Dissertation Final Draft (George Richardson)


“Is Television News a Catalyst for Compassion Fatigue?”





George Richardson







Supervisor:  Thomas Ingate





















BA(Hons) Journalism

JSM310 Dissertation

This dissertation is submitted to University College Falmouth towards the degree of Bachelor of Arts by undergraduate study in Journalism.

I understand and accept the implications of the notion of plagiarism. I declare that all the material in this dissertation which is not my own work has been clearly identified as such and no material is included for which a degree has previously been conferred on me.

I understand that any breach of the fair practice conventions with regard to the work of others may result in a mark of zero for this dissertation and that it could also involve other repercussions. I also understand that too great a reliance on the work of others may lead to a low mark.

Signed byGeorge Richardson:

Date 25/01/2012














Ofcom defines public service broadcasting as a role-playing, purposeful entity that influences the lives of its audience. The statistics also show that television is still the preferred medium for news in Britain. This investigation argues that they very fundamentals of television reporting are flawed and that a clear, cohesive understanding of news is pragmatically impossible. A refined contextual understanding of events appears to be an important element of news and that television news lacks. Without context and sufficient understanding, the audience can slip into a condition labelled as Compassion Fatigue.


Compassion fatigue is the desensitisation of an audience to serious news events. There have been studies into compassion fatigue, but many have had different labels for the same thing; ‘Oh-dearism,’ desensitisation, media anxiety etc. Compassion fatigue is all of these things but applied specifically to television news.


Theorists such as Susan Moller have written around the subject but with less of a focus on television news and more of a focus on case studies of particular events across all media platforms. This investigation marries the concepts of a fluctuating television media environment, current programing methods and techniques, and how the audience rests on a hugely varies cultural backdrop, all exacerbate the frustratingly intangible condition of compassion fatigue.


Within the grounding frameworks that construct the U.K. audience’s perceptions are the elements that participate in incubating compassion fatigue. By disseminating these elements and applying them to contemporary media models and statistics, this dissertation finds that not only does compassion fatigue exist, but it is also exacerbated by the broadcasting industry itself.






Abstract……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 3


Acknowledgements……………………………………………………………………………………… 5


Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………………………. 5


Field of research;………………………………………………………………………………………… 6

Research Parameters;…………………………………………………………………………………. 6


Chapter One: Contributing Theories and Context of the Audience;…………….. 9

Compassion Fatigue…………………………………………………………………………………….. 9

Restyling Factual TV;…………………………………………………………………………………. 11

Audience Characteristics…………………………………………………………………………… 13

Image Culture…………………………………………………………………………………………… 15

Television News in a Democracy;………………………………………………………………… 18

Eurocentrism and Geographical Displacement;…………………………………………… 20


Chapter 2: Television Production as a Catalyst;………………………………………… 22

Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) and News;……………………………………………… 22

Pragmatics of Television Production;…………………………………………………………. 24

Power and Agenda;…………………………………………………………………………………… 27


Conclusion;………………………………………………………………………………………………… 30


Bibliography and References;……………………………………………………………………. 34













Profound thanks to my dissertation supervisor, Thomas Ingate, for giving me enough rope to hang myself, and to my very good friends; Andrew Brimson, Ashley Thompson, Jessica Chambers and Holly Wallace for loosening the noose with industrial amounts of tea.


Special thanks to my father for keeping me at it through all hours, and to my mother for getting me up in the holiday mornings.

























Field of research;


This is a meta-theoretical study into the development of Compassion fatigue in the context of the contemporary media environment. Compassion fatigue is when the audience ‘tune out’ of whatever news is being reported. Compassion fatigue may be caused by numerous factors as a result of the production of broadcasting, audience perceptions or even third party contributors such as advertising.


Research Parameters;


The power and influence that television news has over its viewers in the United Kingdom has been contested since the first broadcast. There are various theories and contemporary views that evoke tension over television being completely reconceptualised as a medium for entertainment, advertising, education and news. The balance of control between viewing and viable business models for broadcasting is apparently shifting from network controllers into the hands of the viewers themselves through a surge of new technology and media platforms.


New technology has not by any means rendered all previous theory obsolete. According to the Ofcom Media tracker, as of 2010, 74% of news audiences use television news as their main source of news input for events in the UK and 79% indicated that television news was their preferred medium of international news.[1] Much of the research into audience habits and broadcasting processes are still relevant, so the contemporary statistics must be taken into account and applied to the existing theoretical models. Negotiating a balance in the arguments between the restyling of television should provide a solid ground for a contextual understanding of how far the modern television news audience has or has not become more or less compassionate. Perhaps the more poignant question should be: In a modern and consistently ‘media savvy’ society, how far does television news not influence us?


Watching ‘the news’ is a complicated activity in itself. This investigation aims to explore the social, cultural and political factors that might influence the television news audience and if current news production methods act as a catalyst in fuelling compassion fatigue. If compassion fatigue is a problem, is there anything that is being done to alleviate it and if there is, who is responsible for doing so?


This study argues that desensitisation of television news could be more appropriately labelled as compassion fatigue. Subsequently, as a result of the current socio-economic climate, there is also a sense thatthere might be something missing in fulfilling our roles as citizens, a sense that may be attributed to the ever-changing media environment developing exponentially.


Speculation around how few people turn out to vote in national or regional elections, how international aid organisations might not be as well supported as they could be, or even simply dissatisfaction of our government could potentially be contributing factor in common; they may be a direct result of compassion fatigue. On mass, the news media potentially has a direct, immediate, and passive influence into people’s lives through the subterfuge of a plastic box in the corner of a room or on everyone’s desk. David Morley addresses in his book ‘Television Audiences & Cultural Studies’ where he refers to ‘Silverstone (1990);


“The problem is that television watching is, in fact, a very complex activity, which is inevitably enmeshed with a range of other domestic practices and can only be properly understood in this context.”


(Morley, 1992: 34)


An audience is a difficult entity to quantify, so the research parameters of this project take into account theories encompassing Eurocentrism, the current psyco-social mentalities and socio-economic circumstances that affect the perceptions that a UK audience might have. This connection within context can be reinforced. Julianne Newton states that there is no “magic bullet effect,” (Newton, 2001: 97) and audiences do not react or perceive footage or images in the same way.


