Tongtong Wu

News Impacting Anxiety, Depression and Empathy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 2, 2021   /  

Name: Tongtong Wu
Major: Psychology
Minor: Latin American Studies
Advisors: Michelle Colvin (Advisor), Grit Herzmann (Second reader)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous to many individuals’ daily lives, and to keep themselves informed during the pandemic, they have relied on reading news. Different types of news reports about COVID-19 impact how people perceive the ongoing situation. Positive news gives readers optimism, whereas negative news leads them to feel anxious and depressed about the pandemic situation, as well as to feel more empathetic towards. This study investigated the role of types of news reporting on individuals’ anxiety, depression and empathy levels. Participants read four news articles that were either manipulated by the type of news reporting (positive vs. negative) and geographical proximity (international vs. national). Individuals (N= 90) living in the US above the age of 18 volunteered to participate in the study, and 25 incomplete responses were excluded. Before reading the news articles, participants showed moderate-to-severe level of anxiety (M= 3.78, SD= 0.57) and moderate level of depression (M= 3.48, SD= 1.29). Anxiety levels after reading news were higher for participants who were assigned to the positive news group than those that were assigned to the negative news group. Participants showed higher levels of anxiety and empathy following international events than national events. They did not show any significant difference for depression despite manipulating the type of news reporting and geographical proximity. This study has shown that the pandemic has impacted individuals’ mental well-being drastically while seeing others struggling physically and financially.

Keywords: anxiety, depression, empathy, social representation, news media


Tongtong will be online to field comments on April 16:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST: 6-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

52 thoughts on “News Impacting Anxiety, Depression and Empathy During the COVID-19 Pandemic”

  1. Well done Tongtong. Very interesting research, and so relevant during this time. Your teammates and coaches are so proud you. Congrats

  2. Congratulations Tongtong! This is incredibly timely and relevant research! What an interesting topic, good work!

  3. Tongtong, very interesting project. It’s striking that levels of empathy were higher among those reading international news stories … I’d expected that the effect of distance might reduce the feelings of empathy. I wonder how this could be explained?

    1. Hi Prof Bonk, empathy results were striking to me too. One possible reason is that people no longer only show empathy to others who live near them, but also to those who are far away from them. The pandemic has made people show more understanding of everyone’s experiences because it has been a tough time. Another explanation is that people show stronger emotions for international news because those cover Wuhan, the early epicenter that the media covers a lot since January of 2020. People have already associated Wuhan city with chaos after reading or hearing so much about this epicenter. Thus, they show more empathy to international events. Hope this helps you understand my IS more. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I echo other comments Tongtong, congratulations on completing a timely and interesting project! It was a pleasure to work with you.

  5. Congrats 🎊🎈 Tongtong. Interesting and timely topic. Wishing you all the best in your future endeavors.

  6. Congratulations, Tong Tong. I know you worked very hard on your I.S. and you should be proud of it! It’s been a pleasure to work with you throughout your time at Wooster. I look forward to see where you go next!

  7. Interesting results, Tongtong. Do you have any thoughts on how the 24-hour news cycle could further affect anxiety and decision-making? Great job! Congratulations!

    1. Hi Lindsey, you gave me a cool idea. I wanted to make the experiment long, but online study usually has time limitation. If I have the ability to do so for a 24 hours news cycle, it’d be cool. Frequent exposure to news could be more strong because people will be reading news and being updated so constantly that that will stay anxious and alert for 24 hours straight. It could also make them become more impulsive in decision making because they will try to do anything to protect themselves after learning all the scary information (like hoarding toilet paper).

  8. Congratulations, Tongtong! It has been terrific to see you grow as a student, athlete, and leader on campus over these last four years. We wish you all the best, and please do keep in touch!

  9. Very interesting project, Tongtong. I’m a bit surprised that depression levels weren’t affected. Any thoughts on those results?
    Congratulations and best wishes for your future. It has been a pleasure to work with you.

    1. Hi Linda, great question. For depression, it could be possible that people are trying to be more optimistic about the pandemic because optimism is a more adaptive way to cope with a disastrous time. Thus, people may not show strong levels of depression. Moreover, depression may not be manipulated under an experimental condition easily. Depression is more like an emotions or a mental state that lasts for a long time instead of being malleable under a short time span.
      Hope this answers your question.

