The Ottumwa Courier

April 30, 2013

Bomb coverage a mixed blessing Facts, discussion important but don't overdose

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA – Even a thousand miles away, the news from Boston won’t let up. Every new utterance from “suspect number two,” every new discovery about “suspect number one’s” travels, and, of course, the “old” video showing the bombs going off at the marathon still dominate the national media, from TV to sports magazines.

It’s OK to talk about these things, even with kids, said an Ottumwa expert — just don’t overdo it.

“A lot of research shows the media can absolutely affect how people, both kids and adults, are impacted by an incident,” said Julie Thomas, a school psychologist for Great Prairie Area Education Agency.

In a way, said one southeast Iowan who has studied his share of disasters, overblown coverage or obsessive attention to the coverage can help those "terrorists" who are looking to scare us.

“It is big news, but when reporters sensationalize, it is working for this bomber by helping spread their fear,” said Jerry Calnon, emergency management coordinator for both Jefferson and Keokuk counties.

The factor that affects kids more than what is on TV, however, is how the grownups around them react.

“They take their cues from us,” said Thomas. “A lot of what goes into that is the idea that children are going to respond a lot based on what adult reactions are. So if you’re crying uncontrollably watching TV for hours on end, they notice that and it [impacts] their thoughts about the incident ... and their own safety. The thing to do is make them feel safe and answer questions they may have."

That's important because children don’t always interpret what they are seeing correctly. They may be under the impression, for example, that when Mommy or Daddy go for a run, they could be bombed.

“It’s important to answer their questions,” said Thomas talking about children around elementary school age. “I know I said it before, but children want to know they’re safe, that life is going to continue and that there’s someone who can answer their questions. We need to reassure them.”

Keep it age appropriate, however, she said. Depending on the child, you may not need to go into political beliefs of radicals, the specific injuries suffered at the marathon or the various nations and groups who want to harm American citizens.

And remember how different children can be, Thomas said. Her son, who is 14, had some questions about the Boston attack. Her fourth-grade daughter never brought the subject up.

"[Whatever] their age, you respond in a supportive, nurturing manner, and remember, they look to us for cues," Thomas said. "You want to respect the fact they're asking questions."

To discuss a negative situation, it may be helpful to talk about it threaded with the positive things that are happening. Pulling out the things that went well when everything else seems to be going wrong, said the psychologist, is a good life skill.

"Yes, there are people out there who do things that are terrible, and that makes me sad," could make a good starting point, she said, "but talk about the good things as well. [Some in] the media are talking to the first responders who helped at the race and how [as a community] they’re moving forward."

Those calm, factual reports are helpful to kids and to the emergency workers who want to learn from the tragedy.

Some knowledge gained by emergency responders will come from official “after action” reports. But the bulk of information, including background and general atmosphere of an incident, come from more common sources.

“In most cases, our knowledge comes from the media,” Calnon said, “and I want to be careful how I say this. Basically, the media has a tendency to sensationalize. This very critical event in Boston needs to be covered, I won’t argue that. It was very serious, it cost lives and injuries. But there’s a difference between giving a report and sensationalizing.”

He can hear the difference from when an announcer is reporting facts compared to when announcers play on fear to draw viewers or to make themselves seem important.

“They’re giving whoever did this the glory they wanted to receive for doing this," Calnon said.