"Compassion fatigue is the unacknowledged cause of much of the
failure of international reporting today. It is at the base of many
of the complaints about the public's short attention span, the media's
peripatetic journalism, the public's boredom with international
news, the media's preoccupation with crisis journalism. What does
compassion fatigue do? It acts as a prior restraint on the media.
Editors and producers don't assign stories and correspondents don't
cover events that they believe will not appeal to their readers
and viewers. Compassion fatigue abets Americans' self-interest.
If conventional wisdom says that Americans are only interested in
their own backyard, the media will prioritize stories where American
political, cultural, or commercial connections are evident. Compassion
fatigue reinforces simplistic, formulaic coverage. If images of
starving abies worked in the past to capture attention for a complex
crisis of war, refgugees and famine, then starving babies will headline
the next difficult crisis. Compassion fatigue ratchets up the criteria
for stories that get coverage...Journalists reject events that aren't
more dramatic or more lethal than their predecessors. Or through
a choice of language and images, the newest event is represented
as being more extreme or deadly or risky than a similar past situation.
Compassion fatigue tempts journalists to find ever more sensational
tidbits in stories to retain the attention of their audience. Compassion
fatigue encourages the media to move on to other stories once the
range of possibilities of coverage have been exhausted so that boredom
doesn't set in. Events have a certain amount of time in the limelight,
then, even if the situation has not been resolved, the media marches
on. Further news is pre-empted. No new news is bad news."
- Susan D. Mieller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sells
Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York: Routledge, 1999)
Questions to Consider
- Imagine for a moment that the terrorist attacks had occured
in a country other than the United States. How much attention
do you think they would have received on the news? What factors
would have gone into the news media's decisions about how much
coverage they would have received? To what degree would "compassion
fatigue" have impacted the way that you and other viewers responded
to that coverage?
- How might "compassion fatigue" explain the rather fragmentary
coverage given to the events leading up to this incident? For
example, how much did you know about Bin Laden or about Afghanistan
and Pakistan prior to these events? How might this fragmentary
coverage make it difficult for us to place these events into a
meaningful context or to make an assessment of what steps should
be taken next?
- How will the news media decide when to stop covering these events
and move onto other stories? At what point do you think people
will stop watching their television sets with such rapt attention
and begin to grumble about the disruption of their normal routines?
- How might the phenomenon of "compassion fatigue" alter the ways
these events get represented over time? Does the news media need
to keep developing new stories or images to convey the tragic
nature of these events? We might consider this question in terms
of the death toll. News reports initially inflated the likely
death toll, so that the final numbers are likely to be significantly
lower than some initial estimations. Is there a risk that we will
respond to these lower numbers anticlimactically where-as if we
had seen them initially we would have been shocked at such a high
- How might the reporting of individual, personal stories of the
people who have died help to combat the compassion fatigue which
could emerge if we simply to represent the mass number of people
who have died in this incident?
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