Coping With Disaster: How Media Audiences Process Grief

by Frances Ford Plude

Frances Forde Plude, Ph.D., earned her doctorate at Harvard University and studied satellite communications at MIT. She taught at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University, and is currently associate professor of communication at Notre Dame College, Cleveland, Ohio. She is co-author of Communication Ethics and Global Change (Longman Press), and has contributed chapters to numerous works. As part of a planning and research project, Dr. Frances FordePlude recently met with the communications ministersof all 13 European Community nations.

This article is from Media Development, World Association for Christian Communication, London, 1992.


On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland. Two hundred people died. The concepts reported in this paper represent the author’s attempt to analyze the impact, upon general audiences, of constant media disaster viewing, rather than focusing on victim’s families.


On December 21, 1988, individuals converged on Kennedy Airport in New York City to welcome family members home for the holidays who were en route from London on Pan Am Flight 103.

Later, at the airport, families learned with horror that the airplane had exploded over the tiny village of Lockerbie, in Scotland. Two hundred and seventy people died in the disaster, including eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie.

Thirty five of the Pan Am 103 victims were students from Syracuse University returning from S. U.'s semester-abroad program.

As media swooped down on families at JFK Airport and on grieving students at the university, trauma was piled upon trauma.

Within a month of this disaster, the author proposed to colleagues at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications that they join her in a systematic analysis of media disaster coverage. This research project was initiated by the Pan Am pain, but it is not limited to this one "media event."

Research team members have visited Lockerbie and built bridges to its citizens and to media and psychological professionals in the United Kingdom. At least seven individual research projects have been undertaken dealing with topics ranging from the preparation of reporters, to the variations among survivors in responding to media presence at the time of a crisis and after it.

The concepts reported in this paper -- one of the projects instigated by the Pan Am disaster -- represent the author's attempt to probe the impact, upon general audiences, of constant media disaster viewing, rather than focusing on victim's families.



In every age man faces a pervasive theme which defies his engagement and yet must be engaged. In Freud's day it was sexuality and moralism. Now it is unlimited technological violence and absurd death. We do well to name the threat and to analyze its components. But our need is to go further, to create new psychic and social forms to enable us to reclaim not only our technologies, but our very imaginations, in the service of the continuity of life.


The psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, quoted above, has systematically researched survivors of Hiroshima and Vietnam and other similar tragic events. (Lifton, 1967, p. 541) Lifton once made the dramatic statement that we are all survivors of Hiroshima. We might also be able to say that we are all survivors of the Pan Am 103 airline disaster, and that we "survive" the many other tragedies we are exposed to with painful regularity on global media.

My research question is: What, if anything, is actually happening to us -- members of the media audience -- as we view and "survive" so many disasters through media?

I wanted to address this question in connection with media coverage of Pan Am 103 and other disasters for several reasons. First, having walked through a spouse-bereavement process, I was personally familiar with aspects of the experience and could, therefore, call upon this experience in my analysis. secondly there are compelling new concepts in the communication and popular culture literature reflecting on media as myth, symbol, story telling and ritual'. The connection between these concepts and the audience impact of disaster news coverage seemed important to me.

And finally... thirty five Syracuse University students lost their very young lives in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103. These youth have become a tragic, but treasured, part of our university's history. This research effort is an on-going memorial, dedicated to them and to their surviving families.

I am attempting to explore disaster media coverage as text, as process, as mediator of reality.

Three issues are explored here. First we review existing and emerging theories of communication. This theoretical development began with the study of media effects in early communication studies. Research emphases later addressed the uses of media by audiences to gratify their needs (usually referred to as "uses and gratifications research").

Now communication scholars have integrated insights from the fields of anthropology and cultural studies and are conscious of the significance of myth, symbol, story telling and ritual in media/audience analysis.

The second issue discussed is the work of Robert Jay Lifton as a special subset of psychology literature dealing with death and survival. In this connection I will review highlights of personal conversation with Lifton. We jointly explore the possibility that "survivor syndrome" is possible in media audiences who remain alive after coming very, very close to disasters reported graphically in news coverage almost daily.

