Compassion fatigue and apathetic reactions to distant suffering are two primary reasons people withhold empathy and resources when they’re needed most. Although not identical, compassion fatigue and a proximity-dependent sense of responsibility both impede our collective ability to address emergencies and systemic issues.
Compassion fatigue is a useful term, but when used to describe situations beyond its original meaning it becomes complicated and controversial. In the medical and emergency response fields, where the term originated, it refers to secondary traumatic stress (STS), a psychological condition marked by the lessening of compassion over time. The term has broadened, however, to encompass a much more general public reaction to, for example, the barrage of graphic images that routinely accompany media narratives of tragedy.
Most of us probably experience compassion fatigue—hallmarked by emotionless reactions to each day’s reported horrors. No longer even surprised, we react only by sinking back into our lives, believing that the world is wicked, best avoided.
Sources of Compassion Fatigue
The old news moniker, “If it bleeds, it leads,” has never been truer. In the world of 24-hour news, there’s seemingly only room for viral videos and images of catastrophe. What’s the point of volunteering your time and resources if the world’s ills are beyond treating? In reality, the world’s ills are considerable, but not beyond the scope of our action. So, why do so many of us feel paralyzed by the tragedies we see represented in the media?
Images of suffering are bookended by political news, shocking gossip, sports and weather. Haiti in the wake of a destructive hurricane gets the cursory “bystander journalism” treatment—a few hours of demoralizing photos, quickly pushed to the back page by “Clinton this…Trump that.” There’s no reporting on the endemic poverty that makes Haiti uniquely vulnerable to disaster—no look at Haiti’s corrupt politicians, or mention of how the international community has no more compassion for Haiti—all of it “used up” after the 2010 earthquake. Human suffering has become part of a nightly show—expected and inevitable.
Solutions to Compassion Fatigue
Without context and understanding—not easily included in our news broadcasts and sound bites, our empathy and any impetus to make a difference has no where to go. Little information about causes and a lack of focus on solutions is what we have come to expect and what our media usually offers us.
Journalism of attachment—journalism that cares and focuses on root causes and solutions is what the public needs. Images of starving children, wrecked houses, or evil warlords do not compel people to act, they are media shorthand—a morality play the public is used to, and no longer moved by. Journalism that’s aware of its responsibility, that won’t allow the audience to hide from what is happening, is a necessary but insufficient condition to motivate action. The audience must also understand the deeper causes of the problems it sees—and be offered a few possible ways to address those causes.
Like the media, relief agencies must understand how they appear to the public. Despite the great work many NGOs do, much of the public watches disaster after disaster and cynically doubts their ability to impact emergency situations positively. Overwhelming disasters, reports on mismanaged organizations, and relief efforts that fail to reach those in need all conspire to create apathy.
Our anxiety that we obviously cannot help in the many instances of human suffering we are faced with can prevent us from helping at all. But we can break through this compassion fatigue. Public confidence in charity and aid organizations is critical. Without it, people feel powerless to address suffering and disasters.
The Proximity Dilemma
Proximity is one common reason we constrict our morality and empathy. In the book Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Peter Unger constructs a simple thought experiment about morality and proximity. To summarize its message, although everyone would surely say that saving someone drowning at your pool party is the moral thing to do, people use distance to remove themselves from responsibility when the person in need is not immediately nearby—down the street or across town, let alone in another country.
If we intellectually accept the concept that every human life matters equally, our compassion must not be diminished by overexposure or bounded by distance.
Compassion fatigue resulting from one-on-one interactions, as between a trauma nurse and a patient, can be alleviated through stress reduction, anxiety management, and social support. The same approach works for more generalized compassion fatigue. Anxiety-inducing images of suffering can be contextualized with a balanced worldview, greater knowledge about complex global emergencies, and insights into how such emergencies have been -- and may be -- addressed. It's important for media to offer the audience a chance at a balanced worldview -- by telling more of the positive and impactful stories that happen every day.
Although overused, the sentiment expressed in the quote commonly attributed to Margaret Mead should not be underestimated: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
Photo: UNICEF Ukraine
Tester, Keith. Compassion, Morality, and the Media. Buckingham: Open U, 2001. MH Education. Open University, --. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Unger, Peter K. Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.