Compassion Fatigue: Communication and Burnout toward Social Problems

Article excerpt

This study establishes the construct of "compassion fatigue," encompassing desensitization and emotional burnout, as a phenomenon associated with pervasive communication about social problems. The study marks the first-known empirical investigation of compassion fatigue as it relates to media coverage and interpersonal communication about social problems. A telephone survey methodology was used to measure compassion fatigue among a general, adult population toward four social problems: AIDS, homelessness, violent crime, and child abuse. Results indicate the existence of a compassion fatigue phenomenon, in varying degrees of magnitude, for every issue. Compassion fatigue was found to be a situational variable, rather than a personality trait. Cognitive, affective, and behavioral manifestations of compassion fatigue are identified, and significant predictors of compassion fatigue are discussed. The findings support the existence of a mass-mediated compassion fatigue phenomenon and suggest that the nature of contemporary media coverage may contribute to emotional fatigue with society's problems.

The term "compassion fatigue" first appeared in studies of job burnout in the helping professions to describe a decline in compassionate feelings toward patients or clients in need.1 In recent years, however, the term has been used outside the occupational context, in the popular press and in philanthropic and fund-raising circles, to describe a larger societal phenomenon - a numbing of public concern toward social problems. Frequently, these anecdotal reports suggest that the mass media are a primary contributor to the creation of burnout toward social problems. They portray a public grown weary of unrelenting media coverage of human tragedy and ubiquitous fund-raising appeals. This mass-mediated brand of compassion fatigue is characterized as a negative societal phenomenon, with ominous implications for the way that Americans perceive and respond to social problems. As one account laments, ". Mere exposure through the media to human suffering no longer necessarily raises public consciousness of that suffering, because overexposure to the violent and the desperate dulls the senses, building its own wall of indifference."2

This conceptualization of compassion fatigue is a direct contradiction to the press agentry models of public relations and fund raising, whose practitioners have based their communication strategy on the philosophy of "the more media coverage, the better" in terms of generating public support. Kelly has noted that this is the predominant model of fund raising practiced today.3

While media observers since Lazarsfeld and Merton4 have speculated that the mass media may lead to desensitization toward social issues, a review of the mass communication, psychology, and sociology literature during the past thirty years found no previous investigations which examine the relationship between communication about social problems and emotional fatigue toward those issues.

Background: Compassion and Social Problems

The empathy/altruism literature reflects several conceptualizations of compassion. It is frequently defined as an emotional response that results from empathy and is synonymous with "sympathy." Researchers, however, have found it difficult to empirically isolate compassion from empathy and the terms are often used synonymously.5

Empathy is a vicarious response to viewing others in distress, and is an inborn, involuntary response.6 It is treated as a dispositional trait that varies in strength from individual to individual but that can be elicited at differential levels according to situational factors. There is substantial empirical evidence that seeing someone else suffer leads to negative affect, such as feeling upset distressed or morally outraged.7

The literature reflects agreement that empathy arouses emotional distress, which the empathizing person finds aversive and is motivated to reduce through strategies of avoidance or altruism. …