Thirdly, as I begin to construct a research design and explore these ideas further, I report on focus group results and additional research planning underway.

Communication Theory

We are becoming more and more aware, as communication media theorists, that television, for example, plays a major role in the study of American culture or in popular culture globally. TV is a set of entertainment stories, news stories and advertising stories. These stories create experiences we all have in common, a sort of "public thought" or forum that engages us.

It is not just a question of the impact of this viewing upon us, but our involvement -- sharing the same experience globallv and processing or mediating our reality through the media texts.

Stories are the organizing principle of television as a medium and these stories seem to represent a purposeful grasp at meaning f or all of us in the global audience. Media stories help us process our life choices. We are now including these insights in our communication theories. Key theorists are James Carey and Horace Newcomb.

Until now we have had what Carey refers to as a transportation model of communication: you have a source for a message, you have the message, and you have receivers. Theorists noted that the message was transmitted or transported from the source to the receivers.

We are now reflecting on a ritual model of communication: reality is maintained and transformed f or us by the stories and the symbols and the myths we see (and process) on TV and other shared media.

Victor Turner speaks of ritual as a commentator on society; today television, to some extent, articulates our culture. Ritual is participatory, so it is not just a question of receiving messages. Rather, it is a matter of being deeply engaged in a ritualistic process as we participate in TV and other media stories. There is a certain amount of imaginative freedom in all of this, similar to the role of art (and religion) throughout history.

Media and Cognitive Theory


In Social Foundations of Thought and Action, Albert Bandura notes:

Most psychological theories were cast long before the advent of enormous advances in the technology of communications. As a result, they give insufficient attention to the increasingly powerful role that the symbolic environment plays in present-day human lives. Indeed, in many aspects of living, televised vicarious influence has dethroned the primacy of direct experience. Whether it be thought patterns, values, attitudes, or styles of behavior, life increasingly models the media.

(emphasis added) p. 20

Bandura later refers to the experience of observers of painful experiences:

People commonly display emotional reactions while undergoing rewarding or painful experiences. observers are easily aroused by such emotional expressions. This capacity for vicarious arousal plays a vital role in the development and modification of emotional reactivity. on the positive side, it enables people to learn what might be pleasurable or distressful, without having to go through the same experiences themselves. In addition to its immediate functional value, vicarious arousal is an integral aspect of human empathy. Empathy with the suffering of others helps to facilitate altruistic acts or to curb interpersonal aggression. These effects are of no small social benefit... p. 307

Bandura notes several criteria that might be useful in assessing the impact of disaster media coverage on viewers. He notes that "past correlated experiences heighten vicarious arousal because they make what happens to others Predictive of what might happen to oneself, (emphasis added). This indicates a potential guideline for studying media (vicarious) viewing.

Bandura notes there is a greater emotional impact if one might face a similar situation in the future:

... seeing models undergo emotional experiences in performance situations that observers themselves are likely to face in the future has much greater emotional impact than if the observed activities have no personal relevance. p. 312

Another significant factor (which might be related to "psychic numbing" among individuals, including media viewers of disasters) is noted:

It is not unusual for people who have shared severe adversity and misery to become indifferent or callous to the suffering of others... Repeated painful experiences may eventually desensitize emotional reactions to pain. p. 313

Bandura adds this significant warning:

The vicarious induction of fears has more profound social consequences than direct experience because the vicarious mode, especially televised modeling, can affect the lives of vast numbers of people.

(emphasis added) p. 318

Clearly Bandura (and later, in conversation, Lifton) sense the deep psychological significance of media upon viewers. Much research has been done trying to assess the impact of TV violence on viewers. It may be just as difficult to monitor the impact of disaster news coverage.

Robert Jay Lifton

Reading bereavement literature, I saw a subset of this literature that was "survival" literature. This led me rather quickly to Robert Jay Lifton, who has studied survivors of Hiroshima, Viet Nam, and Nazi death camps.

