her team claim there were indirect effects of the two image conditions. According to the researchers' analysis, viewing images of the terrorists increased levels of anger and fear, and in turn these emotions were associated with more support for aggressive counter-terrorism and more negotiation, respectively. In contrast, seeing images of victims increased feelings of sympathy, which was associated with more support for policies aimed at helping victims.

"Given that images of terrorism may be easily used (and abused) to manipulate public opinion, it is ... vital that media editors and policy makers better understand the psychological processes underlying the phenomenon," the researchers said. They admitted that much more research is needed in this area, and they acknowledged that in reality readers and viewers are often exposed to a mixture of images. But despite this caution, Iyer and her team also wrote that their findings demonstrate "the powerful impact of media images in shaping individuals' emotional and political responses to terrorism..."

Readers of a sceptical persuasion may not be so convinced. The path analysis used in this research can only demonstrate correlations between measured factors - causality, and its true direction from one factor to another, has not been proven. Ultimately, the two groups of participants did not differ in their support for different government policies. This research was also unable to explain why some people responded to images of the terrorists with anger, and others with fear.

See the comments for more critical analysis.

  ResearchBlogging.orgIyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M., & Vanman, E. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (7), 511-521 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12243

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

It is a shame there appears to have been neither a control group nor any baseline measures. An absence of both would mean that we have no evidence of which set of images had which effects. We appear invited to believe that the ‘terrorist’ images increased both feelings of anger and fear and judgement of injustice while ‘victim’ images increased feelings of sympathy. While this is entirely plausible, it seems at least possible that viewing terrorist images may have decreased feelings of sympathy and/or viewing victim images increased feelings of anger and fear and judgements of injustice. If this is correct, we do not know whether both sets of images had independent effects, whether one set of images had all the effects, or something in-between.

One reason this is a shame is that it is difficult to work out what exact role sympathy may have played. Particularly intriguing is the possibility that the sympathy (or something correlated with it) that may have been evoked by viewing victim images dampened feeling of anger and judgements of injustice. If so, viewing victim images may sometimes increase viewers’ concern for the victims AND ‘distract’ them from concerns about the causes of such victimhood. Such a possibility would have important implications for all sorts of media coverage and use.

Research Digest said...

Excellent points and commentary - thanks Tom.

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.