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A look at compassion fatigue

How the media is desensitizing us

On the sides of streets, impoverished mothers beg for scraps of food. Children with vacuumed cheeks and distended abdomens sit amongst miles upon miles of shelter thrown together using sticks, plastic and shreds of cloth.

These macabre scenes – depicting the mass suffering of people victimized by the Somalian famine – are likely featured on your evening news broadcast and stamped across the pages of your daily newspaper. Depending on your social circle, these images may have materialized on your Facebook/Twitter news feeds, accompanied by posts laced with desperation, urging people to take humanitarian action.

Needless to say, the coverage of the famine is widespread. The cries for help ring loud and clear. But despite the flurry of good intentions, the lack of urgent involvement from the global community suggests that many people have turned away with a grimace and resigned from their moral responsibilities. Who then is to blame for this ethical default, and what measures need to be taken in prevention?

Many media specialists are blaming the journalists, and not exclusively the ones who sit behind desks in newsrooms. Recreational bloggers and social networkers, amateur photographers and videographers, and anyone else who has redistributed images of the famine are to be held culpable. In doing so, they have inadvertently become the enabling agents to what is loosely referred to as “compassion fatigue,” a sociological phenomenon in which over-exposure to traumatizing images results in desensitization.

The affective outcomes to compassion fatigue are both serious and consequential, as people begin to develop adverse attitudes towards what they are viewing. Over time, the victim of compassion fatigue gives less attention to what they see, is less likely to perceive the situation as severe and to feel sympathy for those directly involved, and is more likely to view what they see as normative. Henceforth, the Hollywood effect takes over, and material that was once shocking and horrific is no longer deeply affecting.

“The ability to stun an audience by delivering real-time pictures of events as they happen is ebbing,” states Johanna Neuman in Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death, by Susan D. Moeller. “Call it compassion fatigue or media over-saturation, but television pictures of a starving child or a mass exodus of refugees no longer tug as strongly.”

Like any other businesses, the media’s survival is wholly dependent on making money and dominating competitors. Producers and editors feel the pressure to deliver stories that will generate the greatest buzz, and oftentimes this means “aiming for the most graphic and extreme story angles,” as stated online at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

“It’s true, it’s sad that the media’s coverage of crises is so formulaic, that iconic moments become symbols, then stereotyped references that become at best a rote memory,” Moeller writes.

Not unlike the crisis itself, the solution to compassion fatigue is complex, and requires strategic action and cooperation. Many scholars believe that we must dismantle the formulaic, sensational structure of the news that Moeller speaks of to move forward.

Colette Brin, a Professor in the department of information and communication at the Université Laval, states that news must strike a balance between catering to emotion and reason. This can be accomplished by establishing a responsible, conscientious standard of reporting.

“One solution would be to promote conditions of local demand, and production of quality journalism in democratically and developmentally fragile regions, as well as networking between journalists in these regions and the West,” she says.

Second-year Dalhousie student Charlotte Van Ryn believes the answer lies in raising awareness, and holding journalists accountable for their work.

“Journalism works to get people talking,” Van Ryn says, “It’s about time we demand to get that back.”


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