Effects of Media Sensationalization on Cognitive Performance and Post Concussive Symptoms

J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2019 Jan;25(1):90-100. doi: 10.1017/S1355617718000760. Epub 2018 Oct 31.


Objectives: The current study aimed to examine if televised media about mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) framed in a sensationalized manner had a negative impact on cognitive functioning and persistent mTBI symptoms.

Methods: One hundred two participants (M Age=37.16; SD=22.61) with a history of post-acute mTBI, recruited through a community research registry and an undergraduate recruitment system, were included in this study. Participants were assessed with a measure of health literacy, the Short Test of Functional Health Literacy in Adults (S-TOFHLA), and randomized to watch either a sensationalized or non-sensationalized news clip focused on mTBI. They were then assessed with the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), Rivermead Post Concussion Symptoms Questionnaire (RPQ), Patient Reported Outcome Measures Information System (PROMIS) Depression scale, and the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (PCL-5).

Results: Bayesian analyses indicated that sensationalized media-alone (β PASAT=-0.08; β RPQ=-0.08) or in the context of covariates (β PASAT=-0.11; β RPQ=-0.14)-was not a strong predictor of PASAT score or post-concussion syndrome symptom severity.

Conclusions: Although media sensationalization of mTBI symptoms is not desirable, this study suggests that one brief exposure to sensationalized information may not have a meaningful immediate impact on the cognitive functioning or symptom reporting of individuals with a history of mTBI. Future research should examine long-term and downstream effects of sensationalized media reporting in samples with greater diversity of TBI history. (JINS, 2019, 25, 90-100).

Keywords: Concussion; Diagnosis threat; Nocebo effect; PCS; Stereotype threat; mTBI.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Brain Concussion / complications
  • Brain Concussion / physiopathology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / physiopathology*
  • Depressive Disorder / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Health Literacy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Media*
  • Middle Aged
  • Post-Concussion Syndrome / complications
  • Post-Concussion Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Young Adult