Many audience studies and case studies have been conducted to explore the epistemology of the human condition under the influence of television news, and many have decisive conclusions. However technology and sources of news are constantly changing. In order to keep this text relevant, it would be more beneficial to explore the research question without trying to quantify the modern audience responses using empirical data. Instead, in order to study ‘the audience’ the data will be comprised mostly of qualitative research and literature reviews on what has already been discussed and through using empirical data that has already been collected from suitable sources. David Morley astutely puts ethnographies of audiences into perspective;


“It is a commonplace observation that the enormous research effort which is being developed over the years has only, at best, a modest amount to offer the basic question of influence.”


(Morley, 1992: 173)


The very nature of an investigation into the influence of specific programmes upon an audience does imply that empirical data should be collected. The most poignant data however, is already available through journals such as the Media Studies Journal, the Broadcast Magazine, and Ofcom, all of which publish statistics that have been useful in placing figures as tools in disseminating and contextualising the literature.


Looking at Post Structuralism and Post Modernist theories this dissertation explores the parameters of compassion fatigue. It is prudent to understand exactly what compassion really is on a psychological and anthropological level to outline what exactly is at stake if compassion fatigue continues and really, if it is a problem at all. Television news does appear to have the power to influence individuals and audiences, as it has done throughout history, one must question if that is even the purpose of television news. The power of broadcasting might have the ability to change opinion or inspire action, but is that the reason for its existence? With this in mind, research must also be conducted into the purpose of television by attempting to convey the ideologies from key individuals within the industry. John Fiske can provide a positive overview, not necessarily over the purpose of television news, but of the influences;


“Television does not ‘cause’ identifiable effects in individuals; it does however, work ideological and to promote and prefer certain meanings of the world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some social interests better than others.”


(Fiske, 2006: 20)


This investigation will also look into the academic principles that encompass compassion to try and identify if it has always existed or if it has grown through recent years. It will also look into how compassion fatigue influences British society as an audience and as decision makers, and to look at how some industry leaders address the issue, or if indeed, they are even aware of it at all. If there is a source of compassion fatigue, it must be explored to discover how it has developed and if it is a problem for society or the industry. Through research into answering these questions posed, this investigation might prove to become an indicator of how to approach possibility of ‘re-sensitising’ the television news audience.


Chapter One: Contributing Theories and Context of the Audience;


Compassion Fatigue


Compassion fatigue is a condition more commonly associated with posttraumatic stress disorder, however, with regards to mass media; it has been more closely related with the cure for phobias. Compassion fatigue acquires a different meaning in the context of mass media and the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma has numerous online resources including an article that addresses compassion fatigue in the context of television news. The article also quotes Susan Moeller from the summer 2001 issue of Media Studies Journal. Within the Dart Centre article, the principles of compassion fatigue and ‘donor fatigue,’ are outlined as;


“Phenomenon on in which news stories about particularly egregious events abroad elicit less compassion from readers and viewers because they do not perceive that there is anything that can be done about this duration, and they find it difficult to understand the complexity of factors that result in unspeakable crimes against humanity. As such, they tune out.”


(Dart Centre Online, 2011)

The article goes on to explore the complicated motivations that encourage people to ‘care’ and stating that; “pity alone is not enough.” It is suggested that some audiences feel that they are being manipulated by the news and therefore may care less about the suffering of people. To quote Moeller from her article in the summer of 2001 issue of Media Studies Journal and also from the Dart Centre article, “you have to know a subject well before you can care about it… If you get skewed information, not enough information, or information that is too offensive, [we] are unlikely to care about the topic” (Moeller, 2001). This statement merely touches upon the complexities that evoke the principles of an audience ‘caring’ about a subject. The point is still valid as Moeller challenges the content of news, although not specifically television news, and suggests that the public are not substantially informed enough to form an aggregated opinion. In her book ‘Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sells Disease, Famine, War, and Death,’ Moeller quite literally declares “it’s the media’s fault” and elaborates on the contextual issue by stating; “too much harping on the same set of images, too much strident coverage with insufficient background and context, exhaust the public” (Moeller, 1999: 9).


Moeller argues that the original ideological construction of news television has evolved to become a stronger essence of entertainment, rather than the morally obligatory purpose; to inform and to educate. This view is reinforced, by Juan Tamayo, a former foreign editor of The Miami Herald as he states;


“We’re heading into a period in which foreign reporting which used to inform and educate, is now asked to entertain.”


(Moeller, 1999: 9)


Moeller confirms this by summoning a cynical reference to the Rwandan crisis. “Stories either emphasize the exotic or the crisis. To check this, think of Rwanda. Recall how many stories appeared on Rwanda before the recent genocide that didn’t mention Dian Fossey’s gorillas.” (Moeller, 1999: 25) This might be an exaggeration but it also serves as a contradiction in Moeller’s staple argument since Moeller also states that the judgement criteria for editors in sending reporters and recording specific events fall under the specific categories. “Political, strategic, commercial, and historical considerations,” are the declared agendas. It must be therefore; that the only reason the Rwandan conflict attained any attention was for the entertainment value. The drama of the crisis must have been one of the main contributing factors that encouraged editors to send journalists to report on the conflict.


Restyling Factual TV;


There is argument to suggest that there could be or already has been, a “restyling of factual television.” Annette Hill argues that the modern audience has lost its grasp of what is ‘real’ and that genres have fused, becoming so convoluted that the audience genuinely loses track of reality.


“Watching factual television can feel like a strange dream… It can feel like being trapped between fact and fiction, where news footage of violent acts can be so difficult to comprehend that it seems unreal and where fake footage of violent acts is passed off as real.”


(Hill, 2007: 2)

If the contemporary audience has lost its grip on reality, then it could be suggested that television news is useless unless there is a way to figure out how to sensitise the audience back to reality. The parodies encompassing the ‘usefulness’ of television news also need to be addressed. Usefulness implies a sense of purpose, which in turn can be easily confused with responsibility in terms of media, although these terms, ‘purpose,’ ‘usefulness,’ and ‘responsibility,’ are too holistic when used to describe aspects of factual television. What needs to be defined are the genres that factual television encompasses through existing audience studies and research.