It seemed to me that Lifton, after Freud and Erikson, had proposed a paradigm of compelling significance. Freud speaks of instincts, and defenses against these instincts, as the basis of psychological behavior and research. Erikson, of course, speaks of identity and life crisis as a model to work out of.

Lifton's model is death and life continuity. From this paradigm comes his current focus on nuclearism; he sees the potential of nuclear holocaust as pervasive in our psyche, our society and our public policy.

In his work The Broken Connection, Lifton opens with this sentence: "We live on images and to grasp our humanity, we need to structure these images into metaphors and models." This sounds very much like what communication theorists have been saying about media image and metaphor and story. And it relates to Bandurals recent reflections on the impact of media on the social foundations of our thought and action.

In Lifton's conceptual model of death and continuity of life, he speaks of a "death imprint" a heightened sense of vulnerability we all feel, partially because our science and technology make it so easy to destroy ourselves.

I began to be aware that Lifton's concepts may well be related to audiences in a mediated world where disasters are graphically reported with regularity each evening. Perhaps the result is a heightened sense of vulnerability among us as media disaster "survivors." When we view disasters are we thinking, with stark reality, of our own death? And what is the result if we have to think about this every night of the week as we have dinner?

I contacted Lifton and suggested that I meet with him to discuss these ideas. We have spent time reflecting together and certain conceptual frameworks have emerged from this dialogue.

Lifton agreed that there is an intensification of simultaneous worldwide sharing going on. He noted that probably all of this is occurring at a psychological level of severe intensity for most of us and, to some extent, viewers do become survivors and may model "survivors' syndrome" and other behaviors he has identified in his writings.

Lifton also agreed that there is the possibility of media audience psychic numbing, along with withdrawal and/or repression. And, of course, if something is repressed it does not disappear; it is still there to be dealt with later.

An interesting thing occurred as Lifton and I spoke. We became aware that there are significant differences in the way individuals relate to tragedies. He shared with me that one of the most serious disasters for him was the death and media coverage of John Kennedy. He noted that he was not an uncritical f an of Kennedy, but added "I was enormously impacted by his death and the media events."

I posed the question: "Do you suppose this was due to your commitment to Camelot?" He replied: "Yes, that is probably true."

I shared with Lifton that I was deeply moved by the death of the Montreal women. This was probably the result of the fact that these women were shot randomly in a college classroom by someone simply because they were f emale. Like the Syracuse University students on Pan Am 103, these students were random victims of a terrorist.

I guess, on reflection, I was also affected by the fact that the Montreal women were university students and I work with similar students daily. Another factor was that the Canadian broadcasting radio coverage of the Montreal tragedy was exquisitely sensitive. All of this made that particular tragedy one of the most significant for me.

There is obviously a methodological concept here that needs f urther research: what components of a tragedy and its media coverage speak to each of us uniquely? How can this be investigated?

Death and Life Continuity

There are many threads in the tapestry of Lifton's thought. A number of them seem appropriate f or analysis in a research design that probes whether and/or how the death imprint may be communicated globally through media.

Lifton speaks of the "broken connection" in the tissues of our mental life -- the image of extinction. His paradigm explores "the place of death in the human imagination, and its bearing on our sense of endings, changes, and beginnings. He ref ers to the Adam/Eve story and their opting for knowledge. "Knowledge is the capacity of the symbolizing imagination to explore the idea of death and relate it to the principle of lif e-continuity -- that is, the capacity for culture."

Instead of Freud's instinctual expression, Lifton sees symbolization as "the essence of human mentation." He notes that "the most fundamental symbolizations -- from which motivation derives -- have to do with image and inner forms around life, being alive and the maintenance of life continuity... the self's participation in ongoing collective life... ties to human community, to nature, to self-renewal."

It will be helpful to reflect further on Lifton' s commentaries concerning death and then examine underlying themes that emerged during his interviews and analysis of a specific event -- the Buffalo Creek, West Virginia flood disaster. These latter themes might serve as focal points in interviews and surveys concerning disasters covered by the media.

