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Friday, July 26, 2013

The Impact Of Seeing Disaster Videos Over And Over

A screenshot from a video of the train derailment in Spain. (YouTube)

A screenshot from a video of the train derailment in Spain. (YouTube)

The train derailment in Spain is the latest in a series of disasters this year that have been caught on video and been played over and over again in the media.

There was the meteorite that hit Russia, the Asiana Airlines crash landing in San Francisco and the oil train explosion in Quebec.

What kind of psychological effect does that repeated exposure to tragic disaster imagery have on us?

Suddenly we’re part of an international community of mourners, and I think that feels satisfying to us.

– Eric Wilson

“I think it does quite a few things to us,” Eric Wilson, author of “Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” told Here & Now. “Too much can actually be traumatic for someone watching. Also, watching these videos too much can lead to a numbness.”

Trying to get media outlets not to show the videos is not the answer, Wilson said.

“It’s up to the viewers to choose how often we watch these videos and ultimately figure out why we’re watching these videos. It we’re doing it for a cheap thrill, obviously we should question ourselves. If in the midst of watching these videos we’re thinking more deeply about suffering and the meaning of death then perhaps meditating on these videos isn’t such a bad thing,” he said.

When there is a major disaster, people may feel compelled to watch the videos as a way of connecting to what’s happening.

“In a world where we often feel isolated, where we often feel trapped in front of our own computer screen, trapped in our own rooms having virtual experiences not real contact, suddenly we’re part of an international community of mourners, and I think that feels satisfying to us,” Wilson said. “We are all at the same time mourning this tragedy in Spain.”

While some people may be desensitized by disaster videos, others may have the opposite experience.

Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson grew up in Tornado Alley, and a tornado even hit his hometown once when he was a kid. But he was never afraid of tornadoes.

“I was always fascinated by tornadoes,” Hobson said. “I wanted to see them up close —  until the age of YouTube videos, where we see up close what happens when a tornado hits … So now, after seeing so many of these videos up-close and what a tornado really does, I don’t want to see one. I don’t want to be anywhere near one.”


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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