The rapid spread and high death rates of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in massive panic and anxiety all over the world. People rely heavily on media for information-seeking during the period of social isolation. This study aimed to explore the relationship between media exposure and anxiety, and highlighted the underlying mechanisms mediated by the media vicarious traumatization effect. A total of 1118 Chinese citizens participated in the online survey, who were from 30 provinces in mainland China. Results showed that all four types of media (official media, commercial media, social media, and overseas media) cause vicarious traumatization to their audiences to different degrees. It was also found that the impact of media exposure on anxiety was mediated by media vicarious traumatization: there were full mediation effects for commercial media exposure and overseas media exposure, while there were indirect-only mediation effects for official media exposure and social media exposure. Audiences staying in cities with a relatively severe pandemic were more susceptible to the vicarious traumatization caused by commercial media compared to those staying in Hubei. This study expanded the concept and application of vicarious traumatization to the mediated context, and the findings provided insightful advice to media practitioners in the face of major crisis.
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