Health : Media Psychology Gains Respectability

Times Staff Writer

Rule No. 1: Don't sweat the small stuff.

Rule No. 2: Remember, it's all small stuff.

That's Steve Brody's advice for coping with stress, and that's the message he used to deliver on television.

Dressed in workout clothes, Brody delivered a 90-second spot on stress reduction, exercising outdoors while he talked and read the TelePrompTer, before signing off with his rules, a smile and "I'm Dr. Steve Brody."

Brody is a psychologist, and his television spots are an example of the emerging field of media psychology, as are his syndicated, highly anecdotal advice column, The Cambrian Psychologist, and his radio show, which examines topics such as suicide.

The television spots were canceled when a new news director decided to replace him with a cook, Brody told listeners at a workshop during last month's California State Psychological Assn.'s convention in San Francisco.

Brody is president-elect of the association's relatively new Division VI on media psychology. He shared the panel with Diana Hull of Santa Barbara, the incoming president of Division VI, and Jacqueline Bouhoutsos of Los Angeles, founding president of the international Assn. for Media Psychology.

The concerns expressed at the well-attended workshops (there were two), and the information shared, provided ample evidence that media psychology has come a long way toward acceptance within the profession and with the public.

Brody's canceled spots were clearly a temporary setback. Problems with ratings, news directors, agents, publishers and syndication are a far cry from the fairly recent problem of being seen within one's own profession as unethical.

Three years ago, when Bouhoutsos founded the AMP, she said after the workshop, the American Psychological Assn. had only recently changed its guidelines permitting members to give personal advice in all branches of the media. Nevertheless, members and others who did so--such as doctors, nurses and social workers--"were the pariahs," in the eyes of many, Bouhoutsos said. "They were an embarrassment. People were looking at what they did in terms of the long-term, one-to-one, therapist-patient psychotherapeutic model and found what they were doing (was) a mockery of it."

Negative Attitudes

While such negative attitudes can still be found, the field has not stopped developing, defining itself and gaining acceptance. Bouhoutsos said she seldom hears people claim media psychology is harmful anymore, that it exploits the individual for the entertainment of the audience. Nor does she meet resistance within the profession to the notion of dispensing information in plain English rather than academic jargon. And it is no longer being judged on the psychotherapeutic model, she said.

The AMP now has two studies to back up its own observations on the field, Bouhoutsos said. One study, conducted by Bouhoutsos and Patricia Keith-Speigel, former ethics chair of the American Psychological Assn., explored who was listening to the radio call-in shows. Interviewers canvassed two shopping malls--one on the East Coast, one on the West--and found that one out of two persons listened to talk shows. The consensus among listeners was that while they saw the possibility of harm being done, they did not judge that to be the case. The shows were seen as helpful, educational and entertaining--in that order, Bouhoutsos said. Older people often said they listened to gain advice while younger listeners regarded it as educational.

A "serendipitous finding," she said, was that the listeners were relatively psychologically sophisticated. One-third said they had received some form of therapy.

Another study focused on a New York call-in show hosted by Judith Kuriansky, and surveyed callers before they went on the air, after they had talked to Kuriansky and three months later. Again the feedback was positive, except that people expressed frustration at the brevity of their time on the air. More than half had been or were in therapy--a reassuring, if inconclusive, sign to those who feared that call-in shows might become a substitute for necessary psychotherapy.

"It's an emerging field," Bouhoutsos told the workshop. "Media psychology borrows from journalism, communications, the arts, from many creative areas. It's in an amorphous state at present. We're looking for a model. We don't have one yet."

If it's not psychotherapy, what is it? Bouhoutsos tested a few phrases on the group--among them therapeutic education, community psychology, preventive psychology--and said she was most comfortable calling it mental health education.

Her colleague, Diana Hull, speaking with much conviction and enthusiasm for the field, described it this way:

"This is the new, the real community mental health movement."

The community mental health effort of 20 years ago, she said, tended to open private centers designed to treat the community as a whole. They often dispensed boring pamphlets and booklets, and accomplished little else. It was an effort, she said, "that didn't put down roots."

Hull, whose background is in public health, sees two models for media psychology: the preventive, educational one of community mental health, and "group therapy" on a very large scale.

She delivered a paper in Toronto, she said, on "the media audience as an unseen group," based on data she has collected from call-in shows:

"Some of the same phenomena that occur in groups occur with the audience. They identify with the psychologist. There is communication between the listeners. For example, Karen Blaker, a psychiatric nurse in New York (who had a call-in program on WOR), found that listeners who are neighbors get together and discuss the show."

For the most part, however, both Hull and Bouhoutsos talked more in terms of what media psychology could do for prevention and education. Both cited the dissemination of parenting advice as an ideal use of media psychology.

"My personal feeling," Hull said after the workshop, "is that the question asked on a call-in program should be a vehicle for broader issues, bringing to it what we know in general. . . . I would hope that the host would use the individual's problem to generalize and address the larger problem out there.

"To get at the state of mind, the emotional disturbance of the whole population is an enormous task, a complex undertaking. The best data is that the level of disturbance out there, the anxiety, the level of non-malignant depression . . . is very high."

As president of the division, Hull has her work cut out for her, she said, centralizing existing research and working for the acceptance of a national division. Media psychology has yet to be recognized as a division in the profession by the American Psychological Assn., she said. Only California has a separate division, but members are gathering signatures to petition the APA, she added.

Once the division has that authority behind it, she said, it can explore the impact media psychology can have on the broadcasting industry concerning such matters as violence. Beyond that, it may address itself to the general fact that to a large extent "the culture is being communicated through television."

And they can enforce guidelines concerning the quality and the ethics of members. The potential is there, but not all the advice coming over the airwaves is good advice, she acknowledged.

"An important point to remember, however" Hull said, "is that psychologists are doing this work in the media, the most public forum possible. You can't hide it. There's a lot of safeguard in that."

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