Susan Moeller

Susan Moeller took the idea of compassion fatigue and wrote an entire book on the subject (chapter 1 available online here). She gives the example of a famous Save the Children campaign, which challenges the viewer to help the child or turn the page. The first time one sees the ad, one may be moved to make a donation; the second time the reader may linger over the picture and read the text, then turn the page; by the third viewing, the page is turned without hesitation, and at the fourth view the reader begins to cynically analyse how the ad is deliberately constructed to work on the emotions and feelings of guilt in the viewer. This is a classic example of compassion fatigue, and Moeller gives the impression that it occurs regardless of the ultimate cause of the charity or advertiser.

She then goes on to point out that it is the media who are to blame, that their typical coverage of a crisis makes us feel “overstimulated and bored at the same time” (1999, p 3) although just how this occurs she does not elucidate. Since the American public has such short attention spans, the media offer even shorter “staccato bursts of news” that are designed to feed this need for quick fire hits in a bid to attract and maintain an audience. In analysing the news (predominantly TV) Moeller asserts that not only are the editors choosing what items should be covered to avoid feelings of boredom, they also determine how interesting a news item is in relation to how much empathy the audience is predicted to feel for the subjects displayed. This is a combination of geography, perceived ethnic kinship, as well as some sense of whether the situation is quick fix (send in the blankets and vaccines) or not. Since most of the world’s problems are of the entrenched and long-lasting kind, there is unavoidably a long list of states and peoples in upheaval. As such, items tend to hit the headlines when they first flare up, and then when the situation does not change over time, it gets less and less coverage. The problem here is sustained concern, where a situation appears not to change over an extended period of time. Moeller says this creates a downward spiral of loss of interest – since the media’s format does not change, the public loses interest in an issue that is presented repetitively, and the media sensing that the public is losing interest causes them to downscale coverage, which in turn leads the public to believe that the issue is no longer as urgent or actually over…

Moeller also cites the fact that (American) audiences tend to see things in terms of black and white – good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains – and as such they need to be able to relate to the parties in conflict in such Manichean terms. This not only avoids any political understanding of a situation, but also prevents any historical analysis. Moeller does not take up this issue since it is really beyond the scope of her work, but it is interesting to note, as Robert Fisk pointed out recently regarding the Syrian conflict, that the public readily forgets what was dished out to them just a couple of weeks ago, or chooses to ignore the larger issues at play.

Moeller also speaks of Americanization of events; that Americans feel somehow more affinity with peoples who share US cultural icons. This in turn has an influence on the people themselves, who realise that by parading Western icons and painting quotes on placards in English they will get more media coverage of their plight. More importantly, Moeller reveals that the media use symbols and analogies to get their message across without making the viewers think too much about the news story. In fact, the news is then compacted to a single metaphor or a single image and packaged off to the public for rapid consumption (an analogy with fast food is missing here!):

It is easier, faster and more provocative to say that Rabin is a martyr like Abraham Lincoln than to explain the intricacies of Rabin’s history and the relationship of his government to Israeli society and the Palestinian peace process. “By reducing news to images in that way,” said former foreign correspondent Malcolm Browne, “most of its important content and practically all of its thought is eliminated. And so news is no longer a tool for viewers and readers to reach important opinions about, it’s a manipulative kind of operation.”

Since the media are primarily out to attract and maintain audience figures (and thereby make a profit) competition is cutthroat, and budgets are shrinking. As such, choices need to be made over what stories to cover and for how long. Unless something groundbreaking happens in the interim, the suffering can continue at even greater rates, but the public interest has already been fired and quelled. The location of an event is also a vital consideration when deciding whether and for how long to cover a news story, and whether any US citizens are involved: “…any foreign story without blood or Americans or both has a tough time” Moeller quotes from a 1990 Chicago Tribune article that deals with US (lack of) reporting on foreign news stories. She also cites what she calls a newsroom truism that I have come across before that goes like this: “One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans.” Which says it all, really. We can only relate to news stories that somehow affect us directly or indirectly. Stories that seem too remote do not grab our attention in the same way, let alone hold it for an extended period of time! This in turn affects which stories are given priority and sensational coverage, which then impacts on the perceived significance of the event:

“One little girl trapped at the bottom of a Texas well had the entire nation holding its breath,” [Ted Koppel] said at the start of a Nightline program. “The plight of Kurdish refugees in Iraq has at least engaged our interest. But millions starving in Africa, as many as 25 thousand drowned in Bangladesh, over 1,000 killed by cholera in Peru barely get our attention. Why?”

