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Famine babies, compassion fatigue and the media

By Sandra Banjac

The first time we are confronted by an image of a malnourished child we are crippled by guilt and deliberate over ways to help. The second time we see the same type of image we pause, ponder and then flip the page. The third time we turn the page without second thought. The fourth time, we may pause again, not because of guilt, but rather to cynically observe that the image is invasive and manipulative, and placed there to make us feel culpable. At this point, the image has ceased to have a compassion-inducing effect and has instead become an insidious nuisance.

In 1999, Susan Moeller labelled this reaction “compassion fatigue” based on a study of a child sponsorship advertisement: “You can help this child or you can turn the page.” Then, Moeller was looking at images and campaigns out of Ethiopia. We could say the same applies to each successive news photo of malnourished Somali children appearing in our newspapers. Just as we may not have the financial capacity to respond to each fundraising campaign, we may not have the emotional and moral capacity to respond to each recurring photograph of children with bulging bellies and fly-infested eyes. And so, we hastily, perhaps reluctantly, turn the page to avoid dealing with a surge of guilt-driven questions over our incapacity to act.

Over the past few months, news images of the Somali famine have rekindled this debate over the portrayal of humanitarian crises in Africa. Each photograph of a starving child raises concerns over the patterns of reporting on disasters and famine in African countries, and how media uses imagery, forcing us to ask if we can change these patterns.

Why always the African child?
The malnourished child has become the poster image for Somalia and its famine, creating an innately attributable image. However, such a ubiquitous image can eventually detach from the news it is tied to, and diminish the effect of such strong imagery. In the context of African famines, however, these images rely on complex and multifaceted patterns of news construction, also grown out of Africa’s colonial history, raising questions over ways in which discourse and imagery perpetuate rather than challenges stereotypes in the portrayal of “self” and the “other”.

Media research has shown that images depicting exclusively black victims reinforce racial stereotypes and can perpetuate the victimisation of black Africans, patterns unseen in developed, Western countries. In stories on the recent attack on youth in Norway, a search of images shows mostly wide-angle news photos of the island where the shooting took place. In contrast, a search for “Somalia famine” results in stomach-turning intimate photos of skeletal children.

A 1999 study by Media Monitoring Africa on racial stereotyping in South African media showed that “crime” and “racism” were the two most reported on topics with 75.7% of sources cited supporting the proposition that “blacks are criminals”. The study also found “black people’s deaths were depersonalised by some media” focusing on the number of deaths instead of individual cases, and the use of graphic images of dead bodies was more common when victims were black.

This leaves us asking what the long-term impact of such photographic stereotyping is on our understanding of deeply rooted social and racial patterns. Are we to blame the perception that a developed country shields its victims and a developing country such as Somalia can’t, and relies on images of starving children as a marketing strategy to the international aid sector? This can be seen as a perpetuation of “colonial paternalism and corresponding infantilisation” of aid-receiving African countries by the global North. Media feed into this construct by communicating Africa’s children’s lives as survival-oriented, through constant pleas for nutrition and focusing on food as the precipice of life and death.

When is famine news?
Somalia’s famine crisis has been a news story for decades obliging media to continually recast the story to refocus the world’s attention. Analogous to drug addiction, news media seek the same “high” with each return to the famine story, upping the dosage with more shocking images. Eventually, that overexposure to images of malnourished children numbs us and we begin to build resistance to their effect. This becomes cyclical, and leads to media projecting a distorted perception of newsworthiness, amid relentless and desperate efforts to reignite an audience’s interest and compassion towards the Somali crisis.

Publishing images without providing means for audiences to act (offering resources for donation) arguably creates an emotional reaction, without the possibility of absolution. This contributes to a feeling of helplessness, and progressive resentment towards the image and story. Similar sentiments are experienced if the media fails to raise the bar and shock its audience; if there is no difference between images in successive famine stories, this creates the notion that the public has failed to make the crisis go away, which contributes to a sense of futility and inaction.

Media coverage of African humanitarian crises depends on the routine factors of reporting, including: “no corpses, no attention”; fitting into a “standard formula” or “template” of stereotyped phrases, adjectives and images; and the tipping point (ongoing conflicts between rebels and governments become news when people are “starving to death”). In the case of a journalist reporting on the Somalia famine in 1992, this meant placing a microphone “next to the mouth of a child who had crawled off to die”. When asked why he’d done this, he responded: “My editor wants us to get the sounds of death.” The editor justified these actions as necessary in order to break through the wall of the audience’s compassion fatigue by telling them that “this story was, quite literally, about life and death”.

These factors also simplify the discourse of causes and solutions, attributing causes to natural disasters outside of people’s control, and solutions are reduced to increased donations. Reporting’s reliance on the “language of morality” leads to stories built on “victim, rescuer and villain” narratives. And, finally, the story must have images, which are extensions of these factors by featuring simple, close-up photos of starving children and women, absent any larger context or nuance.

While images can have a profound effect on an audience, without context, they remain a temporary “shock” tactic that pushes the audience further towards compassion fatigue. They are about the victims rather than by them, leaving them voiceless. In their pursuit of the image, media sacrifice subjects’ dignities. Paradoxically, this quest is driven by media’s understanding that photographs have the power to establish the human importance of a crisis and how much global attention it receives.

Africa isn’t hell on earth
Africa, like Western media, is not absolved of its responsibility for undue attention on conflict and crime and negative news stories. As a recent report by Nicole Johnston highlighted “while those terrible pictures of death and suffering […] are undeniably part of the picture, they are not the whole picture”. Her article adds: “What those images do not show is the incredible resilience of the refugees, their ability to envision a better life for themselves and their fierce dignity in the face of experiences that would leave most of us crushed.”

These patterns need to be challenged, and the paradigm and global perception of Africa needs to shift. There aren’t straightforward solutions to these challenges, and progress will not be achieved overnight, as these perceptions are burdened by new media’s entrenched patterns, historical, political, social and economic realities, but the push for change should be made. For international and African media this might mean a departure from the temptation to simplify stories, emphasise extremes, and rely on victims. Africa’s establishment and safeguarding of press freedom and its accessibility to international media will provide a foundation for this. In South Africa’s case, the threat of a media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill being passed would severely undermine media freedom and the quality of reporting needed to address these goals independently, and not perpetuate a stereotypical portrayal of Africa.

Perhaps the solution in changing the image of Africa lies in the establishment of an African-based press agency that can better address the diverse cultural, traditional, linguistic, geographical, political, economic facets of news from the continent. This possibility is served to a degree by organisations like Inter Press Services. Other approaches have been made by the Mail & Guardian, SABC and City Press with the goal of telling African stories through African voices. While positive, the success of these initiatives has been limited and reasons behind this need to be analysed. If we are to challenge and do more than simply repeat our failures, and perpetuate a “familiar” image of Africa, it is crucial that not only our governments do things differently, but that the media strives to do so as well.

Sandra Banjac is a research development officer at Media Monitoring Africa.

Read the full report here.

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