Compassion Fatigue

By Tabitha Bradley, Maggie Bartlett and Verena de Lange


It is a common thought when you are sitting at the breakfast table, a cup of coffee in your hand and a newspaper in front of you; “another terrorist attack in Iraq? Wasn’t there one last week, that one was way bigger.” Said thought is often followed by a deep sigh and a turn of the page, in the search for news that will make you feel less… tired?

Indeed, compassion fatigue is the term used by psychologists to describe exactly that mental phenomenon of the feeling of tiredness of having to be compassionate about other people’s problems. It is mainly experienced by those who work in the health care sector, such as nurses or psychologists, but also journalists and the relatives and friends of someone with a chronic illness can suffer from it.[1]

Another sector in which compassion fatigue can be witnessed is the media; on the side of those who provide the news such as journalists and editors, but also on the side of the receivers, which are the people who read the papers and watch the news broadcasts. Partly this is because journalists know what their readers are interested in, if they cover a famine in Africa but they have just covered one in Asia, they know the public will get bored of pictures of starving children and would rather see a bomb explosion. And of course, sometimes people will care, they will be outraged at the use of chemical weapons against civilians, they will donate to the victims and keep them in their prayers. Until the media move on from the conflict (even when it is unresolved) and the public forgets about it.[2]

An editor of a major newspaper said once: “a single copy of the Sunday Times covers more happenings than an Englishman just a few hundred years ago could be expected to be exposed to in his entire lifetime.”[3]

Our new coverage has simply become too extensive for our brains and our empathy to keep up with. A famous example would be when Adolf Hitler justified the holocaust, asking who still remembered the genocide of the Armenians by Turkish forces. And in a way, he was not wrong; sure, we might remember the soldiers who died by poison gas in Ypres during the First World War, but do we remember all the chemical attacks in Vietnam, in Kurdistan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Tokyo? We have a built-in mechanism that helps us to avoid standing still by a crisis for too long, or else the relentless pace with which the media covers disasters would drive us crazy.

In today’s media environment, there is an oversaturation of imagery that conveys tragedy.  As a result of this high volume of tragic content, the consumer becomes emotionally exhausted.   As the awareness and visibility of international atrocities increases, the feeling that there is nothing we can do about it also increases.  This phenomena  may lead to the ironic result that as one consumes more media on human suffering, instead of becoming more shocked and impassioned, they may become detached and fatigued by the whole ordeal.

In the exemplary video, imagery depicting atrocities and human suffering are presented.  The assumption is that, to the first couple images, the viewer will react emotionally and be overwhelmed with sympathy and compassion, but as the video proceeds, this compassion reaches its cap.  Each additional image or video doesn’t impact the viewer in the same way that the first couple did.  By the end of the video, the viewer may be experiencing emotions more akin to hopelessness than outrage or passion.  This occurrence is due to compassion fatigue.

The video attempts to display, in a condensed format, the modern viewer’s relationship with crisis imagery and compassion fatigue.  The videos and pictures appear slowly at first, depicting scenes of children suffering and mass casualties.  Upon fresh eyes, these images are distressing and hard to watch.  As the video progresses, the viewer is confronted with more of the same types of images and video clips, all while the speed of the video gradually increases. The footage featured incudes clips and photos from the crises in Venezuela, Yemen, Vietnam, Rwanda, Ukraine and Syria among others, however, this detail becomes irrelevant as the independent incidents all meld together as universal instances of human suffering. The repetitive nature and increased volume of imagery is representative of the experience of a media consumer in today’s environment.  The hypothesis is that through the course of the video, the viewer experiences a range of emotions beginning at compassion and shock and resulting in hopelessness and detachment.

[1] Lisa McCann, Laurie Anne Pearlman, “Vicarious traumatization: A framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 3 no. 1 (January 1990): 131–149.

[2] Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (Routledge, 2002); 2,

[3] [3] Moeller, Compassion Fatigue, 11.