And the best quote, from the Chicago Tribune article:

“At a gathering of Third World visitors here [in Washington, D.C.] recently, an African stood to ask a question of columnist James J. Kilpatrick. `Why is it that American journalists don’t care about my country?’ the African asked. `What country do you come from, sir?’ Kilpatrick responded. `Uganda,’ the man answered. `Why the hell should I care about Uganda?’ said Kilpatrick, as diplomats around the room wheezed and struggled to catch their breaths.”

The remoteness of some locations, combined with travel restrictions imposed by regimes or conflict situations adds to the challenge of reporting within strict time and budget constraints, as well as the practical implications of putting correspondents’ lives at risks to cover stories that may not even garner public interest. The average time spent on reporting world news bulletins is 21-22 minutes, and as such there is a strict selection process, referred to as news triage. Stories that are deemed too remote for geographical or cultural reasons are callously deemed not worth it, regardless of the size of the catastrophe: “...who cares about the Sudan? It’s not high on anyone’s priority and it’s an incredibly nasty place” (citing Lee Lescaze, former foreign editor at WSJ, on famine in Sudan). As such, with stories averaging 80 seconds, television reporting becomes essentially ‘a headline service’, offering little in the way of background or contextual information.

Although there is similar pressure on newspaper reporting, with column space being reduced and story length cropped, some argue that this has led to an improvement in coverage, with stories becoming tighter, more focused, better written and more comprehensive, while the editors have become smarter at selecting which stories to run. Unfortunately, as the article makes clear, there is a certain amount of watching what the others are doing before making decisions about which stories to cover: “…if [other news media] are covering a story to death, then we can’t not cover it to death” (quoting former Newsweek foreign editor Carroll Bogert). Since the media rarely differ in format and content, we are presented with the same stories in the same packaging.

Compassion fatigue is not the inevitable consequence of similar events or lingering events. It is a consequence of rote journalism and looking-over-your-shoulder reporting. It is a consequence of sensationalism, formulaic coverage and perfunctory reference to American cultural icons.”

As such, Moeller (citing Alvin Shuster of the NYT) advocates not only the covering of obligatory stories in a distinctive manner, but also covering untold stories, not necessarily because that’s what readers want to be told about, but because they should know about it and it should be reported, and it is up to the media to present it in different and interesting ways. On the other hand, as David Campbell has asked,

“To what extent, then, is there a market for images that might surprise and delight? Why do we not regularly see non-traditional images (of cultural, political and sporting events, for example) that disrupt stereotypes? Are war, famine and poverty the only newsworthy items? …are the most powerful images necessarily those that reinforce cultural clichés as opposed to the more complex ones that attempt to convey knowledge, understanding, context and explanation?”

On the phenomenon of celebrity-izing the news, Moeller uses the example of the death of Princess Diana to show how the media’s use of famous people to boost sales risks turning the entire business of selling news into pure entertainment. The two largest selling issues of Time magazine in a history dating back to 1923 were those 2 covers that featured Diana after the crash. She then looks at the predominance of negative images in the media, and how sometimes images that show suffering in exotic places have become a form of entertainment; the media use the kinds of images they know will evoke the strongest emotional response. One interesting aspect of the front page image is that it may not even have anything to do with the story – as I have noticed when looking at the Afghan Girl (the article contained no information about the girl or even the refugee camp where the picture was taken) and other NYT front page images. In the words of photojournalist Malcolm Browne: “I think we do care more now about the really poignant image from wherever it happens to be. As a page-one leader, not necessarily attached to the story, but with a reefer saying, ‘Here’s your BB [Bloated Belly–shorthand for “starving child”]. Details within.'” Although it has been proven that positive images encourage donors to give more money, for example, to humanitarian causes, this insistence on using negative images in the media is persistent, and one which may account for compassion fatigue. Another aspect is how the images are presented in the publication – inserted between ads that reassure the reader that he can buy himself a more pleasant lifestyle, images of crisis seem to lose their strength and become commercialised, making it easier for the reader to turn the page absolved of any real responsibility.

