“When Suffering becomes infotainment–just another commodity” — Susan Moeller

Two Reviews of  Susan Moeller’s Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death (Routledge, 1999) 392 pp

ONE by Carl Sessions Stepp  in American Journalism Review

Here’s one of the perverse conundrums of journalism: If you fail to cover a story, you do wrong; but if you cover it, you can go wrong, too. That is an exaggerated and unfair rendering of Susan Moeller’s point in “Compassion Fatigue,” but it gets at the nature of the problem. Moeller argues that the volume and character of disaster coverage can lull audiences into a “compassion-fatigue stupor” and damage prospects for remedy and recovery.

A former journalist who teaches at Brandeis, Moeller examines coverage of a range of calamities, from Ebola in Zaire and famine in the Sudan, to assassination in Israel and war in Iraq. Almost always, she concludes, news coverage is formulaic and sensationalized. Stories “all sound alike”; causes and solutions are oversimplified; and characters must “fit into the parts of victim, rescuer and villain.” As one crisis bleeds into the next, “it takes more and more dramatic coverage to elicit the same level of sympathy as the last catastrophe.”

“Suffering becomes infotainment–just another commodity, another moment of pain to get its minute or column in the news,” she writes. “Our experience and our understanding of a crisis is weakened, diluted and distorted.” The images and story lines so overload the senses that public response can be exhaustion and defeatism rather than mobilization.

Moeller’s proposed solutions include better overall coverage of international issues to prepare people for crisis outbreaks; better follow-up so the public understands that rescuers don’t always rush in and fix every problem; and less dependence on sensationalism and graphic images in coverage.

Moeller offers a careful, thorough and convincing study, then ends it with a passionate reminder: “Reporting the news is both a political and a moral act. An element of shame is involved in not reporting responsibly and reporting equitably.”

TWO by Anna Ritman in 2009 — http://anna-reitman.suite101.com/compassion-fatigue-by-susan-d-moeller-a142354

Compassion Fatigue is an ambitious analysis of the how the media sells disease, famine, death, and war in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

Compassion fatigue, also known as a Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, is defined by Wikipedia as a psychological term that refers to a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among victims of trauma and individuals that work directly with victims of trauma. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude. These symptoms can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including the development of new feelings of incompetency and self doubt.

Compassion Fatigue, The Media, and the American Audience: Susan Moeller uses this affliction to describe the American audience’s response to international events that fit into the biblical “four horsemen of the apocalypse” scenarios as reported by mainstream media. In her opening chapter, she bluntly states, “It’s the media that are at fault. How they typically cover crises helps us to feel overstimulated and bored all at once.”

Moeller is the Director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and Associate Professor of Media and International Affairs at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, USA. Compassion Fatigue was published by Routledge; 1999, ISBN-0-415-92097-3.

She writes, “Just as the overuse of antibiotics has made people immune to their benefits, the constant bombardment of disasters, with all their attendant formulaic, sensationalist, Americanized coverage, has made the public deaf to the importuning of news stories and relief agencies.”

Moeller explains, without excusing, the many factors that editorial decisions are based on:

  • How much money is in the      budget?
  • Is the story entertaining?
  • Does it have a visual hook?
  • Is there already a crisis      story in the region?
  • Is there a clear bad guy and      good guy?

She is careful not to become black and white in her blame as well, and effectively portrays the inner conflict that journalists and editors face with deadlines, audience apathy, budget limitations, advertiser demands, corporate editorial influence, among other things.

At first, the book reads as a jumble of facts, dates, headlines, and global situations scattered over the 20th century. However, into the third chapter, a method begins to emerge. She seems to be fighting the temptation of being formulaic and sensationalistic herself, while still respecting the reader’s need for organized ideas.

How International News Stories are Reported: Some of the most well-known international crises are categorized into four chapters; pestilence, famine, death, and war. Each of these chapters details how the media handled the kinds of stories coming from locations like Bosnia, Rwanda, Israel, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Sudan, among others. For each topic, Moeller provides:

  • An overview of the coverage      in broadcast and print media, specifically television, newspapers, and      news magazines
  • An analysis of how the      coverage fits the same formula
  • An explanation of why      certain images are selected to tell the stories, and why some images move      an audience to action
  • A debriefing of specific      crises for level-headed perspective and context
  • A tie-in to how compassion      fatigue sets in due to editorial decisions on how to report the critical      events

By the end of the book, readers are wondering, is it history that repeats itself, or those tasked with recording it?

Final Thoughts: Moeller ends the book with a challenge. “The solution is to invest in the coverage of international affairs and to give talented reporters, camera people, editors and producers the freedom to define their own stories,” she writes.

If there is anything to add, perhaps it is advice to the audience itself. Possibly, the success of journalism in reporting events should not be measured by how much money is donated to an associated cause. As has been proven time and time again, throwing money at the problem does not always solve it. That is not to say that charitable giving is not an important outlet, but it is not the only one.

Other solutions exist that promote self-care, a strategy that psychologists endorse to deal with the symptoms of compassion fatigue. These self-care ideas can be as involved as volunteering with refugees that have arrived in a new country and including them in social activities, or even as simple as renting a light-hearted comedy or buying a musical work by an artist from an associated country. There are many ways that people can empower themselves without adding stress, while also professionally and personally developing themselves, but feeling pity, helplessness, or wlllful denial probably does not lead down the road of self-efficacy.

Another missing component is the explosion of the blogosphere and its impact on the way information is delivered in the ten years since the book was published. It would be interesting to see a follow up analysis from Moeller that takes into account the prevalence of citizen journalism in the twenty-first century and its influence on how crises are being reported.

Hailed as a ‘great accomplishment’ by the Philadelphia Inquirer , Susan Moeller’s Compassion Fatigue warns that the American media threatens our ability to understand the world around us. Why do the media cover the world in the  way that they do? Are they simply following the marketplace  demand for tabloid-style international news? Or are they creating an audience that has seen too much – or too little – to care? Through a series of case studies of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – disease, famine, death and war – Moeller investigates how newspapers, newsmagazines and television have covered international crises over the last two decades, identifying the ruts into which the media have fallen and revealing why.

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