Compassion Fatigue and the Media: Part One

By Phillips, Tom | Contemporary Review, September 1999 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Compassion Fatigue and the Media: Part One
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.