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The Present

How the media stokes compassion. And why it’s a double-edged sword.

Compassion is one of several news values that determine if a story is published.


Members of a family reunite through the border wall between Mexico and United States, during the "Keep our dream alive" event, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on December 10, 2017.
Key Takeaways
  • How the media frame a story can influence who the audience feels compassionate toward.
  • Part of telling a story requires combatting inherent obstacles to sustained compassion.
  • Compassion is one of several news values that determine if a story is published.
Media sausage

In 2003, author and journalist Nancy Rommelmann could not tear herself away from the story of the Jesica Santillan, a teenage child of undocumented Mexican immigrants who died after a double organ transplant went wrong at an American hospital. “She looked just like my daughter,” Rommelmann wrote at the time after seeing a picture of Jesica.

Now looking back 16 years, Rommelmann reflects on how the death of one girl captured her attention while larger tragedies could not. “When Jesica died, I told my mother I was bleeding compassion for her, but did not feel anything, really, about the 100 people who died in the nightclub fire when Great White was playing. That’s because Jesica has a face.”

Why is it that some stories can needle our emotions when others barely raise an eyebrow? Is it media manipulation or simply a matter of how or how much, we can relate to the victims? Conflict correspondents have a particularly challenging task, given the difficulty in remaining impartial while portraying multiple viewpoints, aggressors and victims.

Among all the heart-tugging qualities of Jesica’s story, that Rommelmann so clearly saw her own daughter in a picture of Jesica is what, I submit, impelled the journalist to monitor and eventually write about the dashed hope of Jesica’s parents’ in their attempt to save her life.

Rommelmann’s connection to Jesica was as palpable as it was understandable . We ache for our children, and by extension, the children of others. However, when news reports detail tragedies that befall larger groups of people, our compassion tends to decrease as the number of victims grows. One theory holds that because we are hardwired by evolution to feel compassion for family-sized units, as the number of victims balloons beyond that, we actually lose the mental capacity to feel similar levels of compassion.

But how we receive news is determined by those who observe, write, and present it to us. And for whom and why we actually feel compassion is influenced, and sometimes inculcated, by the manner in which the stories are told.

According to Dr. Emma Heywood, author of the 2014 paper European Foreign Conflict Reporting:

“Compassion has the potential to elicit an emotional response amongst viewers to the plight of those in distant places who are suffering as a direct result of conflict. It involves both the viewers’ relationship with remote ‘others’ and their recognition that these ‘others’ are also part of one humankind, regardless of where, or who, they are. An element of morality is thus imposed on ‘us’ – the viewer – to engage with ethics of care, or to imagine putting ourselves in the position of the victim.”

While this grand statement about the power of media rings true, it fails, in this instance, to consider our limited capacity to care for so much humankind. It’s easier to write about morality from an ivory tower than to report on the ground, considering these matters are complicated by competing pressures from producers, editors, world leaders and media liaisons, to name just a few.

Matt Welch, Editor at Large for Reason magazine, explained to me what he sees as the extremely complicated moral narrative that emerges from reporting on foreign conflict:

“It is much, much, much harder in most circumstances (especially in multi-sided civil/regional wars, such as we have in the Middle East and North Africa), to have a clear sense of context, trustworthiness of source, provenance of imagery, and so on. And we have written keenly about the constant uses of propaganda (on all sides) in war zones. So we are considerably less likely to tell straightforward cases of individuals vs. dictatorships, unless we can interrogate them personally, rather than rely on found imagery & reporting.”

Without diligently parsing the many distinctions on the ground, there is a danger in looking at conflict through the lens of morality and viewing someone who calls out for compassion. “Rather than reporting an event,” writes Dr. Heywood, “[compassion] now invites the viewer to engage with the suffering of those seen on the screen and even, going further, to take a moral stance about an event.”

The problem with moral imperatives is that they often look different depending on which team one endorses. Consider how to portray actors in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Are they children or young terrorists; occupiers or defenders, refugees or combatants, police or army? Do you show videos of Israeli military arresting Palestinian teens or frightened Israelis running from RPGs? These types of questions present ethical and professional dilemmas for the journalists who play such a large role in shaping our view of the situation.

