From the Editor: The Media and Compassion Fatigue*

Red light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.

Photo by

V. Krishna Kumar

V. Krishna Kumar

V. Krishna Kumar, PhD

TV news carried it, as did the Wall Street Journal on the front page (August 19, 2016) and on the opinion page (p. 11, August 27-28, 2016), and widely reported in the media—the image of a young boy pulled from the rubble of airstrikes in Aleppo. Other examples include the haunting images of a suffering Afghan woman on the National Geographic cover (June 1985) and the widely publicized picture, taken by Kevin Carter, of a Sudanese infant dying of starvation while a vulture waits for its meal. Such images can have powerful effects on people, but the question remains: Do they mobilize people to do something?

Susan Moeller (1999) argued images could mobilize people to come forward with a compassionate response or simply perpetrate the feeling that this is just another crisis and not much can be done. She attributed the lack of compassionate response or indifference to compassion avoidance (looking the other way) and/or compassion fatigue. Compassion is typically referred to as the ability to understand another person’s suffering accompanied by a desire to reduce that suffering (Moore et al., 2015).  Compassion fatigue refers to the burnout or exhaustion of compassion resulting in a reduced desire to help.

The work of Figley and colleagues (see Radey & Figley, 2007) suggests compassion fatigue can occur during caregiving of traumatized individuals because of vicarious traumatization or Secondary Trauma Stress Disorder (STS), i.e., PTSD symptoms acquired vicariously. If compassion is vicariously connecting with the sufferer (see Clark, 2004), compassion fatigue vicariously disconnects the caregiver from the sufferer.  Can vicarious traumatization occur by repeated exposure in the media to stories and images of starvation, disease epidemics, famines, violence, and war?  Erum Hafeez (2015, Fall/winter, The Amplifier Magazine) observed that graphic coverage of terrorism-related events “may cause viewers and reporters of such incidents to suffer from trauma leading to anxiety, depression, emotional problems, and suicide.”

In contrast to the clinical view of compassion fatigue as STS, Moeller’s analysis focused on how repeated formulaic reporting of tragic events and images in the American media contribute to developing compassion avoidance and compassion fatigue by

  • Not reporting a situation until it becomes a crisis—drought does not count, starvation counts a bit more, famine itself may not get reported, but stories of thousands of dying children get attention.
  • Mentioning horror stories briefly within an article, often hedging on the authenticity of information.
  • Setting aside tragic stories from non-western countries to report on domestic issues.
  • Reporting stories only from countries with US political and military relevance and/or presence.
  • Americanizing stories using American metaphors or relating to similar domestic situations, thereby removing them from their original context.
  • Depicting American relief workers as heroes and showing local thugs and villains stealing and creating obstructions to the relief efforts.
  • Focusing on descriptions of attacks, rather than on people’s suffering; the latter helps mobilize the public to action.

Writing to Appeal to Compassion

Moeller (1999) makes many recommendations for journalists:

  • Remember, “more graphic [or sensational] is not better” (p. 317).
  • Do not show the same gory images repeatedly.
  • Have “first-class reporters” (p. 315) cover stories that raise compelling awareness as to why people should care.
  • Do not jump from one story to another with just brief images.
  • Do not Americanize stories from abroad, instead stress the local context and the people’s suffering; humanize the stories—a refugee crisis story is more likely to mobilize people than a genocide story.
  • “Emphasize the struggles of the innocent, not just the terror perpetrated by the evil” (p. 318).
  • Hero-victim portrayals oversimplify complex issues and stereotype relief workers and victims.

Maier (2015) analyzed writings by Nicholas Kristof who apparently derived his four-point approach for avoiding compassion fatigue to reporting from social psychology literature: “story personification, triumph over adversity, minimal use of statistics, and call for action” (p. 704). Story personification refers to using a human face “to personify complex human issues” (p. 703) and taking advantage of the singularity effect—asking for donations to help a single identified victim is more effective than asking to help multiple faceless victims.  Stressing triumph over adversity involves “show-casing example of people overcoming dire circumstances” (p. 704).  While the social psychological research suggests minimizing statistical information as it may “overwhelm and undermine response” (p. 705), Kristof, according to Maier, argued that statistical information is important to provide context to the crisis situation.  Call for action includes possible solutions since a never-ending problem with no solution in sight is unlikely to generate public attention and response.

Is Kristof’s approach effective? Maier (2015) found online reader response based on certain Internet analytics, e.g., articles viewed most frequently, emailed, most frequently, tracking internet traffic generated by the story, Facebook Likes, and the number of comments posted were only related, albeit weekly, to the aspect of including statistical information (e.g., numbers of victims, financial losses) in the articles. Maier also found emotionally charged topics and North American topics were strong predictors of reader response.  Given results contrary to expectations, he concluded—”there is no ‘magical bullet’ or hypodermic needle’ in which the media’s message activates a powerful uniform response” (p. 716).

Although interesting, Maier’s results are limited to examining one columnist’s stories using reader online response analytics. Maier examined readers’ interest in the articles, but did not address the more important question: Would the readers go one step farther in doing something about the issue?  No doubt compassion fatigue is an important area of research.  Given the harsh realities that face us today of unpredictable horror and the resultant suffering, we cannot afford to be indifferent.  Eli Wiesel (1986) observed,

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.

*Based on author’s presentation at the APA Convention, Denver, Co., August 2016.


Clark, A. C. (2004). Empathy: Implications of three ways of knowing. Journal of Humanistic Counseling and Development, 43, 141-151.

Maier, S. R. (2015). Compassion fatigue and the elusive quest for journalistic impact. A content and reader-metrics analysis assessing audience response. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 92, 700-722. doi: 10.1177/1077699015599660

Moeller, S. (1999). Compassion fatigue. How the media sell disease, famine, war and death. NY: Routledge.

Moore, R. C., Martin, A. S., Kaup, A. R., Thompson, W. K., Peters, M. E., Jeste, D. V., Golshan, S., & Eyler, L. T. (2015). From suffering to caring: A model of differences among older adults in levels of compassion. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 50, 185-191. DOI: 10.1002/gps.4123

Radey, M., & Figley, C. R. (2007). The social psychology of compassion. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35, 207–214. DOI 10.1007/s10615-007-0087-3

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