24-hour war coverage makes viewers anxious


January 23, 1991|By Holly Selby

After the first few days of the war, Howard County resident Mary Jane Wright had to turn off her television -- at least once in a while.

"As a military mom, it's hard to stay away from the TV. . . . I find myself searching every face to see if I can see my son. When you walk away from the TV, you think, 'Maybe if I stay 24 hours a day I'll see him,' " says the mother of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Donald Kahrs. "But I want to have the strength and the health to get through this."

The compelling images of Patriot anti-missiles blowing up Scuds, TV reporters scrambling to put on gas masks and American prisoners of war reciting anti-war sentiments have held Ms. Wright, along with millions of other Americans, rapt.

But after a week of watching the deluge of news reports, many viewers may be suffering from what experts are calling the CNN Complex: anxiety caused by overexposure to war coverage.

"You've got people staying up all night because they want to see dawn break in Saudi Arabia," says James Turner, the Savannah, Ga., psychologist who coined the phrase.

"If it had been a three-day war like we hoped, then we could have stayed up for the whole 72 hours. But as the war goes on, people are beginning to allocate their resources. The bills have to be paid, the dog has to be taken out."

Spectacular 24-hour TV coverage notwithstanding, communiques to and from the gulf aren't limited to television screens: Even as mountains of letters and packages to the Mideast pile up in post offices, personal computers are being used to send messages to loved ones in the Gulf, networks link computer-owners to war reports, short-wave radios bring live Israeli broadcasts into American homes, and ham radio operators transmit messages to and from the Mideast.

"We have the technology to make war seem immediate," says Jon Perez, director of the trauma recovery team for LifePLUS in Los Angeles, which counsels families with relatives in the gulf. "But the onslaught of information can be overwhelming."

The advantage of the information deluge is that the viewer or reader "has an awful lot to choose from to make up his mind about what's going on," says Everett Dennis, director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies in New York.

But, he adds, "the other factor in all this is that the information comes from the same source -- Bush, the Pentagon, the military. It is coming through four regimes of censorship: our own rules, the Israelis', the Saudis', the Iraqis'."

Indeed, says JoAnne Brown, history professor at Johns Hopkins University, "censorship now is at a higher level than during both world wars."

Nonetheless, like millions of other Americans, Ms. Brown has found herself caught up in the explosion of war coverage. "I've been glued to the TV and I am exhausted and freaked out. I finally realized it's like watching pornography. You can't stop watching, but you don't want to be there," she says.

Gradually, people are developing their own methods of cutting back, controlling or gathering information.

Robin Raindrop's solution to the flow of facts about the war is to synthesize conventional and alternative sources of information. Every morning, the Towson resident rushes not to the television set, but to his Macintosh computer.

The co-publisher of Baltimore Resources, a quarterly environmental magazine, taps into computer networks such as Peacenet, then he turns on the TV. "The secret to all this is to switch back and forth to get it all: the sound bites, the updates, the print-outs," he says.

Still, Mr. Raindrop admits, the news is addictive: "It's an adrenalin rush. . . . I've turned into something of an information addict."

Those with loved ones in the Gulf are at particular risk of exhaustion as they try to monitor every news report. "They are watching TV for a shred of information about someone they care about. It's different from those who are hooked because of adrenalin," says Dr. Turner.

In either case, individuals have to judge for themselves what to watch or read, he says. "It's not helpful to hang on every rumor. The truth is this is what war is like: It doesn't come in neat packages."

Ms. Wright, who has a son in the Gulf, is aware of the risk. She has limited her television viewing to twice a day: before work and just before bed.

"I feel it's important to be informed, but we can't be living totally in that realm."

She also refuses to watch reports about those who oppose the war. "I appreciate what the media's doing [but] I will not watch the protesters, and I feel like that's my freedom to choose not to."

Christine Morgan, of Gaithersburg, has been using her personal computer to send messages to her daughter in Saudi Arabia, via a computer service called GEnie Online Information Services, provided free for families by GE Information Services. The 40-line messages reach her daughter in as little as four days.

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