The effects of an apparent demand for news to be entertaining are ultimately reflexive, and equally harmful, towards an ideology of television news as a genre to inform and educate. It appears there is an inherent, ‘give the people what they want,’ discipline, regardless of a story being too convoluted or complicated to explain the context. There are however, other explanations as to why the genre of television news is has become a vessel for entertainment as denoted by an anonymous CBS producer who covered the war in Lebanon. He observed that,


“You’ve got a TV audience that’s used to war movies. Real explosions have to look almost as good. There’s almost a boredom factor.”


(Moeller 1999:18)


Moeller adds, “If the news isn’t up to Hollywood calibre, indifference can steal in. Without snazzy production values, a war spares no interest.” Although this is another cynical comment, this ‘indifference’ is academically labelled. Annette Hill, in her book ‘Restyling Factual TV,’ infers that the modern audience might not know where to look. Surrounding television news, as a neat ideology, are various sub genres. Hill dissects the genre of factual TV into separate categories including television news as a key genre. Programme makers will use techniques from various sources to compose their own packages. This means that they will draw directorial material from genres of a similar style and thus, the cinematic methods can mimic styles from other genres. Despite television news being the most “well established and recognisable factual genre,” Hill also states that, “all television genres become mixed up with others.” (Hill, 2007: 5)


Audience Characteristics


Trust in programmes, and indeed whole broadcast networks, is vital in retaining audience attention. There is a sense that audiences struggle to come to terms with what is realistic, despite the programmes representing the truth. Directorial techniques such as verisimilitude and cinema verité are examples of techniques employed to attempt to create a visual landscape into which news viewers can place their trust, however, the very nature of constructing a news package means that a program can never really depict the entire story or represent the whole truth, but merely show the highlights and the dramatic, notable images. This is what scholars label representing ‘Actuality.’ Actuality can be broken down into different categories such as ‘Realism,’ and ‘Authenticity,’


“Although viewers use terms like real to define actuality, the use of terms like ‘real’ is closely associated with authenticity and they judge the realism of most factual programmes were using a criterion of truth.”


(Hill 2007:113 – 114)

Here it is suggested that an audience, to make an assessment or judgement of current events, relies on each individual’s own experiences. This makes it more difficult to quantify an audience since each individual will have different life experiences that will shape their own ‘criterion of truth.’ It could be suggested if each individual creates a unique criterion on the truth they will also create, perhaps subconsciously, a unique perception of what is real. In shaping one’s own criterion of trust, it leaves language and interpretation of images to the confines of the individuals’ experiences. Pierre Guiraud says;


“All knowledge consists of the establishment of a system of relations between the elements which constitute the field of experience; and once these relations have been observed or postulated, they must be signified. So there are two sides to the coin of knowledge: an epistemological system (signified) and a semiological system (signifying).”


(Guiraud, 1971: 54)


Julianne Newton explains the concept of the Social Construction of Reality Theory in her book The Burden of the Visual Truth. This is essentially a modern interpretation of Guiraud, including contemporary paradigms over socio-economic factors and new technologies. She outlines how our own experiences, sociolects, and cultural heritage enable us to “produce our own universes and they in turn give us a perpetual dialect of experience and knowing,” as she refers to Berger and Luckmann (1966/1967).  This also builds upon Morley’s research into audience studies as he has declared audiences are typically empirically unquantifiable since no two people will perceive or be influenced by an event or subject in exactly the same way due to their own experiences and construction of reality.  Morley refers to Fiske (1989) and Hartley (1987) in his argument;


“Fiske argues that there is no such thing as the television audience, defined as an empirically accessible object, following Harley, who pursues the constructivist argument further, arguing that there is no “actual” audience that can be separated from its construction as a category-audiences products of institutions, and don’t exist prior to them, or outside them.”


(Morley 1992: 56)

Newton describes the development of this theory through acknowledging an increasingly out-dated mass media theory;


“As mass communication theory developed, however, researchers learned that media power is not exercised is the proverbial ‘magic bullet,’ shot into the consciousness of a passively awaiting audience.”

 (Newton, 2008: 96)


In terms of a television audience, this personal construction of reality can be built upon infinite factors. Cynically, Moeller refers to popular culture and film as a grounding value of which an audience might found their construction of reality and defining news to be realistic by judging the visual spectacle of events in comparison with “Hollywood special effects.” This may well be an accurate example. There is more than enough research that depicts youth culture as desensitised by violence through other visual mediums including feature films. The “mental exercises” that we perform as we watch events are built on grounding crucial factors. It could be argued that since our thought processes guide us individually, perhaps our loss of empathy with television news is due to the lack of cohesion between the criteria producers apply to funding a news story, and the criteria in which we all build our construction of truth. This relates back to Hill’s comments on how an audience builds their own criterion of truth. When citing Grodal she states that; “the mental operations viewers perform can lead them to an anxious state of mind when nothing seems real” (Hill, 2007: 113). This postmodern position suggests authenticity is meaningless and realism “is all relative.” With this regard, the ‘anxiety effect’ could be considered as another contributing factor feeding compassion fatigue or indeed providing another label for the same thing.


Image Culture


Newton also touches on the sociobiological significance of how images are viewed. She professes that the ways in which an audience dissect an image can often depend on the way they want to interpret it. She quotes Lutz & Collins, noting a hypothetical example,


“When we view a photograph of an emaciated victim of war or natural disaster, we participate in a form of human visual behaviour. The image becomes, as Lutz & Collins (1993) termed it, an ‘intersection of gazes’.”


(Newton, 2001: 103)


She implies that different people from different background have respective agendas through the interpretation of images, noting the potential for how politicians, as an example, could use specific images to “evoke other truths or to supress and manipulate the truth” (Newton, 2001: 103).


            John Berger writes about the gravity of the image culture with regards to the publicity of images in our everyday lives. Taking into account the theory of convoluted genres, Berger adds another viewpoint of how westernised society is subject to a culture that is built on images and representations.


“We’re now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely noticed that total impact… We accept the total system of publicity images as we except an element of climate.”


