Thomas Wictor

When headlines do not match stories

When headlines do not match stories

A reader sent me the link to this story: “Viewing News of Trauma Worse Than Experiencing It.”

The problem is that the story doesn’t say that.

After the Boston marathon bombings, people who spent six hours a day scouring media for updates were more traumatized than those who were actually there, a US study suggested Monday… People who were there, or who knew someone who was, were more likely to experience signs of acute stress than people who were not there… But an even stronger indication of psychological stress was whether a person viewed and read six hours or more per day of media pertaining to the bombings[.]

There’s no mention in the entire story about the people who were actually blown up. Also, this was a survey, not a study. The respondents to the survey were asked questions. Nobody was admitted to a hospital and studied. No MRIs were given or blood tests taken. No psychiatrists evaluated anybody.

It’s commonplace these days that headlines do not match stories. The headline writers may want to sensationalize, or the headline writers may misunderstand, or the news organization may be deliberately fudging in order to promote an agenda. There’s a lot of complaining in this story about the easy access to traumatizing imagery, “the modern media” getting the blame.

Psychology professor Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California Irvine has the last word.

People should be aware there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to pictures of horror.

It sounds to me like this is another skirmish in the ongoing war to control what the public sees and does. It’s in the government’s interests to have an ignorant society, there are people who simply think they know what’s best for you, and there are also people who don’t care what’s best for you but just get off on wielding power over you. The bane in question doesn’t matter. Traumatic photos, sugary sodas, fatty foods, cigarettes, guns—all are just rationales for controlling you.

Whatever the real reason behind the mismatch between headline and story, I absolutely reject the notion that watching news of trauma is worse than experiencing it. And I can prove it to you.

A confession.

I’m not proud of this, but now I understand the context. Until I was thirty years old, I often looked at photos and film of actual death. It wasn’t an obsession, and I didn’t enjoy seeing such imagery. But when I came across it, I studied it.

The worst thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life was a movie trailer for a Japanese shockumentary called The Great Hunt 1984. It showed a piece of film from the Iran-Iraq War, in which Iranian troops attached chains to the wrists of an Iraqi prisoner, hooked the chains to two jeeps aimed in opposite directions, and then started up the jeeps and floored them. The Iraqi man’s arms were torn off. As he lay in the sand screaming, the Iranians shot him with an AK-47.

Those were the sorts of things I watched. In fact, I stayed after the movie ended so I could see the trailer for The Great Hunt 1984 again. It sickened me to my soul, but I had to see it.

Years later I realized what motivated me: coming to grips with my own trauma. Though people dismiss the idea, repressed memories are a reality.

It’s been asked, “Did any survivor of the Holocaust repress his memory of being in the death camps?”

That’s not an apt comparison. Was the survivor of the death camp four years old, and did he not understand what was happening, and did he dissociate, and did his trauma occur in a place he’d formerly thought of as a refuge? Who inflicted the trauma on him? Was his entire way of life centered around denial of unpleasant things, and was he taught to forget?

When I finally accepted the reason that I was drawn to extremely traumatic imagery, the need to view it went away. In 2001 I began watching gun-camera footage of terrorists being exploded with 30 mm cannon shells fired from Apache helicopters, but I stopped that after my white-hot anger over the 9/11 attacks abated slightly. I never watched a beheading video, except for one: a Mexican Zeta decapitated with a chainsaw. (That’s not a link to the video.)

I watched it because the man was a murderous criminal, and all the descriptions said that he seemed absolutely indifferent to his fate. Since the Zetas themselves are big on decapitations, I wanted to see a merciless bastard get a taste of his own medicine. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I won’t knowingly look at anything like that again. After wincing at the first cut, he honestly didn’t seem to care. Neither did his nephew, who sat next to him, observing, and then had his own head cut off with a large knife.

Over thirty years ago, I saw a BBC program that said watching genuine horror both traumatizes and desensitizes you. You end up like a confused dog. Many family dogs don’t know their place in the pack, because people feed them and then let the dog rule the roost. Feeding a dog shows it your dominance, but spoiling it tells the dog that it’s the Alpha. So the dog ends up insane.

That’s what happens when you expose yourself to actual horror. You make yourself insane, because you’re traumatized and desensitized. The desensitization makes you crave more and more, thus traumatizing yourself more and more. You enter a death spiral.

The proof.

Despite the years I spent consuming traumatic imagery, almost being murdered on December 28, 1995, was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Frankly speaking it caused me to have a psychotic break.

It set off a delirious babble in my head: There he is. I knew you’d come. Here we go. He’s here. This is it.

The man pointed the gun at my face. He looked two-dimensional in the orange light, like a cardboard cutout outlined in black Magic Marker. There was an aura of squiggly lines radiating outward from his body like heat waves, some kind of visual distortion caused by the thirty gallons of adrenaline dumped into my system. The darkness intensified until all I could see was the gun aimed at my right eye, the muzzle less than two feet away, a ring of bright metal around a black hole.

I went completely deaf, but I could also hear a strange cacophony, almost like a Tibetan religious ceremony, with gongs and horns. Everything around me seemed to have been sucked away, leaving me in a vacuum. At the same time, there was a tremendous sense of imminence, as if the air itself were about to burst wide open. The circus, my mind gibbered. Ferris wheel. Boston Pops. Happy New Year. God save me. Orson Welles. Nazi bastards. Christmas lights. Pinwheels.

“Don’t fuck with me, man,” the gunman squealed. “Hah? Hah? Don’t fuck with me!”

That broke the spell. I heard “You are going to die” as clearly as if someone had spoken it aloud, and then my body took over. Without conscious thought, I turned and ran, dropping my books. Deep inside my head, in an isolated bubble of calm, a countdown started.


I glanced back over my shoulder. The man in black ran after me, still pointing the gun.


I ran so fast that the wind whooshed past my ears. I seemed to cover twenty feet with each stride. The world tilted as I leaned to the left, sprinting around the back of my boss’s van. I’m a motorcycle, I thought. Zoooooom. I wasn’t moving fast enough, though. I wasn’t moving at all. The sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt was a dainty chip, chip, chip, chip in the whooshing but somehow dead air. Directly behind me, I felt a gathering, an expanding force catching up to me. The Tibetan music turned into an orchestral swelling like in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” I knew that it was the sound of my life ending. I had only seconds to live.

Ghosts and Ballyhoo, page 85.

I don’t care what any survey says. Watching trauma isn’t equal to or worse than experiencing it. That claim is false and an insult to those of us who’ve been mortally traumatized.

Almost twenty years later, it’s as though the gunman shoved his gun in my face five minutes ago. He altered the structure of my brain. For over a decade, I had crippling PTSD, what they used to call “shell shock.”

An encounter that lasted only a few seconds changed me forever.

As a bizarre postscript, the story linked at the top of the page includes quotes from the director of the “Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.”

Doesn’t that sound totally Orwellian, an institute staffed with reporter-torturers who interview you and then pull out your fingernails?

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