  10. Congratulations TongTong! I honestly think that your IS is important, scholarly, committed. I do believe that it is unique to focus in the impact of the media in the midst of the COVID19. I am also curious about your concept of “different type of news.” I know you divide them in positive and negative news. MY QUESTION: Could you expand more on these concepts of positive and negative news? I wonder how you classify and organize the news?

    1. Hola Profe Medina, gracias por venir. Es una buena pregunta.
      Positive and negative news are more based on if I portrayed the pandemic as being under controlled and getting better, or becoming chaotic. That is how I organize the stories and categorize them as either positive or negative. O sea, mi meta es cómo van a reaccionar los participantes y cómo piensan ellos sobre la pandemia después de leer estos artículos. These news articles usually are around the same number of words and with similar topics such as hospitalization, economic impact and whether the region is under controlled or going out of control. I have tried to browse news articles that fit into these topics.
      Hope this helps you understand my IS a little more.

  11. Congratulations, Tongtong! I am interested in your finding that “anxiety levels after reading news were higher for participants who were assigned to the positive news group than those that were assigned to the negative news group.” Which factors may have contributed to such an opposite situation?

    1. Hi You Lao Shi, thanks for reading my presentation. Sorry for the confusion. I must have mistyped something. My results showed people showed more anxiety when reading negative news than positive news. This result resembled a previous study on TV viewing positive or negative news by Szabo & Hopkins (2007). People show more negative emotions after negative news because it reminds them of how bad the world is. As we know, emotions are always infectious that people may be easily impacted by negative messages or news.

  12. What fascinating research, Tongtong! Thank you for sharing your results! Are you planning to continue this research in graduate school?

    1. Hi Lynette, thanks for stopping by. I may not continue research in grad school, but this study will make me become more mindful of mental health issues in clinical psych professional practices.

  13. Well done, Tongtong! We are proud of you. And it’s lovely to see your research in this final form. Let me pose an unfair question (for you combine two of my scholarly interests: news and empathy). I know your research is based upon the short-term impact of reading different news articles. From your review of the literature – or idle speculation – what do you think are some long-term impacts of reading/watching/listening to news? Is there any relationship between news consumption and levels of empathy or anxiety or depression (all other things being equal)? Happy to hear thoughts, but most importantly: congratulations!

    1. Hi Prof Shaya, thanks for the questions. Long-term impacts may be the more people are exposed to news, the more likely they are going to feel anxious or depressed. This cannot be seen yet since the pandemic is not over yet in the US. So it will worth looking in the future for new psychological studies especially longitudinal ones. From a study in China on a short timespan of 2 months, it was shown that the more frequent news reading on a daily basis correlated with more anxiety. (The related study is this: Huang, T. & Zhao, N. (2020). Generalized anxiety disorder, depressive symptoms and
      sleep quality during COVID-19 outbreak in China: a web-based cross-sectional survey. Psychiatry Research 288.) If you have time to look at this research. From my prediction about empathy, it is possible that the more the news media consumption, the less likely people are going to show empathy towards others. Empathy is a feeling that people have to take others’ perspective and imagine themselves in others’ situations. Being too empathetic is not a pleasant feeling all the time because people can continuously feel sad for others about their tragedies. On a long run, this unpleasant and maladaptive emotion is not good for survival. So I think empathy may reduce as people are exposed to more sad and traumatic events about the pandemic.

  14. Hi Tongtong,

    Incredibly timely study that can also be applied to other global issues in the future. I know your study sample was 18 or over. I am curious whether you came across other literature focusing on younger people. I have been hearing a lot about the impact on teens (I am the mother of one), and wondering what your speculation would be as to the results for that group.
    Thanks, and congratulations!

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for the question. So far, I haven’t found any study specifically on population below the age of 18. From reading news, I have learned that younger population may struggle with loneliness especially during the time of pandemic when their interpersonal connections are reduced. I speculate that anxiety and depression may be mental health problems that younger population have while growing up in a more isolated and lonelier environment. Many studies may not focus on younger population as a result of extra institutional review time and harder recruitment of children (parents’ consent needed). I am interested in how children feel during the pandemic but a study like this may take longer than how much I spend on my IS.

