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Watching Cops Can Be Harmful to Your Health

Even seeing police violence is bad for you.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

When the video of four cops beating Rodney King nearly to death swept the country in 1991, it marked the first time many Americans had seen police brutality up close. It was also one of the first instances of sousveillance, a term coined in 1998 by Canadian academic Steve Mann that refers to private citizens monitoring or recording the activities of authority figures. The King footage was broadcast repeatedly on newsreels: It was everywhere you looked. After the officers involved were cleared of all charges, Los Angeles burned.

Today, sousveillance is more common than ever. Cellphone cameras are standard, and individuals and groups are empowered to film the police, though bystanders still face hostility from officers when attempting to record. Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager killed last year by Chicago police, died in front of a police cruiser’s dashboard camera; the video, however, was suppressed by the department for a year, and has only just begun to circulate. 

In America, graphic depictions of police violence toward black people show up in the media with unsettling regularity, because there seems to be a certain corrective impulse towards accountability through showing the unthinkable, publicly. On Democracy Now!, Ta-Nehisi Coates—this year’s National Book Award recipient for nonfiction—likened the moment to the fight for civil rights in the ’60s. “The violence that folks saw in Selma, for instance, or on Bloody Sunday, was not, in fact, actually new... What was new was the cameras,” he said. “There was certain technology that was able to take that into the living rooms of America. And we’re going through a similar thing right now.”

Seeing graphic violence goes further than thinking about racism’s effects on black people. What does it mean to watch relentless community trauma? We saw Eric Garner strangled to death on a sidewalk, and we saw a homeless grandmother, Marlene Pinnock, beaten within an inch of her life on the side of the highway. Laquan McDonald, standing in the street with his back to police, was shot sixteen times, and we saw his body prone and jerking unnaturally on the ground as bullets riddled his lifeless frame. What does that do to your mental health?

Because the phenomenon is so new, there’s almost no scientific literature on the psychological impact of seeing graphic violence in the media, the user-generated images produced from successful cop watching for instance. There are, however, studies that investigate the effect on the journalists who screen and edit graphic images before they make the news.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is a trauma specialist and authored one such study in 2014. I spoke with him by phone about his findings. “What the results of the study show is that some journalists are affected significantly by viewing this type of content,” Feinstein said. “The other side of the coin is that the majority of journalists are fine. There’s a resilience within the profession.” That makes sense—everyone is impacted by images of violence differently, and it’s heartening that, for the most part, journalists are able to cope productively. But for some, the impact can be greatly distressing, and manifest in depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and/or PTSD. Feinstein says that has to do with how often journalists are exposed to graphic content: “If a journalist is [exposed to violent images] day in and day out for a long time, they habituate to what they’re looking at. It doesn’t seem to affect them as strongly as those who [are exposed] for short periods.” 

Which means that there’s a relatively harmful psychological impact when you’re exposed to violent images in bursts—like in the news cycle or trending on social media. This was the study’s major finding, Feinstein said. “My data shows that if you have a relatively quick exposure to very violent images—[if] you leave and then come back and are exposed again—this short, sharp exposure, that appears to be more unsettling than someone who’s sitting down and doing it hour after hour because in that case it’s almost like the body and mind switch off to what you’re looking at,” he explained. One of his report’s recommendations: limiting “relentless” exposure to short bursts of violence.

Feinstein’s study also clarified that graphic images had more of a negative effect on journalists looking at images from their home countries—e.g., Syrian journalists looking at images from the current conflict would fare worse, psychologically speaking, than if they saw violence in other parts of the world. “Many journalists who are asked to screen this content might be looking at images that come from their home, and that of course is even more upsetting,” he says. It’s not hard to imagine that images of violence done to black people would have a detrimental impact on the black people on the other side of the screen. 

Dr. Roxane Silver is a professor of psychology, social behavior, and public health at the University of California Irvine, where she’s researched the impact of broadcasting tragedies since 9/11. Her latest study, commissioned by the National Science Foundation in 2013, investigated the Boston marathon bombing. Silver and her team conducted interviews with witnesses to the traumatic event and with viewers of media broadcasting violent images after the fact. Her team found that viewing graphic images repeatedly could potentially cause harm.

“The kinds of violent events that many, many people are seeing have the potential to impact mental health outcomes beyond the immediate community,” says Silver. And: the more violent the image, the greater the impact. “The graphic pictures, the ones that include blood are especially potent,” she says. The image of Mike Brown’s blood blooming onto the asphalt of West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri is an image that fits Silver’s description of graphic horror. It’s now all too familiar. “The real challenge is that people now hold media in their hands; content is coming out of their phones. Now, the fact that everybody carries a smartphone around means it’s a very different media landscape than even just a few years ago.” 

When I asked about sousveillance, Silver agrees with Feinstein—there’s just not enough research to know what the impact on the public is, and she’s accordingly hesitant to say that looking at the images causes psychological distress for viewers. “This is a very new area. We don’t really know if seeing an image like this one time is enough to cause harm. Is it the graphic nature? We can’t yet say which piece of the exposure is critical,” she told me. “At this point, we know that exposure to graphic images leads to increased psychological consequences.” And, she adds, there are short- and long-term effects.

Silver’s most surprising finding: The psychological impact of exposure—and symptoms indicating an “acute stress” response in particular—were stronger from repeated media exposure than actually having been there to witness the traumatic event. Repeated media exposure led to nine times the likelihood of reporting symptoms of PTSD. Silver’s recommendation for viewers is blunt: turn off the news, don’t click on the violent video. Get the information you need and limit your exposure to graphic content.

“I don’t use any social media; I don’t watch television,” she said. “It’s quite a conscious decision for me, to step away from pretty much all forms of media. I stay on top of the news by reading online sources, but I don’t click on any videos.” Silver tells me she practices what she preaches, for her own sake. “I think it’s extremely important for me to stay away from this content. I strongly encourage people to walk away from the computer or television.” 

Morbidly, this vein of social-scientific research is now in vogue, given increasingly frequent attacks: in Paris, when ISIS gunmen and suicide bombers orchestrated coordinated attacks at several public venues and restaurants; in Minneapolis, when white supremacists opened fire on Black Lives Matter protesters; the recent shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood; and the video of police gunning down Chicago teen Laquan McDonald. There are bound to be more, and Silver’s prescription to avoid exposure to violent media grows direr every day.

McDonald’s family initially spoke to local media and requested that the video of the murder not be released because “it would be too painful for their family and the community to watch over and over again.” It appears that the science is on their side. And yet, last week, The Daily Beast posted a GIF of the murder, looping the last moments of the teen’s life and eliminating the possibility of looking away from the spectacle of black death.

Silver hopes people will take her findings to heart. “The most important message is that a steady diet of these images is not healthy. I’m advocating for a warning so people recognize repeated exposure to images of horror is potentially psychologically and physically harmful,” she told me. But until there are no more Laquan McDonalds and Michael Browns, it will be hard to look away. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Laquan McDonald was handcuffed when he was shot by Chicago police; he was not. This article has been updated to reflect the correction.