Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Combating "Compassion Fatigue" and Other Reporting Challenges

February 02, 2012

We’ve all heard the old saw that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” It’s the guiding principle of public relations for those engaged in building support for humanitarian causes. In fact, it’s more than a principle; it’s an inescapable truth.

Social psychologist Paul Slovic got an inkling of this some years back when he showed test subjects two photographs. The first depicted eight children in need of $300,000 for life-saving medical care. The second showed a single child who needed $300,000 for medical bills. Most subjects were willing to donate to the one child, but not to the group.

In later research, Slovic showed three photos to participants: a starving African girl, a starving African boy, and a photo of both of them together. Participants felt equivalent amounts of sympathy for each child when viewed separately.  Sympathy dropped when the children were viewed together. Two were too many. In a stunning reversal of basic arithmetic: 1 + 1 < 1

When I reported from Russia in the 1990s, this finding was born out again and again. Reports on horrendous conditions in refugee camps never generated much feedback. But, a story about a single pensioner who needed glasses? Or a disabled child who needed adoption? Inquiries and offers poured in.

All this of course represents a challenge to journalists who seek to report thoroughly and fairly.

Heart-rending anecdotes are like heroin—the first leads to more and more hair-raising anecdotes. How do we continue to move or inspire audiences subject to an endless parade of woe? (With worse woe?)

Susan Moeller, head of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, has written that “compassion fatigue is the unacknowledged cause of much of the failure of international reporting today.”  She charges journalists with abetting the problem by rejecting stories that aren't more dramatic or more lethal than their predecessors. She says reporters tailor stories to fit America’s presumed parochialism and short attention span.

If only compassion fatigue were the only narrative conundrum confronting reporters on the humanitarian beat!

We also confront the challenge of “framing.”

Robert Entman wrote that framing requires the teller to “select some aspects of perceived reality” in such a way as to define the problem, determine the cause, make moral judgments, suggest remedies and predict likely results.

That’s too heavy a burden for any reporter. The constraints of journalistic “objectivity” forbid such presumption. Yet it is impossible to report on unfairness or injustice, of wrongs to be righted, without an assumption (shared with the audience) of right and wrong.

The Internet, as always, both compounds the problems and offers solutions.

The syntax of the digital age has devalued objectivity. In the pre-digital age, David Weinberger observed, “Objectivity used to be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe.”

But not in the age of “hyperlinks.”

He goes on: “In the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value—we want, need, can have, and expect transparency.”  We can use links to raw data, or new visualization tools outside the narrative, to back it up. We can tell our stories, and report them, too.

But that’s just the beginning of the answer of how to report on problems of people far from our audiences.

There is also the matter of explaining the stakes, of contending with the “culture of distance.” That is the greatest challenge of all: making it clear, intellectually, and viscerally, that we are all connected.

To continue the conversation about journalism, news media, storytelling, and more, join the #storytelling discussion on Twitter.

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