Compassion Fatigue: Are News Reporters to Blame?

News media is more accessible in our times than ever before; It’s available on our laptops, television sets, cellphones, and even certain watches. Consequently, this accessibility allows for instant news coverage from all over the world. With the combination of 24 hour news and the internet, breaking news travels understatedly quick. Society as a whole can readily hear of natural disasters and catastrophes within seconds and without any limit to their immediate location. In fact, breaking news as such, is what is mainly covered. This is mostly rooted at what news media journalists perceive as newsworthy and how they choose to report it. For this reason, it isn’t very often that media covers feel-good, inspirational stories. These choices in reporting greatly affect society and the news audience as a whole. By intentionally labeling news as “breaking news,” soley when associated with negative implications, they feed and produce compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue as described as by Professors Mcintyre and Sobel, “occurs when audiences become so accustomed to seeing conflict and suffering in various forms of media, that they stop noticing that it is occuring.” ( Mcintyre & Sobel, p. 41, 2017) However, despite this belief, many argue that news audiences actually would rather see, so to say, negative, news be reported then positive. Stuart Soroka, professor at the University of Michigan, reports, “negative network news content, in comparison with positive news content, tends to increase both arousal and attentiveness. In contrast, positive news content has an imperceptible impact on the physiological measures we focus on. Indeed, physiologically speaking, a positive news story is not very different from the gray screen we show participants between news stories…News content is predominantly negative because humans tend to be more attentive to negative information.”(Soroka, 2015) In other words, many can argue that compassion fatigue isn’t only a result of journalists reporting choices, but society’s nature to only really respond to negative news. For this reason, it’s easy to understand why news media is so negative and why although compassion fatigue is a consequential risk, it remains as the center point of news media. Despite society’s contribution, the heavier role however,  is played by news media reporters and agencies as audiences are mostly under their imposition as news outlets. The way news reporters decide to give information and what is considered newsworthy is primarily related to compassion fatigue, as newsworthiness and negative news tends to be inherently intertwined in today’s society. 

Media, Culture, and Morality 

In the book Media, Culture, and Morality, the author, Keith Tester develops several arguments about the connection between media and morality. He goes into depth particularly about the anaesthetic effect of media. Tester argues mainly in regard of how constant portrayal of  foreign environmental, health, and economic disasters have created a society that can longer acknowledge the seriousness each situation entails (Tester, p.101, 2015 ). In fact, he mentions that despite our consciousness of these issues, given their continuing relevance, we have lost the ability to react, therefore validating his argument of a “anesthetized” society (Tester, p.101, 2015). Tester writes, “What I’m trying to say is that it is possible to speculate that as we become ever more aware of famines in various parts of the world, as we turn on the television and are forced to confront once again the horror of starvation, we actually become desensitized to the enormity of it all.” Perhaps, considering our current technology, this could be revised to “as we scroll through our social media or glance at news article headlines”(p.101). However, whatever medium is used, the prominence of these headliners is still in high regard, and even more in today’s technology rooted society. He continues mentioning how this “desensitization” or in other words, compassion fatigue is deeply connected to the “institutionalized operation of media”(p.103).  Tester writes, “..even though the media, and especially television, could reasonably be assumed to be some of the major and most influential channels for the making of moral solidarity between ourselves and others, the very forms of organization and the reception of the media meant that their media could never, in fact, have that profoundly moral effect ” (p. 107). Part of the reason the media never reaches this “profound morality” is based solely on the audiences now built ability to remain stagnant and fatigued emotionally. In other words, the desire to act and make change where highlighted news occurs is predominantly eliminated. He follows by saying, “Consequently, it was hinted that it is quite likely that the media do not serve as so to sensitize us to moral problems. Quite the contrary; the media would rather tend to have an anaesthetic effect”(p. 107). Thus, the media’s approach in reporting negative news defeats its intent to enact change, as they merely create a desensitized society with no emotional or moral ties to the disasters that face the world. 

“From Disaster to Disaster”

Jacob Akol author of, “Foreign News, What Foreign News?” continues the argument made previously as he concurs that media, in fact, aims to create more of a shock factor then to report accurate “crisis coverage” (Akol, para. 4, 2002 ) Doing so, media as mentioned by Tester, is unable to motivate or encourage change and in depth acknowledgement of global issues. Akol also argues:

“Journalists in the field have to run from disaster to disaster, searching for worse and worse situations, no matter how risky it may be. Expectations from desk editors force reporters to paint a worse picture than the situation actually is. So, more and more journalists are getting themselves shot at the war front while in pursuit of horror stories and shocking pictures. 

Hollywood’s influence has seen to it that all war reports follow the “good and bad guys” formula. Reports of disease outbreaks must “appear to be out of a Stephen King horror movie,” — like “flesh-eating bacteria, consumes your brain like mad cow disease, or turns your insides to bloody slush like Ebola” — to be worth mentioning in print or on air.” (para. 5)  Akol takes on the news reporters as he critiques their reporting methods. Many wonder why society is no longer willing to react, but as made obvious by Akol, why would a society react to reports meant merely to compete against each other? News reporting is now merely an effort to top the last global issue with their opinion of the worst one, instead of demanding change and action form news audiences, or even just simply reporting the actual and accurate story. This argument is supported by Tom Phillips as he writes in the Contemporary Review saying, “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” (Phillips, para. 7, 1999). Consequently, failure in accurate and appropriate news coverage of global crisis and social issues has created and constituted what now is labeled as compassion fatigue. 

Conclusion

Compassion fatigue is directly related to poor reporting choices. If news media focused more on the content of these global crises instead of sensationalizing or merely reporting with the intent of topping their last story, compassion fatigue wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if reporters wrote with the purpose to inform, there would be a change in society’s attitude towards these issues or at the least, a better more in depth understanding of what these issues truly entailed. Compassion fatigue and desensitization are not a lost cause however, if society demands for better news coverage, there will be an active and positive change in news media audiences attitudes and actions, limiting the detrimental effects of compassion fatigue.

References

Akol, J. (n.d.). Foreign news, what foreign news?doi: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=6&sid=c6392859-0b30-49e0-afbe-abce1cbf9f56@pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=5859438&db=asn

Mcintyre, K., & Sobel, M. (2017). Motivating news audiences: Shock them or provide them with solutions? Communication & Society, 30(1), 39–56.

Phillips, T. (n.d.). Compassion Fatigue and the Media Part One. Retrieved from https://www.lehigh.edu/~jl0d/J246-06/Compassion Fatigue.htm.

Soraka, S. (2015, May 24). Why do we pay more attention to negative news than to positive news? Retrieved from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/why-is-there-no-good-news/.

Tester, K. (n.d.). Media, Culture, and Morality. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=sa9A9h3ZicAC&pg=PA107&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepa

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