Lifton comments, in "Death and the Continuity of Life" (1974) that Freud says in the unconscious, each of us is convinced of his own immortality. Freud viewed sex and death as "the great instinctual adversaries." Jung states that all mythologies of the world contain beliefs about life after death, speaking of the "modern therapeutic ethos and the premodern Christian hope."

Lifton agrees: "To be sure, aggression and destructiveness and even guilt derive from the 'death instinct."' But he adds: "We need a different perspective."

Death has two meanings, says Lifton. The first is the act of dying (including suffering and loss). The second is the state of non-life -- the nonexistence of self. Death is the end of life, the loss of vitality, a disaster, holocaust, absurdity -- the feeling the whole world is dying. He notes that death is present for us in some way (death-equivalents) at all times. He comments: "Preoccupation with death, then, becomes the means of transcending it.

In the Buffalo Creek flood disaster 43 interviews were conducted including 22 flood survivors. In this 1972 event, 125 people were killed and over 5000 homeless were flood victims. This massive psychic trauma included a second trauma -- the fact that a community was destroyed. (Lifton, 1976)

One significant factor was the totality of the disaster. The suddenness of the event was made worse by the callousness and irresponsibility -of some human beings, leaving survivors feeling that their life was not valued in any way. The isolation of the area added to the suffering.

Human relationships were impaired. Lifton speaks of "counterfeit nurturing" and "unfocused rage" among survivor families. Psychic numbing, the diminished capacity for feeling was obvious (apathy, withdrawal, depression). Both survivors and observers evidence this disaster syndrome.

Death guilt is felt by individuals who survive, a sense that they should have been able to do something to prevent the loss of loved ones.

Death anxiety persists in dreams and in f ear of crowds. Death imprint consists of memories, images of massive destruction.

Hiroshima as Disaster

Moving back in history, from Buffalo Creek to Hiroshima, we see five major themes in Lifton's analysis of Hiroshima survivors: death imprint, death guilt, psychic numbing, nurturance/contagion, and formulation (the need to rebuild).

The death imprint is a sense of heightened vulnerability, along with a reinforced invulnerability ("I survived!"), the experience of a jarring awareness of the fact of death, and a sense of breakdown in the larger human matrix. A spellbinding fascination with scenes of death appeared, along with a loss of innocence of death and impaired mourning. Lifton notes (1967):

... the survivor of any death immersion feels his relationship to the ultimate forces of death and rebirth to be seriously threatened. p. 481

Death guilt is often described, Lifton says, as "a turning inward of anger." The sense is that one's survival is purchased at the price of another's as though there were a competition for survival. Funeral ceremonies speed the dead away from us.

A survivor's rage is also suppressed in psychic numbing "like wandering in a half world -- a state of "death in life." (This latter phrase provides the title of Lifton's Hiroshima book.) He notes that a psychic closing off can serve a highly adaptive function; it protects survivors from feeling helpless and is our defense against death anxiety and death guilt.

In response to these psychic dynamics is the need to rebuild, the "reparative process following any significant psychic disruption."

Awareness and Renewal

As he concludes his 1983 volume on death and the continuity of life paradigm, Lifton speaks of


Throughout this book I have assumed that awareness matters, that something is gained through understanding potential threats and possibilities. p. 391

He continues:

Awareness... includes the ability to anticipate and realize danger on the one hand and the capacity for knowledge and transcendent feeling on the other. My argument is that the two are inseparable. Imaginative access to death in its various psychic manifestations is necessary for vitality and vision. p. 392

In a thought that seems especially appropriate to media audiences, Lifton states: "I became convinced that anxious immersion in death imagery is important for psychotherapy or any other important Personal change. In that sense renewal involves a survivor experience... 11 (emphasis added).

His study of death and the continuity of life ends with a recurring Lifton theme::

We live on images and the images shift. our increasing capacity for awareness gives direction to our life-symbolizing process and we find a way to begin to understand. p. 394

Media Images

It is an awesome challenge to probe the connection between a mediated world audience being exposed to disaster news coverage, and Lifton's paradigm of death and the continuity of life. Here I propose, and report on, some beginnings.