Compassion fatigue can also come about due to the sheer scale of the crisis “A single child at risk commands our attention and prompts our action. But one child, and then another, and another, and another and on and on and on is too much. A crowd of people in danger is faceless. Numbers alone can numb. All those starving brown babies over the years blur together.” A sense of helplessness comes over one, as Berger pointed out – the sense of despair at the other’s suffering is to no purpose, and indignation requires action, but what action? (1980, p 42) perhaps the quotation apocryphally attributed to Stalin says it best: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

On the other hand, the media can also push too far with their images, as this Newsweek cover featuring a photo by Magnum photographer Luc Delahaye was to prove:

This turned out to be one of the magazine’s poorest-selling issues of all time! People don’t want to see suffering all the time – they just switch off the TV or stop buying the publication.

Moeller looks at the importance of images in the media, basically pointing out that a story is worth nothing without a good picture to go with it. The images themselves must be simple, with their content identifiable (which is why wars often look the same and can be hard to tell apart), which often means that the images chosen to run with a story are those that depict what the crisis is thought to be about rather than what it is actually about. Such hackneyed images rely on stereotypes to reinforce their metaphor, and this in turn presupposed a particular audience response (or to garner support for a political one). In this calculated way, it is clear that we are being manipulated, that the images are used as a ploy, as ornamentation to draw us in.

In discussing the power of the still over the moving image, Moeller asserts that moving images do not require any active engagement, judgement or effort to scrutinize them, and such passive viewing means they are prone to simply melting away whereas photographs resist such inherent dissipation. Since stills are a fixed moment in time, the viewer is forced to consider what came before or what will come after this particular shot was taken: “A photograph provokes a tension in us–not only about the precise moment that the image depicts, but also about all the moments that led up to that instant and about all the moments that will follow… The photograph stimulates a controlled emotive response–emotive because it acts on us sub rosa, under the level of our conscience intellectualizing; controlled because we retain the power of turning the page.” (p 23) If the editors understand how the image affects our emotions, they can direct and control those emotions in much the same way that marketing and advertising images do.

Photographs freeze time, then dole it out infinitely, as long as one chooses to look and wonder. They are the “residue” of continuous experience” (p 27) this is very similar to Barthes’ notion that our memory works in stills rather than moving images. Unlike the moving image, which has a set structure and pace, the still image can be stored and recalled arbitrarily. Another effect of TV is that it has shortened audience’s attention span – we sit waiting for what’s going to happen rather than enjoying the act of viewing. This goes some way to explaining why much that comes out of Hollywood these days is so fast-paced that the narrative rarely makes sense when deconstructed and the rapid-fire visuals usually just make me feel nauseous. In his deconstruction of porn movies, Umberto Eco wrote that the difference between a great movie and a pornographic one is the wasted time – a great movie dwells or exists in the wasted moments, while a porn movie makes the wasted moments seem like an eternity! (How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, 1994 p 222-225)

Still images work better to fix the images in our memory, while moving images may inspire immediate action. Comparing still images and televised ones from the Gulf War (which Baudrillard famously declared had never actually occurred): “Most of the visual spectacle of televised war is scarcely more memorable than a game in a video arcade; the still image leaves a deep footprint in our imagination. Perhaps it’s easier to contract compassion fatigue when the pictures are on TV than when the images are in print, because one has a personal, intimate relationship with printed still photos. One has to touch the page to turn the page.” (p 28) I like this idea of having a tangible relationship with a printed photograph, although it is becoming an ever rarer experience.

