Compassion Fatigue and the Media: Part One
Phillips, Tom, Contemporary Review
The pictures are familiar from news reports. Desolate African scrubland stretches towards the horizon. Lines of pre-fabricated huts reflect sharp shards of light from corrugated iron roofs. In the background groups of apparently orphaned children shuffle listlessly around a dusty compound or sit under spiky thorn trees singing songs. There are a few hardy smiles for the camera.
Although these children are not in immediate danger of starving to death, the threat of malnutrition and disease is never far away. Their lives are fragile. To ensure that the early evening audience doesn't miss the point an instantly recognizable celebrity wonders aloud how anyone who witnesses such a scene could ever feel 'compassion fatigue'.
It's Comic Relief night on the BBC and another marathon televised appeal is underway. A telephone number flashes up on screen and the audience is exhorted to make a donation. Then it's back to a London studio to learn the amount of money raised before some cheering entertainment - a popular song, a comedy sketch - and further conscience-pricking reports from Africa.
At the end of the evening the presenters announce that the public response has been overwhelming. Arguably such events - which use the immediacy of the medium to a positive end and raise millions of pounds for charity are amongst those things which television does best.
There is, however, a problem. No matter how many assertions are made about the impossibility of feeling compassion fatigue, compassion fatigue appears to be having an increasing effect on the ability of relief agencies and charities to maintain adequate levels of public interest and support. Sporadic televised appeals still prompt a response but overall individual and corporate giving are both in long-term decline. Pictures of starving children, it seems, no longer stir the public like they used to.
Why this should be so is the subject of Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (Routledge. [pounds]16.99 p.b. 390 pages. ISBN 0-415-92097-3) - a new and important book by the Director of the Journalism Programme at Brandeis University, Susan D. Moeller.
The argument she presents is simple and clear: compassion fatigue is media induced. Modern news reporting: has fallen into a mt and it is the unfailing predictability of the coverage given to foreign crises and catastrophes - rather than the nature of the events themselves - which encourages the public to turn the page or change the channel. Compassion fatigue is not, in other words, 'an unavoidable consequence of covering the news. It is, however, an unavoidable consequence of the way the news is now covered.'
Moreover, compassion fatigue - or, perhaps, more accurately, the fear of inducing it - acts on the media as a 'prior restraint'. A form of self-censorship, it prevents the media breaking out of the rut which generates it in the first place.
Terrified that precious audience or readership figures will fall if they cover too many foreign crises in too much depth, television companies and news publications only approach those stories which can be dealt with in a predictable, conventional style. Stories which cannot be 'shoe-horned' into any of the media's ready-made models are discarded or shoved to the bottom of the news agenda. The rest become little more than a repetitive mish-mash of stock sensationalist images, dubious analogies and over-used metaphors. The public starts to believe that it really has seen all this before and they stop taking notice.
The evidence to support this critique is comprehensive, detailed and convincing. Examining a series of case studies - which range from 'the archetypal media famine' in Ethiopia in 1984-85 to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire in 1995 - the author proceeds to show how the way the news was gathered and presented at the time proved conspicuously inadequate to the significance of the story. …