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Compassion vs. Sensationalism

Only a week after arriving in Australia to commence my studies at the University of Sydney, the country’s “sister” nation of New Zealand was devastated by a powerful 6.3 earthquake. Even though I had only just arrived, I knew those around me would be affected by the events in Christchurch. They would perhaps have family, close friends, colleagues, or other loved ones complicated by or suffering from the incident.

As I watched the news reports roll out over the following days, I began to notice a trend in the style of news coverage that I was not accustomed to seeing. Footage of limp bodies being pulled from rubble, older folk walking by the screen with blood on their shirt, another woman holding a bloody cloth to her head as she cried. I was taken aback by the real-life video of these people obviously in pain, and realized that I would likely have never seen such intense video if I was back home.

Human Nature: A Constant Battle

Many people undoubtedly share the same feelings of empathy and sadness after disasters like the Christchurch earthquake. According to communications scholars who studied the effects of the media, those feelings of empathy that naturally occur should be a guideline in professional media matters. “The sacredness of life, evident in the natural being, grounds a responsibility that is global in scope and self-evident regardless of cultures and competing ideologies” (Ward 2010). This is to say that caring and empathetic feelings should create in media professionals a safeguard from overexposing the distress and grim reality of events out of respect for those who suffered.

However, as Immanuel Kant indicated, there are “particular attributes of human nature” that lead us to wrongful acts. In order to help prevent these actions, we should only act if at the same time we would will it to be a universal law, meaning that one’s judgment and following action could be applied to everyone, including one’s self. (Abbot 1909, p. 38).  Such thinking requires one to place him or herself into the shoes who are receivers of the action. In the Christchurch earthquake case, it would require reporters and photojournalists and their editors to put themselves in the shoes of those affected before publishing their work.

Codes for Compassion

It is this type of noble work that many journalists’ codes of ethics encourage. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), an international organisation, states the following rule in part of their code for ethical journalist behaviour: “Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage” (Code of Ethics 2011). The compassion journalists should have in their work again echoes the principle that media workers should not publish or otherwise exploit the distressed. Instead, they should offer honorable news stories that respect individuals’ privacy and be sensitive to feelings, as they would want had positions been reversed.

The guideline to report the news with respect and compassion to those who are affected seems to be a globally-held guideline for journalists. A discrepancy, though, lies in where the line of decency should be maintained. Rightfully so, too. Compassion is like other virtuous traits and has a broad range of expression. Some people may have little to offer while other have much to give. This presents some problems in maintaining a concrete guideline that protects the private moments of distress of individuals and broadcast decent news.

Decency Throughout the World

Another important observation is that this guideline fluctuates between countries around the world. If this guideline is so widely believed and obeyed, then news workers throughout the world should be consistent in their reporting. But it is not. A closer look on how the Christchurch earthquake was broadcast throughout the world indicates this point.

To evaluate how the line of decency changes throughout the world, I reviewed three television news broadcast reports of the Christchurch earthquake immediately following the event. One was a news video broadcast from The Los Angeles Times in the US, another from an international Latin American news broadcast, and a third television broadcast from a major news station in New Zealand.

The video broadcast from the US displayed film of people conversing in streets, reports by government officials, destroyed buildings, and a short clip showing bleeding (Deadly Quake 2011).


The television report from New Zealand pictured clips of people scurrying to escape falling buildings, conversing in streets, some official reports and longer segments of blood and distress (Christchurch Earthquake 2011).

The Latin American television news broadcast presented constant clips of distress, a limp body, rescue efforts and rubble, with much less presentation of official reports by a governing officer (Primer Impacto 2011).

Clearly, the line of what is decent to air varies widely between these three regions.

It is observable that the reports relay a similar use of exported B-roll film, likely recorded by local news organizations. It is interesting to review which clips each news organisation choose to use and if they added to it more exclusive footage. The reasons for this variation may have to do with the cultural expectations of the news media, a reflection of cultural values, or knowledge and adherence to professional journalistic guidelines. Compassion, by definition provided SPJ Code of Ethics, appears to vary for some reason or another.

Sensational Journalism

The most difficult problem may be caused by the marketing power of sensationalism. According to research, sensationalism is vague by definition, even in academic circles (Grabe, 2001). It indicates that topics that are often sensationalized for attention are stories about crime, accidents, disaster, and scandal. Interestingly, all of these points call for sensitivity from journalists reporting the news. The main effects of sensational journalism are threefold: it displaces socially significant stories, violates notions of human decency, and is seen as a marketing ploy that debases the purpose of news. (Grabe, 2001).

If compassion is the guideline to which media professionals maintain news decency, then sensationalism is its nemesis. Future industry workers should maintain the more virtuous part, if not for compassion alone, then at least for the sake of honest journalism and honorable behaviour.

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