Compounding the difficulty of making moral assessments is the fleeting nature of compassion itself. The amount of compassion we have to give decreases as the number of victims mounts, and the further away the event is in time and space. As we move further from those with whom we can identify, the media must work harder to gain our support, to reel us back to the story as time passes before we are on to the next news cycle.

Some inside baseball

How must writers think in order to foster compassion without taking sides?

Ms. Rommelmann told me: “I am a big believer in not taking sides and/or telling the reader what to think; that’s opinion writing, not journalism, and I’ve been very fortunate to have readers appreciate that I let them form their own conclusions. I do remind them, however, who composed the story…Sometimes you need to talk to a lot of people, to get a full story, the panorama. But you can also sit quietly with one person, and let him or her take you deep, deep, deep. As long as you construct the material properly, never ever going for sentimentality, as long as you let the subject speak and you really listen, I think it’s inevitable that your foster compassion.”

Reason’s Welch offered this. “Criminal justice, an issue that Reason has been covering for all 51 years of its existence, is an excellent way of looking at [this] dynamic. What do you think attracts more attention, the statistic that there are 650,000 marijuana-related arrests per year, or an individual story about a grandmother locked up for seeking glaucoma medication? The LAPD paid out millions annually in police-abuse settlements to mostly nonwhite victims back in the 1990s, but it took the videotape of Rodney King to make people fully aware of the reality.”

Compassion as a news value

How stories of disaster, war and tragedy reach us is not something most of us think about as we watch the news or read accounts online, but the task of constructing a narrative that will elicit compassion is a thoughtful, often fraught process undertaken by writers, producers, editors and presenters. Each angle is considered. Compassion has probative worth as a news value but it must be genuine, not manufactured.

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In times of war, the ability to shift framing to prompt compassion for one side or another can sway public opinion. How are images and videos chosen? Live or B-roll? Are there images of victims, combatants, maps, hospitals, relief workers, politicians, press conferences? It all can affect the desired response, whatever the broadcasters or publishers decide that response should be.

The public can get caught up in condemning the media or government spin doctors. It’s easy to become cynical about the abuse of a tragedy for political gain or a scoop for personal aggrandizement.

The US media has been criticized for essentially acting as a marketing arm for the military industrial complex during the George W. Bush administration to garner support for the Iraq invasion. Whether they were duped, used, or were willing participants will be argued for a generation, but that it happened is incontrovertible.

In May, 2019, the Guardian reported that the London Evening Standard would be cutting jobs as a cost-saving measure. The article, written by Media Editor, Jim Waterson, included a picture of the Evening Standard’s content grid, which essentially guides writers and editors toward which stories the paper wants to run. Although the Evening Standard is a mainstream publication, the content grid lends a tabloid feel to the process.

Exacerbating the problem of what we read is the brevity that constrains much reporting. The average online news post falls between 500-800 words, per That count leaves little room for nuance. Analogies to other significant events, which are intended to give a reader perspective, are limited to a top ten that people might recognize; hence all the references to Watergate, Nazis or another bi. If a journalist’s references slide into relative obscurity—from Katrina to the North Sea Flood; from Hitler to Pavelić; from Tora Bora to the Siege at Leningrad—the reader’s eyes begin to avert to something more familiar and less taxing, in other words, they click away. In the age of click-thru counts and engagement stats, what matters is attention, at the expense of depth.

“People are suckers for narratives,” writes Welch “(which gives a great opportunity for counter-narratives!), and they do indeed tend to latch onto stories with characters they can empathize with. There are ways you can activate their senses, too, with big-numbers stories; it’s all a blend, and a never-ending set of artistic choices. There’s an extra layer of responsibility that too few journalists seem to adhere to, to make sure that the original source is trustworthy, and that you’re not just plugging in a dubious anecdote to fit a pre-existing narrative.”

Compassion is one of many news values that determine if a story is aired or goes to print, including. Others are timeliness, oddity, proximity, impact, relevance, prominence and whether there is conflict. But each of these qualities helps determine how much compassion will be transmitted to the person reading or viewing the story. Today, everyone has their own digital printing press and social media amplifies voices in unpredictable ways. While interrogating the methods of newsmakers is essential, it’s equally important that instead of being cynical about the process, i.e. everyone and everything is irredeemably biased, we expect that standards are set and followed by those who expect to be taken seriously.