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Dissociative symptoms in media eyewitnesses of an execution
Am J Psychiatry 1994;151:1335-1339.
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Abstract

OBJECTIVE: The first execution in California since 1976 took place recently in the San Quentin Prison gas chamber. Eighteen journalists were invited as media eyewitnesses. The authors postulated that witnessing this execution was psychologically traumatic and that dissociative and anxiety symptoms would be experienced by the journalists. METHOD: To investigate the prevalence and specific nature of these symptoms, questionnaires were sent to all the journalists about a month after the execution. The questionnaire contained 17 items assessing dissociative symptoms from the authors' questionnaire of 35 highly intercorrelated acute stress items. Fifteen of 18 of the witnesses returned the questionnaire. Items were endorsed on a scale of 0 ("have not experienced") to 5 ("very often experienced") and analyzed as being dichotomously present or absent. The mean age of the respondents was 37.6 (SD = 8.6) and mean years as a journalist were 15.2 (SD = 9.0). Nine subjects were men and six were women. RESULTS: Journalists witnessing the execution endorsed an average of 5.0 dissociative items, ranging from "I saw, heard, or felt things that were not really there" (endorsed by no one) to "I felt estranged or detached from other people" (endorsed by 60%). This prevalence of reported dissociative symptoms is comparable to that seen among persons who endured the recent Oakland/Berkeley, Calif., firestorm. CONCLUSIONS: The experience of being an eyewitness to an execution was associated with the development of dissociative symptoms in several journalists.

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