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Psychology and the MediaReview - Psychology and the Media
A Second Look
by Lita Linzer Schwartz (Editor)
American Psychological Association, 1999
Review by Mandy C. Foster
Sep 23rd 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 38)

In the introduction to the book Psychology and the Media: A Second Look, editor Lita Linzer Schwartz makes a convincing case for her collection of essays. She writes that mental health professionals are called upon to examine their relationship to mainstream media and the effects this relationship has on both current and future members of the media-viewing public. She is clear on the goals of the collection: "Because so many psychologists wish to become more informed about working with the media, this book is a much-needed addition to the literature that will both stimulate and guide them in ethical practices" (3). The book is divided into two sections, the first focusing on how psychologists and other mental health professionals can best use and enhance media outlets, and the second has a theme of media influence on the psychology of our culture. Both are worthy subjects of discussion. Unfortunately, in its attempt to be both a how-to manual and an ethical guide Psychology and the Media: A Second Look spreads itself too thinly and leaves gaping conceptual holes in both approaches.

Part I features four essays on the perils, perks, and pragmatic considerations encountered when a psychologist breaks into mainstream media. The essays range from an overview of the role of a psychologist in the media (written by the associate executive director for public communications at the American Psychological Association) to a warm and thoughtful interview with a psychologist who hosts a radio program and who is quadriplegic. The focus in this section is on television and radio outlets, though there is some discussion of other forums such as print and electronic media. The section is basically a manual for how to work effectively as a psychologist interacting with the media.

There are some significant conceptual issues, however, that are not really addressed by these essays, or which are presented as ethical dilemmas to be solved by the psychologist personally. One is the question of whether or not it is appropriate for a professional trained in the art of careful communication to try to condense complex therapeutic ideas into media-friendly sound bites. Does the concept of a mental health professional include a close relationship with the media? Should it? Articles like media psychologist Michael Broder's, "So You Want to Work in the Media? 21 Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Asked Myself That Question", which includes topics such as 'Consciously develop your media persona' and 'Only do what is fun' suggest that the main reason for a psychologist to appear in media is because of what it does for the psychologist, and not because of potential positive therapeutic effects (25). These articles also ignore the possibility that the "fun" of appearing in media outlets has a critical correlation to the ethical risks one might take in engaging in such appearances.

The second section is weak because it is at best a hodgepodge of ideas without a coherent theme to link them. The first selection is an article which discusses moviegoing as a social phenomenon. While it is certainly interesting to read that some recent research suggests couples can be divided into two groups - film buffs and moderate moveigoers - based on the degree of "activeness and intentionality" with which they approach watching films (98), it is not at all clear how this article addresses the issues editor Schwartz mentions in the introduction. The article is conspicuously out of place in this collection.

The last three essays begin to move in the direction I had hoped for after reading Schwartz's introduction, yet even they fail to articulate some of the ethical issues implicated in the relationship between psychology and the media. With the exception of Rochelle Balter's insightful discussion of the images of disability the media chooses to display, the authors of these essays, which include Schwartz herself, seem afraid to assert any of the strong conclusions that could be drawn from the research they describe. After detailed discussion of studies which link depictions of violence on television and increased desensitization to violence in young adults in their essay, "Tuning in to the Media: Youth, Violence, and Incivility", the tentative conclusion of Schwartz and her coauthor Rosalie Greenfield Matzkin is that "the principles of behavior modification ought to be applied to the media. When the media emphasize story content rather then gratuitous violence, they should be reinforced positively by the public. Conversely, when violence is overplayed, the media product should be shunned by the public" (210). Yet it is not clear what role the authors think psychologists should play in encouraging positive reinforcement and negative boycotting. After asserting in her introduction that "psychologists today are in an important position to help both the public and media representatives sift through these issues in a responsible way" (3), Schwartz herself seems uncomfortable taking a stand on those issues.

So the question remains, even after 214 pages purporting to help answer it: what is the ethically appropriate role for psychologists in the media? This book tries to do too much - teach psychologists how to become figures in the media and discuss the relationship between TV and film and our values - and ends up doing too little. It leaves out important conversations about the ethics of a member of the helping professions working in a medium that is a less than desirable vehicle for therapeutic encounters, and it refuses to draw any conclusions about the damage the media causes on psychological health that may prove contentious. Editor Schwartz is to be commended for her intentions, but chided for her book's failure to deliver on them.


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