(Berger, 1972: 130)

Berger astutely compares image culture to a factor like climate. This insinuates that the public is in fact ‘acclimatised’ to an image culture and as such the audience is desensitised, collectively, from all types of images. Again, with regards to the ‘collectivisation of genres,’ this would also apply to the images television news, assuming that the audience consume television news in the same way that an audience might consume other images. On a more sinister tone, Berger examines the side effects of ‘publicity’ as a genre in its own right that exists only within the parameters of a strong capitalist society. He denotes a subliminal ‘purpose’ of publicity;


“The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life… all publicity works upon anxiety. The sum of everything is money; to get money is to overcome anxiety. Alternatively the anxiety on which publicity plays is the fear that having nothing you become nothing.”


(Berger, 1972: 142)

Here Berger relays some cynical workings of capitalist, and consumer culture and implies that the audience of these images is almost helpless and can only fall into state of anxiety. It could be argued that this anxiety contributes to compassion fatigue on a subliminal, yet national scale. At the same time, Berger does not explore the effects of quantities or frequencies of image exposure, neither does he address any variance of society within an audience, so to this extent Berger’s theory could be flawed.


Susan Sontag is a prominent figure in articulating ethical considerations in photojournalism and associated visual paradigms but more importantly, she describes the way that audiences currently perceive news. In two of her books; ‘On Photography’ and ‘Regarding the Pain of Others,’ she infers the theory of an ‘image culture,’ whereby audiences strongly depend on visual inputs in order to found opinions of particular events. These texts refer to theories encompassing photography, but it is still applicable to television broadcasting as the same fundamentals apply in terms of methods used, the methodology and ideology.


“The importance of photographic images as the medium through which more and more events enter our experience is, finally, only a by-product of their effectiveness and furnishing knowledge disassociated from and independent of experience… Reality as such is redefined as an item for exhibition, as a record for scrutiny, as a target for surveillance.”


(Sontag, 1977: 157)


Here Sontag touches upon the culmination of this ‘social construction of reality’ culture. She suggests that the images that are gathered by journalists are subjected as ‘items of exhibition’ whereby an audience is supposed to be able muster their own opinion on a topic. Through television news we are shown only a representation of the event and as such our reactions will also be representative of our own situation. To quote Sontag;


“The vast modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images… Reality has abdicated. There are only representations: media.”


(Sontag, 1977: 158)


Sontag admits that this could be considered an abruptly cynical comment, however; she does make the argument that through the process of actually obtaining images, the removal of a neat ideological sense of context is unconditional. There can only be a representation of an event, rather than actually recording the entire event from all viewpoints and all perspectives simultaneously; selecting the composition, rejecting specific images and submitting the most effective frames etc. We rely on a viable public sphere to ensure that we receive as many different perspectives and points of view as possible, but even then, there will always be images that are missed.


The image culture is a balance of context and representation of reality. On the one hand, the camera operators can only gather so much from one situation, and so remove the prospect of a totally unbiased context, and the audience can only receive these images and process them in a way that fits their own context. It is within this paradigm that audiences can slip into a lull of generalisations and sensationalism where repeated exposure to images removed from context, imparted onto a culture that is enmeshed with similar images installs media desensitisation. Newton however imparts an encouraging idea suggesting that media moguls should find a middle ground;


“I suggest that, rather than give up on the idea of visual truth, the news industry move quickly towards an interpretive theory news images combines the ‘reasonable’ with the ‘photographicable’ to search for the ‘reasonably true,’ the best trace a person can perceive and convey at any given moment. In some ways, we could never believe our eyes; only now becoming to comprehend the slippery nature of visual reality.”


(Newton, 2001: 86)


Television News in a Democracy;


            Moving from the sociobiological constraints of how we perceive images, the process is further subjected to refinement within political constraints. Within a democracy, the government are the ‘public servants,’ whereby their actions reflect (on the majority) the interests of the public. Journalism acts as the ‘fourth estate’ to the extent where public figures are kept in public view using the press and perhaps more distinctly, television news. Using television as a medium, politicians and decision makers can be ‘caught’ with undisputable visual evidence, they can be interviewed openly demonstrating figures, who if interviewed unprepared, can be made to answer for their actions on camera. There is a sense of immediacy and despite the fundamental flaws of using images in the media and there are instances where the use of images has worked to dramatic ends.


It is at this point prudent to recognise Jürgen Habermass’s theory of the Public Sphere, where it could be argued that, within a democratic society with various outputs of news, it is the responsibility of the audience to research the numerous other news sources to compile an accurate portrayal of events. Rather than editors determining aspects of events or various stories as carrying public interest, it could be argued that if the ‘public is interested,’ then citizens would take it upon themselves to research a topic more thoroughly. If there is a viable public sphere model then anyone can find the information that they are looking for to some degree through perhaps a blog, an antiquated newspaper article, or even an Internet news channel.


Effectively, compassion fatigue becomes strain on how audiences act in fulfilling citizenship roles, for example; during a general election, the television news media was once the pinnacle for the dissemination of political discussion during what theorists have dubbed the ‘age of broadcast news.’ (Press & Williams, 2010: 80). Andrea Press and Bruce Williams discussed Paul Lazarfield’s research into the ‘two step flow’ process in their book ‘The New Media Environment.’ Paul Lagerfeld conducted empirical research into the persuasive power of the media when it came to influencing the voting decisions of citizens. Although his research team focused on the American audiences there were similarities of the UK and the American models media during an election as the research depicts the ‘two-step flow’ theory. This is in effect a theory that denotes how far media does not influence our decisions. It showed that, although the research was conducted between the 1940s in the 1950s when television and radio or and managing, people make decisions on how to vote based more strongly on the interactions of the friends and family. Research showed that “less than 10% of his subjects ever shifted from one candidate to another, and even fewer did so as a result of exposure to the media.” (Press and Williams, 2010:76) the crucial point the two-step flow theory is within the name. Describes opinion leaders influencing those around them. Preston Williams quote Markus Prior inform the idea that during the “age of broadcast news,” the journalist themselves became the disseminators of information. They became the opinion builders.


