Compassion fatigue

Do media fears create the reality we see?

If the politicians and the media are to be believed, we're suffering from compassion fatigue.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair accused the BBC and CNN of "'refugee fatigue'. In other words, once you've reported one mass rape, the next one's not so newsworthy. See one mass grave, you've seen the lot.... Refugee fatigue may have set in with some TV stations, but it will not set in with me until the refugees go home."

President Clinton also warned, "We must not get refugee fatigue. We must not forget the real victims of this tragedy."

And Peter Jennings reported an ABC News/Washington Post poll that found "Americans are beginning to show some fatigue with the war against Yugoslavia."

The American public may or may not be suffering from compassion fatigue, but much of the media operates as if the public is always on the verge of it.

Despite several recent polls that suggest American and European support for the air war in the Balkans is fading, other signs indicate that the public remains concerned about the refugees. The American Red Cross raised $13.9 million in aid for the Kosovars from mid-April through mid-May and the British have given an unprecedented 330 million to a coalition of British relief agencies.

So why the sudden accusations of refugee fatigue?

Charging the media with "fatigue" is a tacit acknowledgment by the politicians that they fear the broadcast images of NATO errors may undo public support for the conflict.

"If a bomb goes astray and hits a residential area, or the Chinese embassy is mistakenly attacked, then I'm not going to pretend that is not news," said Mr. Blair. "It is. But are these tens of thousands of lives inside Kosovo worth less because there happens to be no film of them? Are they non-people not worth a studio discussion simply because CNN and the BBC and the rest cannot get in on the ground?"

Indeed videotape obtained and shown last week by CNN of a massacre in Izbica of ethnic Albanians demonstrates that coverage inside Kosovo can be picture-driven. But a special briefing by State Department spokesman James Rubin linking the footage with satellite photographs taken before and after mass graves appeared in the town equally demonstrated the effort of officials to shore up public support for the NATO campaign by featuring Serb atrocities.

Attacking the media for their inattention to the refugees is also a means by which Blair and Clinton can try to seize the moral high ground. The media do not care about the human tragedy of the Kosovar Albanians, but we do, Blair and Clinton are in effect saying. To emphasize this point, they both compared Kosovo with the Holocaust, and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with Hitler.

"Though his ethnic cleansing is not the same as the ethnic extermination of the Holocaust," Clinton said, "the two are related - both vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic hatred."

But Blair and Clinton - and numerous polls - are onto something with charges of "fatigue." And that is that most of the media do not privilege the refugee disaster over any other facet of the war - or privilege Kosovo itself over any other crisis.

As was evident during the reporting on the high school shootings and the of coverage of the Midwest tornadoes and the Israeli elections, Kosovo can be preempted just like any other news story can be preempted - and when it gets preempted it goes off the air as if it never existed.

Increasingly in order to make the news, a crisis must be perceived as the single most compelling and timely event out there in the ether. And even then, that solitary crisis has only a limited time in the limelight.

The rumored existence of compassion fatigue tempts the media to report only on the peak of a crisis, a tendency that typically deprives the public of learning about the prelude to or the denouement of an event.

Just the fear of compassion fatigue justifies for the media a flitting from crisis to crisis - no matter that the upheaval of a Kosovo, the devastation of a tornado, the shock of a Littleton, or even the inconsequence of the release of Amy Fisher all have longterm ramifications.

The crisis mix not only emerges from financial imperatives, but from the news value of prioritizing what's just happened, and from the notion of "wait a minute, and we'll report on a crisis that will resonate for you."

The peripatetic nature of crisis coverage means that most media institutions rely on the services of correspondents who are shuffled around as the crises dictate - making most of the journalists experts in crisis coverage, rather than experts in a country or region. The Washington Post, for example, temporarily transferred its only regular East Africa foreign reporter to join the hoards of journalists covering Kosovo, leaving the conflicts in Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea unattended.

And that is the most devastating effect of the media's worry over the possibility that the public might lapse into compassion fatigue. Editors and producers don't assign stories and correspondents don't cover events that they believe will not appeal to their readers and viewers. So for stories such as the almost daily skirmishes in the "no-fly-zone" over Iraq, or the continued Turkish fighting against the Kurds, or the ongoing disaster in Sierra Leone, no news is not good news. No news is oblivion.

Blair was right about that - public opinion is formed by what makes the news, not by what doesn't. Mr. Milosevic's control of the images coming out of Yugoslavia and Kosovo may limit the coverage of part of that crisis, but what is the excuse for the lack of coverage of the myriad other debacles around the globe? It's not due to the waging of a propaganda war or even to the public's lapse into so-called compassion fatigue. It's due to the media's system of covering the world.

They call it "crisis coverage."

*Susan Moeller is the author of 'Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Cover Disease, Famine, War and Death' (Routledge, 1999) and the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University, in Boston.

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