Clearly, as both Bandura and Lifton acknowledge, psychology needs to address media impact systematically. One way f or the conceptualizing to begin is for media theorists and practitioners to reflect upon their own psychological traumas (like bereavement) in the light of what they know about evolving communication theory. I began there. (Lifton, too, speaks of "articulated subjectivity" -- the use of the self as an investigative instrument.)

Another aspect of the study requires much more collaboration between psychology scholars and communication theorists. I am trying to do this with my Lifton dialogues. As research progresses we will, hopefully, enlarge the discussion, including other individuals from both sides of the scientific fence.

Before discussing methodology, let me review many of the conceptual constructs that have surfaced in my research in the Lifton literature to date:

* the place of death in the human imagination

* its relationship to the principle of life-continuity

* this paradigmatic impact on the capacity for culture

* the self's ties to human community and self-renewal

* the death instinct and its relationship to aggression, destructiveness and guilt

* death as suffering, loss, the state of non-life, the loss of vitality, disaster, holocaust, absurdity, the feeling the whole world is dying

* the sense of totality in disaster situations callousness, irresponsibility of some humans in disaster situations

* psychic numbing as a diminished capacity for feeling death quilt felt by survivors death imprint as heightened vulnerability fascination with scenes of death a turning inward of anger in death/disaster renewal emerging from awareness of threats

Many communication-research concepts seem to relate to these:

* media as a force for enculturation

* media setting the news agenda

* symbolic violence on TV as a demonstration of power and an instrument of social control

* media usurping the role of religion as "authority" the homogenizing factor of media

* media message codes

* the narcotizing function of media

* media and technology as icon (ritual, shared belief)

* media as "purposeful grasp at meaning"

In discussing "uses and gratification" theory-building, one writer noted:

Not all investigations should follow the hypothetico-deductive model. There is always a need ... for exploratory studies of a descriptive nature. (Rosengren, 1985, p. 33-4)

This kind of careful conceptualization seems required here as we reflect upon both the psychological and the media realities listed above.

There are interesting questions. Is television truly dethroning the primacy of the direct experience? How does vicarious arousal facilitate altruism? What components of media disasters speak to individuals differently, and how, and why? Do repeated painful experiences desensitize us? Should this research methodology mirror studies of TV violence? How much are we repressing as we view media?

I have gathered focus group data, reported below. A colleague at the Newhouse School of Public Communications is assisting me in developing a research design which will include extensive interviews, survey and experimental data. Dr. Abby Mehta has done research in social psychology and advertising both in India and in the United States. Her expertise will be of great importance as we continue.

Focus groups to date have indicated that individuals identify with family members when they see disasters on media. Many individuals resent the questions that media personnel direct to family members. Some people report they are "kept awake" by this coverage, that they have nightmares, that they have stopped watching TV news as a result. Age diff erences seem to emerge, with some older individuals being quite practical in thinking that death is not far from them anyway. Many people speak of shock and disbelief when they first hear of a major disaster through the media. They then think about themselves: "That could have been me."

There seems to be differences between the way one views crime and one's reaction to major disasters. People speak of "small" and "large" disasters. Viewers seem aware that modern media technologies make it possible for coverage that is more graphic, more gruesome. Some viewers note, however, that when illness or death touches someone they know, it seems more tragic than what they see on TV.

I have made some assumptions here. It seems true that disaster coverage on media are having an effect (perhaps a disquieting effect) on vast numbers of individuals around the world and, therefore, leaving some kind of imprint on our humanity and modern culture. The connectedness of media consumers in some kind of public forum is probably of some significance. The total reach of this coverage may well have profound social consequences because vast numbers of people are deeply involved, leading, perhaps, to death anxiety and psychic numbing.

It may also be true that by being aware of these issues, and studying them further, we can exhibit the "vitality and vision" Lifton speaks of -- leading to "a capacity for knowledge and transcendent feeling."

Let us begin.




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