“The two-step flow depends on the general apathy most Americans have for politics and hence the lack of interest in following issues in the media and the reliance and trusted co-worker friends and so forth. With large audiences watching the evening news each night, television itself had become the interpreter of politics even for those with minimal interest.”


(Press & Williams, 2010: 81)


This model could be applied to more than just politics. The interpretation of events; the causes, effects, the statistics, by varying citizens could be argued to follow the same principles where the disinterested is used by others to found their opinions. Of course, it is impossible to conceive that everyone should be interested about everything. An audience will only assume an interest in topics that relevant is to them, but the argument builds upon the assumption that some audiences might be interested in a topic, but not necessarily interested in news.


Eurocentrism and Geographical Displacement;


Integral to Habermass’s public sphere theory, along with Sontag, Hill, Moeller and Hartley, are the economic, cultural and geographical constraints that entangle the audience. Despite Morley and Fiske’s arguments that it is difficult to quantify a collective audience, there are definitely similar parameters in which audience experiences unfold. Chiefly, the United Kingdom’s press and modern media can only exist as it does within a functioning democratic society and as such, these political constraints provide an umbrella for a significant proportion of televisions audiences within the U.K. Democracy in turn has a unique foothold in our historical and cultural heritage. Without elaborating in too much detail on the history and rise of democracy in this country, it is safe to assume that the system is well established. Our backgrounds, our education, health, laws, political systems, economies, nearly any ideological theory, including many religions, in the United Kingdom are entrenched within Eurocentrism. This in itself is not only a parameter for this discussion, but is also a contributing factor in compassion fatigue. The incapability of understanding or empathising with people in any event outside of our own similar cultural and socioeconomic climate is simply because we cannot. We cannot fully empathise because we cannot know unless we have experienced the event ourselves, what it actually is like to be there. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam compiled a book called ‘Unthinking Eurocentrism,’ where they underpin the obsession with realism and challenge a sense of positive discrimination against non-western stereotypes.


“In sum, Eurocentrism sanitizes Western history while patronising and even demonising the non-West; it thinks of itself in terms of its noblest achievements – science, progress, humanism – but of the non-West in terms of its deficiencies, real or imagined.”


(Shohat & Stam, 1994: 3)


These ‘real or imagined’ deficiencies refer to ‘Western’ views over ‘the other.’ In terms of a television news package, a eurocentric audience will view situations in terms of black and white, without full consideration of the context, perhaps through a lack of capacity to comprehend to the full extent. To elaborate further, Shohat and Stam refer to the stereotypes and the struggle for representation against an audience that struggles in return to detect authenticity from non-Western plights.


“An obsession with ‘realism’ casts the question as simply one of ‘errors’ and ‘distinctions,’ as of the ‘truth’ of the community were unproblematic, transparent, and easily accessible, and ‘lies’ about their community easily unmasked.”


(Shohat & Stam, 1994: 178)


Eurocentrism therefore could be considered as underpinning the flaws that visual truths are built upon, with regards to how a western society interacts to images of a non-western society. The more direct influence that eurocentrism applies on an audience is candidly summarized indirectly by Moeller as she quotes Ted Koppel saying, “the closer to home the crisis strikes, the more likely it is to get attention.” (Moeller, 1999: 21) This is mostly due to the fact that it is easier to summon sympathy to those closest to us, who are more easily identifiable.

Chapter 2: Television Production as a Catalyst;


Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) and News;


            The principles of public service broadcasting have been constantly reinterpreted with the movement from modernism into post-modernism, opening the debate for the functions of media. Referring to the notions of the ‘image culture’ and with close regards to the semiotics within images, the regulation of the PSB industry ensures that enormous power and influence that broadcasters have over a population is in fact controlled to an extent. Adding to that, the consistent reinvention of these regulations maintains the methodologies of the industry within keeping of contemporary issues and technology.


“Public service regulation has secured the survival of the successful broadcasting industry, one which has become more significant economically and which has become an important export of programs while continuing to discuss and mould national issues. It has of course also never been perfect.”


(Curran & Seaton, 2003: 363)


Curran & Seaton cite the various investigations and studies into broadcasting in Britain as they have each concluded progressive results, retrospectively undermining the report preceding it. Specifically, they underline one report in particular, the ‘Annan Report (1977),’ commissioned and published by the British Broadcasting Committee in 1977. It alters the original foundations of public broadcasting functions since before this report “broadcasting in Britain always depended on an assumption of commitment to an undivided public good” (Curran & Seaton, 2003: 364). The publication of the Annan report encouraged a more “pluralistic” perspective, one that would encompass a fairer representation of communities and marginalised societies. Curran & Seaton directly quote a metaphor from the original report;


“For the individual life is a gamble, he is entitled to stake everything, if he desires, on one interpretation of life… But broadcasting organisations have to back the field, and put their money on all the leading horses which line of the starting gate.”


(Curran & Seaton, 2003: 365)


There have been various investigations into PSB published after the Annan report however this ideology remains consistent as a firm backdrop on which broadcasters build a relationship with audiences on the grounds of fair representation. This movement from a hegemonic and heuristic broadcast service, into that which caters for more specific audiences, ‘narrowcasting’ as apposed to broadcasting, and opened the doors for the multitude of niche channels and programs on smaller networks through adaptations of platforms like cable and satellite television. Although these were initially slow to catch on, Ofcom depict that as of “2010, 93% of main TV sets in UK homes were connected to a digital television tuner, either a set-top box or integrated digital TV.”[2]

One of the flaws with the Annan report is that it insinuates accountability as “purely an abstract idea – one which includes no reference to the public” (Curran & Seaton, 2003: 369). Public accountability is essentially what regulates broadcasting companies in their programming and scheduling since a government regulated broadcast service can tread too closely on the boarders of censorship. Here lies a delicate balance, the relationship between broadcasters and audiences, in how an audience trusts in what they are viewing. According to Ofcom, 74% of viewers, from their audience survey, answered that television was their most trusted source of ‘news about what’s going on in the UK.[3]’ 79% also indicated that television was their preferred medium for obtaining international news. Exactly the same percentage of people indicated that television was the most fair and unbiased medium of news coverage. As discussed earlier, since images can only portray representations of reality, it could be argued that the majority of news audiences are misplacing their trust in television.