Unfortunately, as has been pointed out (most famously by Sontag), still photographs do not inform us, they merely inspire us. As such, they are usually presented with a certain amount of text to guide us in our reading of their meaning. “Most images are little more than illustrations. Much of the way we “read” images is directed by the appended headlines, captions or stories. In general, published photographs have some text appended to them; images used for the purpose of telling the news are dominated by language.” (p 28) Although the images themselves are not meaningless, the text allows us to assign meaning to them, as such they are relegated to the status of representation, illustration, meme. This is compounded by current constrictions on time and space in the media, and as such the images used tend to be those that are more readily consumed – the bulk standard formulaic and/or sensational metaphor. This tendency for associating crises with certain images or metaphors can also induce compassion fatigue in the sense of having seen it all before. It has sometimes even been revealed that the media delve into archival footage when they don’t have any suitable images to show, which means that at times we may even have in fact seen the very same images before!

Moeller’s next analogy I thought was so good that I had to make a note of it:

Convention has it that photography is that lantern of Diogenes, sending rays out into the world’s dark corners. Conventional wisdom is wrong. Photography can illuminate the shadows, but it can also cast its own. Images can lie outright: They can be published with misleading captions, they can be morphed on computers. But they can also be more subtly influenced.”

She quotes photographer Carl Mydans as saying that what you end up seeing in the media are the pictures that didn’t get away. They are also the result of multiple layers of censorship, access and editorial decisions taken before, during and after production. What we end up seeing is a desiccated precipitate of an entire situation. How much more is there that we are not being shown, that the photographers themselves were unable to shoot for various reasons? “...there’s no way of knowing how many important, how many wonderful images there are that we saw, that we wept for, but that we didn’t make. Just think how much more there is to history, how much more experience there is that photojournalists didn’t quite get.” This is so true when you think about it, since we as photographers are always complaining about the images that got away from us, how much more could have been shown that was not. It has also been argued that photographers themselves are not at fault for the way the images are ultimately     presented to the viewing public: “[photojournalists] do not control how the images appear in the press, to whom they are sold, and the way they are then captioned, titled or positioned in relation to articles. Photographers’ material is edited through various filters by others, including photo agencies and picture editors, who may have conflicting priorities.” This is compounded by having limitations on what and where they shoot, and the number of images they are permitted to provide.

Compassion fatigue is a result of inaction and itself causes inaction.” If the public is bombarded with images of a situation they feel they can do nothing about, over time they begin to feel that it is a situation without solution or end, and if the politicians are unable or unwilling to take action, what can the public do?

Moeller then goes on to suggest that compassion fatigue is a ‘survival mechanism’ that switches on when we are confronted with too much suffering, that once we have seen an image that upsets us emotionally we are prevented from becoming so emotionally moved the next time we see a similar image. Citing Johanna Neuman, former foreign editor for USA Today: “Call it compassion fatigue or media over-saturation, but television pictures of a starving child or a mass exodus of refugees no longer tug as strongly.” This would only be true if we had all seen those pictures at the same time. Just because one person has been affected with compassion fatigue through multiple or prolonged exposure to images of suffering does not necessarily mean that the condition extends through an entire nation! And if the ‘survival mechanism’ noted by psychologist Dr Geoff Scobie really does exist, wouldn’t it be different for different people? Wouldn’t we all have differing tolerance levels, just as we do for pain?

I think that the final part of this chapter is more relevant, the fact that media coverage being so formulaic, sensationalised and stereotyped that its symbolic references become rote memories, which is the root cause of compassion fatigue. “The tension among what “is,” what we are “shown,” what “action” we take and what we ultimately “remember” is at the heart of our understanding of global events.” (p 33) Since compassion fatigue militates against caring, action and memory, it seems to be of some urgency that we address not the issue of CF itself, but rather how the media operate and present events and news stories. As Rancière suggests, we are not subjected to the profusion of images that popular opinion claims, but those images are selected and reduced by official systems of information, and as such the way the dominant media direct our ideas and inform us how to read and interpret the images needs to be challenged (2009, p 96).


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