Compassion and How Media Represents Suffering

Photography and video have inherent power to influence people because it offers something concrete and visible. When it offers constructs of death, pain, injustice and suffering, it has the ability to present evidence to make their claims real and tangible. Through the use of both text and visual images, the media is able portray concepts and make it concrete frameworks. Technology has allowed many news agencies to possess more images that will support their stories from any angle. There are more images of war, pain and sufferings which make them more powerful and more influential.

The question is whether media have been projecting "suffering" the right way or whether it has gone overboard in dramatizing suffering that it is making the viewers sick of the images. This is what this article is going to talk about. It will discuss how the biggest media companies are appealing to the compassionate side of the viewers in order to sell their news.

Read on and do post comments if you have clarifications.

Compassion Cultivation

The decision on how these images are going to be used and how a story is going to be told are left to the decision of the journalists and the editors. These decisions are influenced by different factors which include cultural standards of the primary audience and the expectations of advertisers. The end product is almost always geared towards what will be warranted as interesting by more people in order to attract more advertisers. Media produce materials that evoke compassion because compassion is what calls audience attention.

Media positions the audience from a spectator’s point of view, a passive audience that is powerless when it comes to the doing something against the sufferings of victims of natural disasters and manmade crimes. To establish a more intimate relationship between the news content and the audience, media use personal stories that are highly focused on the civilians. Their losses are highlighted, their tears take the places of actual body count and political analysis. By putting feeding the audience the suffering of people who are supposed to be innocence and the fact that audience are unable to do anything to mediate the suffering, the media creates distant suffering. The audience are being conditioned to take into consideration the condition of strangers thousands of miles away.

This framework of distant suffering has been so powerful that it has connected politics, audience, and non-profit organizations towards one cause. The growth of technology has afforded more news organizations and even ordinary citizens to access and distribute news and other information. The internet has also stretched the rules on the extent of suffering one may show. More importantly, this continuous flow of information on suffering has heightened the audience’s compassion because of the reinforcement of the fact that they are ultimately powerless to change to anything and even with the privilege of knowing and watching, they cannot do anything. The audience is not anymore allowed to detach themselves from the fate of other people or take refuge in ignorance because they are never safe from the information.

Compassion Fatigue

Moeller (1999) believes that this formula is also the cause of compassion fatigue. The continuous drive to heighten emotion and ignite interest from the audience is compromising the very essence of journalism. Journalism is supposed to uphold truths and facts without favouring any side. Journalism is about information dissemination. All of these take an inferior place over profitability. As media companies fight for audience, they continue to raise the stakes on how they present their stories without crossing the legal bounds. As a result, the media companies resort to sensationalism.

The result is the ever growing concern on the accuracy of information that the audience obtains and the proper emotion that news is supposed to evoke. Chouliaraki (2006) discussed how adventure news embodies this situation. She mentioned three critical current events: shootings in Indonesia, a boat accident in India and ‘biblical floods’ in Bangladesh. All of these were given no more than one minute of air time. Important information was also not mentioned in the ‘breaking  news’ portion and was not presented in the proper context of the event. This treatment results to a lack of framework for the audience to understand the weight of the event. This leads to a curious audience without the necessary compassion. There is a conscious lack of effort to put a face on the sufferers as they are drilled down as numbers instead of names and contextualized through geographic references instead of using sociological events.


Chouliaraki and Moeller view compassion as a positive emotion that could lead movements towards social transformation. They support its use by the media. However, their criticize the imbalance use of compassion. Media companies are using their influence to set the direction on what, the audience are supposed to deem important.

This belief opposes many other critics (Spelman, 1997; Berlant, 2004) who believe that cultivation of any kind of emotion is bound to be a political disruptor. Media is supposed to stick with facts and judgment must be left to the audience.

The real issue, however, may not be on how media chooses to project suffering. At the end of the day, it is important for us to realize that the audience holds the greatest power when it comes to social issues. At the end of the day, it is the audience who holds the remote control and will be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to continue supporting something.

It is also the audience's prerogative to accept the messages being shared by the media or to research more about a certain issue.

There is not doubt that visual images are powerful and media companies have the money to reinforce this images with news personalities they have developed through the years, music to appeal to the ears, and enough exposure to make sure people get exposed to what they choose to show.

However, they will only be able to enter in people's houses if and when people allow them to.



Berlant, Lauren, 2004. Compassion (and Withholding). Introduction. Compassion: The  Culture and Politics of an Emotion. Ed. Berlant. New York: Routledge

Chouliaraki, L., 2006. The Spectatorship of Suffering, London: Pine Forge Press 

Moeller, S., 1999. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, New York: Routledge

Spelman, W. and J. Eck, 1989. Sitting Ducks, Ravenous Wolves, and Helping Hands: New Approaches to Urban Policing. Public Affairs Comment, 35(2): 1-9.