Industry watchdogs, like Ofcom as an example, monitor and publish the results of audience research and surveys in order to augment transparency of how PSB influence an audience. These also contain valuable data depicting the way that viewers interact with television news and also hint at the dramatic change that network providers are going to have to undertake in order to keep up with a developing media environment. This evolving media environment is in itself taking its toll on how audiences are influenced by television news. It should not be ignored that through an evolving business model there will be enigmatic results that could grow to represent significant changes in how an audience is informed of news. The adaptations of on-demand programing, streaming online content to Internet connected television, and mobile media are all examples that could affect the media environment in the future.


Pragmatics of Television Production;


One of the reasons that television news has become more focused on entertainment is out of necessity. In order to supply an audience with competitive material, the most dramatic images are sought and displayed as quickly as possible. Moeller implies that the process of selection by news editors on which journalists and where to send them is flawed. She indicates that this is partly due to limited funding as editors need to predict how long and how much money to spend on each project. She quotes Chuck Lustig, a former ABC foreign editor as he said;


“We get daily rundowns about how much we spend today and how much we will spend tomorrow. We’re very insistent on people, when doing story proposals, doing budgets. And the other thing is when we go to places and do stories, we try to do more than one story while with their-cost breaks.”


(Moeller 1999: 20)


This is a pragmatic necessity of television news and it would be difficult to determine whether news organisations are being conducted unethically with regards to the representation of coverage that they have over specific global events, although Moeller refers to a study made between 1989 and 1991, which indicated a significant proportion of news was dedicated to reporting events around the Middle East. The study showed that the Middle East retained “5% of the world’s population, (and) 3% of its GDP, but 35% of the foreign dateline stories.” It is apparent then, that television news producers must create and broadcast packages that maintain popular market demand in order to remain marketable and in turn, generate enough interest to enable future broadcasting.


Paradigms surrounding the elusive ‘cutting room floor’ evoke dozens of the practical issues that encompass creating television news. Editorial selection depicts the relevance of specific stories. This is of course essential since there are events occurring globally all the time. These events are being reported upon all the time and editors have to make the choices of; what to select and display for the news bulletins, which will go on the screen feeds, and what kind of information to include or omit regarding specific stories including disturbing or graphic images, even what to include with the subsidiary ‘red button.’ The pressures and demands on the producers of television news have fluctuated and have direct results in terms of popularity and even viability as a medium for news. The strain is perhaps least evident within the industry itself. Curran & Seaton suggest that as the ideologies within the industry shift from foundations of professionalism to a market driven system, the quality of programming suffers since the producers are placed under even more stress when (on the whole) they already pay little regard to their audiences.


“Much research has shown how little producers and directors consider their audience. The only information about viewers, which seriously affects producers, is knowledge of the size of the audience… professionalism is now being superseded in many broadcasting organisations by crude financial managerialism. The pursuit of profit rather than excellence is more likely to dominate decisions…”


(Curran & Seaton, 2003: 370, 371)


If the producers are more market driven, then their reliability in representing the truth through portraying balanced and trustworthy programming is limited even further with a personal agenda. If the main function is to make money from programming then this would severely cripple the concept of a balanced and unbiased representation, and so infers a level of corruption that is passed onto the audience. During the 1990’s many stations had cut back or entirely abandoned their news production interests, following the Peacock Report in 1986 where broadcasting became an arbitrary commercial exercise, although many of these have been re-commissioned, partly due to the purchasing power and mergers of larger networks noting the necessary niche of competition. Referring back to the role of the producers, Peter Orlik comments on how the industry has had to evolve in response to socio-economic climates.


“Technological advances and the reduction of trade union jurisdictions mean that fewer news personal and do more jobs, reducing the high station payroll costs that had always been associated with news production. Reporters now shoot and edit their own pieces as well as voicing them. They can even re-purpose the story for web or radio distribution as a means of cross promotion and advertising revenue and enhancement.”


(Orlik, 2007: 221).



Journalists are now subjected to more stress and have fewer resources to account for ethical considerations. On top of this, journalists are not exactly experts in the subject areas of which they are asked to film or report upon. It is difficult to provide an immediate context, especially during a breaking news story, since some events are sporadic and if there has been little or no attention on the subject before its occurrence then journalists will be hard pressed to come up with an accurate summary with which to impart to their audiences. Moeller argues that the ‘voice over effect’ imparts a distinct generalisation of news packages, although she links the problem to lack of funding. This is where news networks are set stock images of a particular scenario and a journalist, who is not actually on location, is asked to voice over the images to convey a story. The issue exists that the journalist cannot verify the accuracy or the context of the images, or indeed the authenticity of them. She also seems to invent the label ‘parachute journalists,’ phenomena where journalists apparently jump into situations without any prior understanding or context.


“This ‘firemans’ ability to fast-focus on an erupting crisis has abetted journalists tendencies to lapse into formula, sensationalism, and Americanized coverage. As foreign correspondents are chosen less for being regional experts than for being good writers and a quick study, the images they bring back – especially for television – are increasingly generic.”


(Moeller, 1999: 27)


Power and Agenda;


Television production companies use their news and current affairs programs to profess their significance of social responsibility especially when the network agencies are looking to renew their licences (Fiske, 1987: 283). This reinforces the idea that they are accountable for the influences that the news packages impose, not just on the audience but also on the subjects that are being filmed. This also implies that there is a sense of government control with the issue of licencing.