  15. Congratulations, Tongtong! Your skillful analysis really comes through in the project. Will you continue this project in graduate school? It has been a great pleasure to work with you at Wooster.

    Also: I love your photo with Frodo!

    1. Hi Prof Holt,

      Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, I am not going to continue this in my graduate school research, but I will try to apply my study results in professional clinical practice.

      I couldn’t find a great photo with Frodo. He is featured too often so I found a picture with my Argentine family’s dog Zamba.

  16. Hello and congratulations, Tongtong! Thank you for doing such an interesting and significant study. And thanks for sharing it in the Symposium today. It’s great to catch up on your work and learn from you through this! 🙂

  17. Hi, Tongtong, First, congratulations on completing such a timely IS project. I know you will only be available to answer questions for a few more minutes, and I wanted to catch you before you exited. I have not had the opportunity to read through your presentation yet, but one thing in the overview caught my attention.

    Perhaps you address this later in the presentation, but, as I said, I wanted to catch you before 12 pm. Can you offer a theory why this happened: “Anxiety levels after reading news were higher for participants who were assigned to the positive news group than those that were assigned to the negative news group.”

    I am the mom of a COW Alum (’13) and I enjoy participating in these presentations. I am so encouraged by the intelligence, energy and enthusiasm that you all show.

    Good luck to you!

    1. Hi Bambi,
      Sorry for the confusion. My results showed that participants showed higher levels of anxiety after reading negative news than positive news. One possible explanation is that people are more likely to feel strongly about news that portray negative image about the pandemic such as death and hospitalization. This impacts how individuals perceive the pandemic situation and make them believe that the world is under chaos. I hope this answers your question. My results resembled one study by Szabo & Hopkinson (2007) on television viewing of negative or positive news. If you are interested, feel free to look at this study. Szabo, A., & Hopkinson, K. L. (2007). Negative psychological effects of watching the news
      in the television: Relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them! International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 14(2), 57-62.

      Thanks for reading my page.

  18. Congratulations, Tongtong! Such timely research, and such paradoxical results! As you say above, the correlation between higher empathy and international news is really surprising–I read your explanation of that result above, but wonder if you have any further thoughts about the impact of globalization on the news cycle? It has been wonderful to see you grow and develop as a person and a scholar over the past few years, and I can’t wait to see what fantastic things you do next!

    1. Hi Prof Hayward,
      Thanks for the compliments. For my study, it is a causation model under a controlled environment. The causation relationship for empathy is definitely mind blowing for me too. I see how globalization has helped people stay informed about the world not only within their community and their country, but have also made people become more engaged and connected with events happening around the world. I have seen how powerful the news is these days. It is possible that people are going to take all the news they read without selecting what is important to them or not, which could lead to mental health problems such as anxiety during a pandemic.

  19. Great work, Tongtong! Your results are very intriguing and extremely relevant! Congratulations!!

  20. What an important topic, especially given the timeliness of your research interests! It has been great to see you grow over the past four years and your passion for sharing what you learn is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your research. Congratulations, Tongtong!!

  21. Hi Tongtong,
    I didn’t know your study was so relevant to today. It gives me a lot of hope actually seeing the rise of empathy as almost a necessary response to a global pandemic. When I was coming back from Buenos Aires after they cancelled our program in March 2020, I remember sitting next to someone on the plane that was originally just really funny… until he started maldiciendo a China for COVID-19 cancelling his trip to Brasil, and we sat in awkward silence the rest of the flight.

    Your study gives me hope that rising empathy is actually a natural human response in globalized society–rather than what I had seen (which admittedly was an immediate reaction in the middle of March 2020, but still was troubling).

    Well Done, and congratulations!

  22. Hi Tongtong,

    This is such an interesting area of research and I’m so glad you’re studying it. While, I have to admit that I don’t understand all the numbers you’ve used in your research, your results are also very interesting. I’m curious about how you came up with this topic. Did you have a different idea in mind before the pandemic?

    Congratulations!

  23. Super interesting project, Tongtong! Congratulations and best of luck in your future endeavors!

  24. Such a timely topic! This is a a great project Tongtong, you should be super proud of yourself!

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