Distant Suffering: Objectivity, Emotion and the Distant Other

Images of distant suffering are increasingly pervading our screens. The use of ‘sensationalism and images meant to shock’ (Gabbert, 2018) is a new tactic, harnessed by news corporations and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) to ‘regain the audience’s attention’ (Joye, 2013, p. 387) and ‘trigger sadness and empathy’ (Auxtova & Munzel, 2014, p. 4). But is it working? Studies show that ‘respondents in the UK […] perceive the informative ad as being more relevant [than a ‘shocking’ ad], thus stimulating higher charity engagement’ (Auxtova & Munzel, 2014, p. 11). Perhaps the use of shocking and sensationalist images is, instead, creating a ‘compassion fatigue’, whereby audiences are showing a ‘diminishing capacity to mobilise sentiments, sympathy and humanitarian forms of response’ (Cottle, 2009, p. 348).

To avoid this ‘neutralisation’, which makes it ‘acceptable to dismiss the message’ (Huiberts & Joye, 2017, p. 337), news organisations are increasingly domesticating their coverage of distant suffering. This involves ‘the discursive adaptation of news from outside the nation state’ (Huiberts & Joye, 2017, p. 335); ensuring that the information can resonate with a domestic audience, ‘bringing such events closer to the audience to make them more relevant and appealing’ (Huiberts & Joye, 2017, p. 333).

This method of domestication is an important one in attempting to activate ‘a feeling of sentiment and sympathy’ (Gabbert, 2018) among detached audiences which have no real conception of the images of suffering that they are increasingly bombarded with. Huiberts and Joye (2017, p. 335) define four parameters as to how images of distant suffering are translated to become more palatable for this detached, domesticated audience. 1) Emotional Domestication: here, journalists select emotionally charged stories, including eyewitness accounts, in a bid to shock the audience into a feeling of sympathy. 2) Aid-Driven Domestication: this focuses on charitable messages toward the affected area. 3) Familiarizing the Unfamiliar: the use of a popular news reporter, or the comments of a compatriot in the affected area brings the news closer to home, with the added bonus of valid testimony from a trusted source. 4) What are the Stakes: this involves making a correlation between distant suffering and the possible effect it may have at home; stories surrounding the refugee crisis, for instance, are often quantified by a report on how it is affecting migration in the UK.

These attempts at domesticating coverage of distant suffering, adding ‘proximity’ to the news and ‘facilitating empathy towards mediated suffering’ (Huiberts & Joye, 2017, p. 336) may, indeed, be increasingly futile to an audience which is ‘tired of so much bad news’ they feel like they’re ‘running out of emotions’ (Gabbert, 2018). This raises the issue of compassion fatigue: ‘a state of exhaustion and disfunction biologically, physically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress’ (Gabbert, 2018). In short – audiences are becoming ‘numb to the headlines’ (Gabbert, 2018). 


Auxtova, K. & Munzel, A., 2014. Can Shocking Advertising Improve Charity Engagement? A Cross-Cultural Study on Controversial Charity Advertisements. Montpellier, Association Française du Marketing.

Cottle, S., 2009. Journalism and Globalization. In: K. Wahl-Jorgensen & T. Hanitzsch, eds. The Handbook of Journalism Studies. New York: Routledge, pp. 341-356.

Gabbert, E., 2018. Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news?. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/02/is-compassion-fatigue-inevitable-in-an-age-of-24-hour-news
[Accessed 1 December 2020].

Huiberts, E. & Joye, S., 2017. Close, but not close enough? Audience’s reactions to domesticated distant suffering in international news coverage. Media, Culture and Society, XL(3), pp. 333-347.

Joye, S., 2013. Activating the Audience in times of Compassion Fatigue. Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, X(1), pp. 386-389.

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