The term ‘highlighting’ is commonplace among journalists who use their profession as a humanist vehicle to right the wrongs of the world, but in essence, due to compassion fatigue, this is rarely the case. That is not to say that there are no charitable audiences who can be reached should a journalist ‘highlight’ a pertinent issue, only that is should be recognised that highlighting issues around the world is not an entirely altruistic endeavour. With this in mind, it could be argued that compassion fatigue occurs at the point of recording; there are plenty of circumstances where journalists have been made successful due the weight and severity of the stories that they have uncovered, not necessarily through their journalistic prowess. The point is that journalists themselves are often desensitised to their subjects of investigation. Journalists like the late Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, the makers of critically acclaimed documentary ‘Restrepo,’ a film following a platoon of U.S. soldiers fighting in the in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The pair have boldly stated;


“Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.” (Junger and Hetherington, 2009)

Of course, as argued earlier, it is difficult to categorically state ‘this is reality,’ since through images, an audience can only gather representations of reality. Pragmatically, editorial decisions must have been made on the cutting room floor and as such, the representation is only further refined. Some film makers do this better than others, and both Hetherington and Junger were recognized for this – their film won the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, which in itself has its own ethical considerations. However, the point is that these journalists actively sought out the most dangerous deployment for U.S. soldiers and made this documentary that has in turn, become more of an element of entertainment as much as a subject that needed ‘highlighting.’ This relates back to the concept of ‘actuality,’ the culmination of realism and authenticity. The film, like any other film, fails to represent all side of an argument and can only portray one representation of the truth. The editorial choices, the selection of which images to include in the two hour long film for example, are also important in considering the authenticity of the film. By attempting to make the film dramatic and cinematic, many genuine realities can be misconstrued. This is the nature of documentary film making and broadcasting and as such, should not be considered immoral.  It should be noted that by only portraying specific angles of specific situations, an audience could only be exhibited to founding a biased opinion that might lead to influence, at a later date, an audience opinion on a story that involves the same people. Clearly, empathising with members of a terrorist group has its own complications, but human empathy is diminished as a result of receiving only one side of an argument.


Editorial decisions can constitute to agenda setting otherwise known as ‘gatekeeping’ (McQuail, 2005: 308). BBC1 for example, typically has regular news intervals throughout the day culminating to just over seven and a half hours of news in total. The editorial team must adhere to watershed restrictions but throughout the day, many of the stories are repeated unless there is a breaking news story or further developments. The average working adult or student has the opportunity to view these news programs at least twice in a day and be submitted to the same images in the evening. This repetition of similar stories with updates and additional perspectives at some point end, but not necessarily at the same time the issue ends. Moeller applies a disparaging sentiment over the process of formulaic coverage in broadcast media. She implies that editors ‘wrap up’ stories in a conclusive fashion that implies the end of a specific event or the start of another. Again, the tone suggests that this is a level of corruption, however this is a necessary process of selection for the current methods of broadcasting.


“if-it’s-Tuesday-it’s-time-to-wrap-this-all-up coverage of deaths and assassinations, for instance, shoehorns crises into preordained timeslot, ignoring the inevitable slop the crisis beyond it’s formulaic moments. Few crises… are over and done with within a week. Why should the coverage of the crisis last for a short span of the time than the crisis itself?”


(Moeller, 1999: 313)


Here, Moeller challenges not only the duration of footage, but also the duration for which the various news stories and events are held in public view. This is a critique of how compassion fatigue, through television news indirectly shortening the duration of events, has subsequently shortened the attention span of the audience as news is broken down into sizeable chunks and is enabled to fit around other occurring stories that may or may not have any connection relevance to the previous event.


The issues that overshadow yet another point of image repetition and desensitisation, refer to ‘news selection,’ whereby a select group of journalists within the institution develop the role as the evaluators of circumstances, elaborating on the gatekeeper concept. Mcquail confirms the point that editorial decisions often fall into categorisation, which in turn reiterates the concepts of eurocentrism, socio-economic parameters and entertainment.


“The collection of news has to be organized, and there is a bias towards events and news stories that fit the machinery of selection and retransmission. This favours events that occur near the reporting facilities… genre related factors include a preference for news events that fit advance audience expectations… the social-cultural influences on foreign news selection stem from certain western values.”


(Mcqauil, 2005: 310)


As the collection and distribution of television news adhere to the same constraints that enmesh the audience, compassion fatigue is reflected in the processes of the industry. It is augmented by the methods of television newsgathering, management and the current broadcasting habits, as they all appear to directly fuel compassion fatigue.



This study set out to analyse and define compassion fatigue in television news audiences and to determine the source of compassion fatigue. It has become apparent that there is no specific source, only that compassion fatigue is possibly a by-product of social and cultural factors, ultimately augmented by the broadcasting industry itself. Television news clearly does not provide sufficient contextual understanding to specific events with relation to how an audience perceives images. This is not a deliberate action by the editors or the producers; it is merely an outcome of the television broadcasting industry reflecting the perceived needs of the audience, and the audience’s influence of the broadcast industry.


Moeller appears to argue vehemently that the conduct of television producers is unethical, but as argued in this study, the processes underlining the environment of which the industry professionals have to work, render their conduct as mostly unavoidable. The blame should not rest entirely on the shoulders of how the industry operates. The U.K. audience is a product of its own making, a society, which is a society of images and representations. These in turn shape the characteristics of the population as individuals, as varied social or collective groups, or as a whole national entity. According to contemporary statistics, the U.K. audience appears unaware as to how ineffective television news is as a vehicle to project any contextualised understanding of an event, relating back to the Ofcom report depicting that 79% trust that television as a medium is unbiased. It suggests that there is either a general ignorance of  how images can only portray a representation of an event, or that images are simply the easiest medium to absorb. Unfortunately either way, this does entice and fuel the problem of compassion fatigue, which is most certainly ‘a problem’ and should not be underestimated.


Compassion fatigue hinders an audience and effectively numbs a population to the point where, perhaps if there was something that needed to be addressed, a political issue within our own government for example, the audiences might not feel an urge to contest. We have freedom of speech and the right to protest, but if we are immune to feeling anything significant to important events, then effectively we have already failed to act as a responsible society and as a responsible democratic civilisation.


With regards to the extent of compassion fatigue and the factors that may generate it, there are some solutions that could be used to combat compassion fatigue.


Firstly, the audience could at least make full use of the democratic liberties. They should be informed that television news can only portray specific viewpoints within allotted time frames and that television news is subject to journalistic operational restrictions, like jurisdiction and access, that inhibit the truth. This could be added as an appendix on a tab at the bottom of a screen so that the potential for an audience to explore the situation is presented passively rather than imperatively so as to inspire curiosity rather than directly enforce a representation and pressurise a ‘gatekeeper’ opinion.


