The Dilemma of Empathy and the News
Journalists constantly tug at our heartstrings. This is not always a good thing.
Posted May 09, 2019
Most journalists want to connect with audiences through good storytelling that reveals the wider world. They hope, in many cases, to move audiences to empathy.
This aim was a driver of journalists' writing about the plight of children separated from their families at the border during the summer of 2018, for example.
“There was a duty to humanize them. To counter political language such as ‘illegal alien,’” one observer wrote. “But what such stories really hope to do is humanize their readers, listeners, spectators: The reporting aims to make us see beyond legal, national or partisan labels into the hearts of migrants, to awaken us to empathy” (Bahadur, 2019, p. 12).
But here’s the thing. We know that generating empathy is difficult, because it requires people to spend emotional energy that they’re usually reluctant to spend. And we also know that audiences can easily suffer from “empathy fatigue” when confronted with story after story, image after image, which tries to move them with tales of the suffering of others.
It may well be that we should reconsider journalists’ reliance on pathos as a narrative strategy. Just like concerns that the overuse of antibiotics is triggering widespread bacterial resistance, flooding the media system with too many stories aimed at the heartstrings may decrease audience engagement.
So what are good journalists to do?
This is not a new problem. More than 20 years ago, cultural critic Michael Ignatieff railed against the morally subversive effects of television news programming. “The TV spectacle of corpses encourages a retreat from the attempt to understand,” he wrote. “The time disciplines of the news genre militate against the minimum moral requirement of engagement with another person’s suffering” (1997, p. 24, 29).
Susan Sontag later made a similar argument about photography and, by extension, photojournalism. The camera, she said, “tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown… Photographs objectify: They turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed… They are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can help us understand. Photographs do something else: They haunt us” (2003, p. 81).
In her fictionalized account of the migrant children controversy, Valeria Luiselli has her main character contemplating this dilemma of empathy and journalism:
“[I]t doesn’t seem right to turn those children, their lives, into material for media consumption. Why? What for? So that others can listen to them and feel—pity? Feel—rage? And then do what? No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning. Everyone continues with their normal lives, no matter the severity of the news they hear, unless the severity concerns weather.” (2019, p. 96).
Cable television programming, of course, regularly exploits pathos to stoke in-group affiliation among targeted demographic populations, whether it be politically conservative Fox News or socially liberal MSNBC.
Empathy and compassion are powerful sources of motivation for people to behave in prosocial ways. And yet research has shown how the act of empathizing requires effort and can often involve costs, including the feeling of distress, which we choose to avoid.
We routinely behave as cognitive and emotional “misers,” calculating how much energy we’re willing to spend connecting with others (Koole, 2009). More recent research has documented how, when given a choice to empathize with strangers, people tend to avoid empathy because of its perceived cognitive effort. “When given the opportunity to share in the experiences of strangers, people chose to turn away,” researchers concluded (Cameron et al., 2019, p.11).
Which brings us back to the dilemma of empathy in the news. What are journalists to do when a key narrative strategy is likely to trigger the opposite of the desired response?
For most good journalists, it’s clear: Some of the best storytelling leads to engagement not by emphasizing emotion, but by a dispassionate and artful marshaling of facts and details. This kind of journalism happens every day—one only need to glance at outlets such as ProPublica, The Washington Post, and many others.
One recent shining example is the investigative work by journalists at The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., which put together a damning portrayal of the Jim Crow-era system that enabled Louisiana courts to routinely send defendants to jail without jury consensus on the accused’s guilt. The emotional power of such work lies in the data, in the ability to show, not merely tell.
A useful way to think about these different approaches might be the aim of cultivating solidarity rather than empathy. In her doctoral work at Stanford University, Anita Varma argues that journalism can fail to reach its potential when it limits itself to evoking empathy by focusing on the plights of individuals.
When it comes to constructively addressing issues of social injustice, journalists should shift their frame to one of “moral solidarity”: documenting the societal, systemic causes of disparity, discrimination, and marginalization, by emphasizing the stake we all have in correcting injustice.
She documents the rich but obscured history of solidarity in American journalism, and argues that as a journalistic frame, it “calls for people to be concerned not only for their own community’s lived conditions, but also for distant communities’ lived conditions, on the grounds that achieving social justice requires a commitment to a larger good beyond self or intragroup interest” (2018, p. 38).
Such a frame for news narratives can help circumvent our tendencies of empathy avoidance and fatigue, and yet still accomplish the goal of engagement.
Bahadur, G. (2019, March 10). Missing children. The New York Times Book Review, 12.
Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy Is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Luiselli, V. (2019). Lost children archive. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Ignatieff, M. (1997). The warrior’s honor: Ethnic war and the modern conscience. New York Henry Holt.
Koole S. L. (2009). The psychology of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Cognition & Emotion 23, 4–41.
The Pulitzer Prizes. The 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner in Local Reporting. Available: https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/staff-advocate-baton-rouge-la
Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Varma, A. (2018). Solidarity in Action: A case study of journalistic humanizing techniques in the San Francisco Homeless Project [Unpublished dissertation, Stanford University].