Feeling numb to the News? :Overcoming desensitization in the media


When tragic events pass us by without an emotional response, something must be wrong. How do we make sure we never forget there are real people behind the excessive death toll graphics?

Joey Weslo, General Assignment Reporter

One hundred souls returned to their flesh; one hundred hearts filled again with their blood. Dismembered limbs sewn back in place, the bomb scenes erased of their mutilated corpses. Under a cloud of confusion, shattered lives once again made whole.

Yet, when the reported death toll in Sri Lanka’s recent terrorist bombings was revised down 100, to “about 253,” no joy or compassion filled my heart for the 100 lives not taken from us. The disparity between 353 and 253 cannot be emotionally registered. Numbers do not have lives or loved ones who will forever carry the pain. When structured as attention-getting, “BREAKING NEWS” headlines, saturated numbers strip the humanity from the victims.

The constant barrage of impersonalized fatality numbers in the media has desensitized viewers from proper anguish and empathy. In the digitally-linked world and the 24-hour news cycle, instantaneous tragedy has turned into a perpetual emotionless, drone.

In the wake of World Press Freedom Day (May 3), we contemplate how does the reporter combat the audience’s dissociation from the true horrors of the story? How can media violence be viewed without causing a societal desensitization?

Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote of the murdered victims at Jaslo concentration camp: “History counts its skeletons in round numbers. A thousand and one remains a thousand, as though the one had never existed.”

How do we make the “one” exist?

In the advertise-competitive media world, the necessity to break news “breakier” than anyone else, has resulted in austere, lack-luster reporting with inhumane figures and clichéd visuals propagating our senses. Tragedies compete for our short-lived sympathy and attention span, soon to be replaced by the next daily shot of self-gratuitous, ego-driven outpourings of grief.   

Our attention is triggered by fears of attacks against ourselves. If we can relate to the victims, our sympathy is activated. Our cultural similarities caused an outpouring of grief for the 137 lives lost in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. However, the cultural dissonance between America and Lebanon saw the same month’s Beirut bombings with 89 fatalities largely unreported. If we cannot empathize and put ourselves in the victims’ shoes, we fail to grieve.

If an Afghanistan bombing kills 43, or 52, or 12, or 150, it makes no difference in how we perceive the attack. Americans view the Middle East as plagued with chronic violence, so the attacks barely register on our radar. We hardly hesitate our scroll through the daily news. The fact that the event happened is more important than the human value of the tragedy.

From mass shootings, to natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the pattern for reporting has become monotonous. All calls for societal change are like drops in an ocean. The mantra went from, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” to “I’m mad as hell,” to “OK, it happened. Now, what’s next?”

Of the more than 3,770 migrants who drowned in 2015 trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, it took the photo of one drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy to capture people’s attention.

Alan (Aylan) Kurdi, face down in the sand, resonated on a more visceral and familial level. It was impossible not to see your own child in his lifeless figure. This bond breaks through all disparities in culture, race, class and religion.

If the assumed role of reporting is more than merely informative, how do we decide who makes a worthy victim? How do we localize and relate tragedies without trivializing them?

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the New York Times published 2,500 personalized obituaries of those killed. The intimate details humanized the tragedy, showing even though we are geographically apart, those killed are just like my family and friends. The numbers ceased to be numbers because they became people.

Similar efforts were made by the Associated Press in memorializing the 49 people lost in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting.

More attention was given to five-year old Crystal Lake, Ill. boy, AJ Freund, whom police believe was murdered by his parents, than all 253 victims in Sri Lanka. A face and a detailed story prove heartbreaking for the viewer. Social proximity and relatability triggers sympathy. As the media-world knows, sympathy triggers fear. Fear equals ratings.

A 1986 George Washington University study researching media coverage of 35 recent natural disasters showed the severity and number of deaths did not correlate to given airtime. A Guatemalan earthquake with four times the deaths as an Italian earthquake was given one-third the airtime. Our limited attention spans will only be granted to culturally relevant tragedies we can see ourselves in.

If tragedies carry cultural significance, like the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (resulting in 28 deaths), which spotlighted the role of guns and mental health in America, the coverage is a ratings bonanza.

Attention-grabbing headlines have become more valued than stories that may be more newsworthy. While ignoring systemic issues that often lead to mass shootings, terrorist attacks or social service deficiencies during natural disasters, viewers find themselves inundated with dehumanized figures and garish graphics.

This constant exposure to numerical tragedy without contextual reinforcement and personified statistics mollifies the viewer’s capacity for sympathy, guilt, compassion and empathy. Comfortability develops in dealing with trauma.

A 1984 study by psychologist Daniel Linz found when frequently exposed to material showing sexual violence, men (as compared to a non-exposure group) were less sympathetic to victims of real life sexual violence.

When the news couples the barrage of grisly and violent images with frequent events featuring significantly high death tolls, the psychological phenomenon called the “collapse of compassion” can overtake the viewer.

The phenomenon states sympathy will diminish as death tolls rise, and more empathy can be derived for the suffering of an individual than for groups of people. This coping mechanism helps us temper our emotional responses to situations that are incomprehensibly tragic and overwhelming. The collapse of compassion prevents us from personifying cold, reported numbers. We become dissociated from the reality of tragic events.

If the collapse of compassion is consistently required to deal with never-ending tragic events, the further state of “compassion fatigue” can set in. This represents the gradual and consistent lessening of compassion and empathy due to an over-stimulated response system from constant trauma, disasters and violence.

By perpetuating decontextualized headlines and over-saturating media markets with stories of non-personified tragedy and anguish, compassion fatigue further trivializes flesh and blood into irrelevant numbers.

It is the duty of the reporter to put a face and life-story behind every numerical figure. Find what makes the person universal and relatable; find where the common-humanity exists.

The celebrated tenets of World Press Freedom Day remind us of the inherent purpose of reporting. The purpose is not to get bogged down by the monotony of repetitious stories, but to rise above the emotionless-drone and make people feel something. Raw emotion inspires change.

We see it in the Mexican journalists, such as the murdered Telesforo Santiago Enriquez, risking their lives documenting cartel-led corruption in an effort to bring greater security to local villagers.

We see it Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are imprisoned in Myanmar for trying to step the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims by capturing the murder of 10 individuals by the military.

Sri Lanka’s health services attributed the death toll’s 100-person over-calculation to the difficulty of gathering a precise figure because of the immensity of severed and dismembered body parts.

As we translate the horrors into tangible reporting, we cannot disservice the victims by trivializing their tragedies.

In the sea of inhumanity, we cannot subvert our compassion and forsake the essence of what makes us collectively human.