Secondly, news packages do not need to be entertainment driven. The difficulty arises when we assume television should not be boring. Drama and excitement should be a subsidiary element of a news story. The presentation of events should be interesting enough to encourage the audience to research further but the limitations around how to make video packages are made to be ‘interesting’ are what hinder the potential development of television news providing increasing compassion fatigue. Scheduling, is subject to time restrictions and the idea that audiences have limited attention spans. It is apparent that specific networks have particular followings as the audience has developed a sense of trust, respectively, with each of them. It may be possible to expand networks onto more channels. These could be more specialised allowing the audience more time to comprehend a more elaborate background and context for specific news.


Third, and perhaps most significantly, the ideology of public service broadcasting needs to be adapted to suit the contemporary audience in terms of the economic, political, and cultural climate. Currently Ofcom, as the main media watchdog, outlines that PSB should have four main purposes;


“To inform ourselves and others and to increase our understanding of the world through news, information and analysis of current events and ideas… to stimulate our interest in and knowledge of arts, science, history and other topics the content that is accessible and can encourage informal learning… to reflect and strengthen our cultural identity through regional programming at UK, national and regional level, on occasion being audiences together the shared experiences… representing diversity on alternative viewpoints – to make is aware of different cultures and alternative viewpoints, through programs that reflect the lives of other people and other communities, both within the UK and elsewhere.”


(Ofcom, 2011)


While these points are based on how “broadcasting in Britain always depended on an assumption of commitment to an undivided public good” (Curran & Seaton, 2003: 364), they fail to directly address the intrinsic flaws that come with operating a visual media in an image driven culture. More succinctly, they fail to realise that the broadcasting is almost an ecosystem, one where networks have to fight over primary food sources; funding and ratings.


“Broadcasting needs to find a new relationship to the state as a new form of commitment to public service, and indeed a new definition of public service that will work in the conditions of increased competition.”


(Curran & Seaton, 2003: 375)


Here Curran and Seaton essentially evaluate the problem of compassion fatigue, although not specifically citing the problem as a component of compassion fatigue. If the production of news were to become a more altruistic endeavour, rather than one used as an element to compete with rival broadcasters, the necessity of finding the more dramatic, attention grabbing and essentially ‘entertaining’ news would be rendered obsolete.


Further studies into compassion fatigue should take into account that compassion fatigue refers to an audience dismissing reality, a reality portrayed through images, images that are intrinsic to our Westernised culture, and a Westernised culture that should be considered to be responsible, democratic, and compassionate.













Bibliography and References;




Bathes, Roland. 1973. Mythologies. London. Paladin Books.


Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.


Curran, James and Seaton, Jean. 2003. Power without responsibility, 6th edition. London: Routledge.


Dwyer, Tim. 2010. Media Convergence. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Fiske, John. 2006.  Television Culture.  2nd edition. London: Routledge.


Guiraud, Pierre. 1975. Semiology. Translated by George Gross. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul


Hartley, John. 2008. Television Truths. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Hill, Annette. 2007. Restyling Factual TV. London: Routledge.


Iggers, Jeremy. 1999. Good news, bad news. Colorado: Westview press.


McQuail, Denis. 2005. Mass Communication Theory. 5th edition. London: Sage.


Moeller, Susan D. 1999. Compassion Fatigue, How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. London: Routledge.


Morley, David. 1992. Television Audiences and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.


Newton, Julianne. 2008. The Burden of the Visual Truth. London: Routledge.


Orford, Anne. 2003. Reading Humanitarian Intervention. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Orlik, Peter. Anderson, Steven D. Day, Louis A and Lawrence, Patrick W. 2007.

Exploring Electronic Media. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Press, Andrea L and Williams, Bruce A. 2010. The New Media Environment.

Chichester: Blackwell Publishing.


Shohat, Ella and Stam, Robert. 1994. Unthinking Eurocentrism, Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge.


Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin Books.


Storey, John. 2001.  Cultural theory and popular culture. London: Pearson education.


Tumber, Howard. 1999. News: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.




Curtis, Adam. 2009. The Rise of ‘Oh Dear-ism.’ [video: DVD]. BBC 4, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe. March 2009.


Joseph, Peter. 2011. Zietgiest: Moving Forward [video: DVD]


Junger, Sebastian and Hetherington, Tim. 2009. Restrepo [video: DVD]




Dart Centre For Journalism and Trauma: self-study unit 3: photography and trauma, IV. Dramatic stress on the news audience. [Online resource: last accessed November, 2011]


Ofcom. 2011. D – PSB Audience Impact. Online resource. Available at; http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/broadcast/reviews-investigations/psb-review/psb2011/psb-audience-opinions-D.pdf [last accessed 04/01/2012]


Ofcom. 2011. F –The Ofcom Media Tracker survey: 2010 survey results. Online resource. Available at; http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/broadcast/reviews-investigations/psb-review/psb2011/Perceptions-F.pdf [last accessed 12/01/2012]


Ofcom. 2011. Public Service Broadcasting Annexes: Information Pack E Background and methodologies. Online resource. Available at; http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/broadcast/reviews-investigations/psb-review/psb2011/annex-E.pdf [last accessed 04/01/2012]


Ofcom. 2011. The Communications Market: 2 TV and audio-visual. Online resource. Available at; http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/broadcast/reviews-investigations/psb-review/psb2011/psb-summary-A.pdf [last accessed 12/01/2012]




Junger, Sebastian and Hetherington, Tim. The Story. http://restrepothemovie.com/story/ [last accessed December 21st, 2011]



Further reading:


Berry, R. 2000. The Research Project: How to Write It, 4th edition, London: Routledge.


Erik, R. K. & Newton, R. R. 2000. Surviving Your Dissertation. London: Sage.

Furguson, Niall. 2003. Empire. London: Penguin Books.


Iorio, Sharon Hart. 2004. Qualitative research in journalism. London: Laurence Erlbaum associates-publishers.


Keane, John. 1991. The Media and Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Books.

[1] Ofcom. 2011. Media Tracker Survey Results. PSB Report 2011 – Information pack, pages 34 and 36

[2] Ofcom. 2011. The Communications Market: 2 Audio Visual, page 132

[3] Ofcom. 2011. Media Tracker Survey Results. PSB Report 2011 – Information pack, page 35


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