Numbing of public response to suffering

Other Names:
Over-exposure to suffering through television
Repeated exposure to human tragedy has a progressive numbing effect which erodes active compassion and any ability to act. Images of symbolic concern on television are then used to neutralize images of actual suffering.

People throughout the world tend to be guided by the media -- predominantly Western media -- in determining when a problem warrants international action. Television coverage of a situation has become, for many, a precondition for action. Yet for most commercial networks, the precondition for coverage is crisis. There has to be large-scale violence, destruction, or death before the media takes notice. Until that happens, governments are not under serious internal pressure to act. And by then, the international community's options have usually been narrowed, and made more difficult to implement effectively.

One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are only a statistic. The abundance of televised suffering desensitizes viewers, rather than sensitizing them. They become voyeurs of the global village. The scope of compassion is extended, but its depth becomes shallow. Humanitarians hope that worldwide instantaneous global reporting on heart-rending suffering will evoke intensified humanitarian response, but the very frequency of such reporting undermines such response. People tend to feel absolved of acting by being encouraged to wish that they could act.
Broader Problems:
Numbness towards others
Compassion fatigue
Problem Type:
J: Problems Under Consideration
Date of last update
20.08.2016 – 23:48 CEST