Journalistic Injustice and the Problem of Sympathy

To write an article is to compartmentalise, interpret and alter: to abstract some real world event from its real world effects and wedge it, inky and square and some five hundred words long, into someone else’s life. Life changing traumas read, half-lidded, on the way to work; stories of devastation, deracination, digested and flicked past in minutes, grained disaster in a busy day. Vague disaster, distant, clouded in dust and out of shape; columnated ruins splitting to sandy stumps, as days are finished, walks taken, baths drawn.


It is easy to see the article as something sanitised and remote from the actual events it depicts – how can the gap in feeling between an upturned child on a Greek beach and the bored consumer of information ever be bridged? Safety is indifference; passivity dulls feeling; tragedy in abundance is stifling; the accretion of faraway death becomes the leaden expansion of column inches and sturdy words, which steel emotion.[1] What can it mean to write about suffering from some panelled skyscraper, some airconned office? What can it mean to read about suffering from afar? Our news-saturated world makes such uncanny cognitive leaps mundane. The weird luck of living in the West, the sheen of our own existence, burnished by the disadvantage of others’, is near impossible to comprehend and the news only distances us from that comprehension.


Yet journalists seemingly perform this comprehension everyday. For every jagged disaster, hundreds of articles froth forth to induce compassion or support or anger or pathos. Some of this is good; some of this is great; elitism and self-interest plagues journalism at the top level, so empathetic, well thought out and internationally concerned pieces are vital to the relevance of the medium. But the distance between sufferer and reader still remains – the comprehension is still a performance. Though these articles may mean five pounds to this charity, a share, a signature on that petition, these important and commendable acts of sympathy can unfortunately and absurdly only ever be brief iterations of human emotional mutuality. The pace of life ensures as much.


The fleeting nature of this sympathy, an honest testament to the limits of human faculty, is however in the media’s interests and is sustained by them. Sympathy is marketable; disaster is an economy. Ivory-towered executives truncate genuine emotion until it is a packaged product; they commodify; they try to maintain interest at the expense of depth. With a dandelion energy, they dash this calamity, that calamity across their front pages, then move on, in a simultaneously numbing and distressing churn. Sustained feeling is obscured and the initial reaction amplified. They frame and trouble the way we read suffering; they trouble the mechanics of our own sympathy. If making that sympathy equitable to the suffering is already impossible, what feeling that remains is made more fleeting by the economic incentive of keeping it that way.


Perhaps then the best journalism can hope for is the unbiased spread of knowledge. This of course is vital – Journalistic writing in the Middle East has had the active effect of keeping governments in check. Shining a light on things like Egypt’s horrific attitude to trans people or the treatment of Kurdish child prisoners in Turkey is the first step to stopping them.[2] Consistently though, reporting on this exists outside of profit-driven news outlets, who fall consistently short of delivering information on the suffering of distant, vague disasters. The poorer and further away the country, the more negligible the news coverage.[3]  The continued terrorisation of Kenyan villages by al-Shabaab is given little or no press coverage, nor is it put into a wider context of international conflict, the ramifications of Western Imperialism or the cultural complexities of the ideologies fuelling their violence; we only hear of their cruelty when UK citizens are involved, such as in the Westgate shopping mall attack. While this might be to a certain extent understandable, the relentlessness with which knowledge of European suffering is privileged over non-European suffering is problematic and strange.


In all this, it seems that two injustices subsist and strengthen each other. The existential injustice of simply being born at a disadvantage, suffered by the victims of hurricanes, terrorism and huge, uncaring militaries that push, glowing past, turning bodies in their dusty wake. Then the further epistemic injustice of not having that suffering understood or justly acknowledged by the privileged. The very act of knowing about suffering is thus structured by the same hierarchical biases that perpetuate that suffering in the first place – a dead, twisted white body, whose lips muttered their last words in English, will be valued more highly than a dead, black body, not just on an ontological level, but also in the discourse surrounding why those two bodies died. Political violence is a projection of ideology, meaning the ethical injustices of knowing and not knowing will enact real world consequences in the way future conflicts are executed and how the public views them.


Of course, it is very difficult to know what to do about this. Ideology, bias and profit are all too tightly bound up and obscured by our own clouded perspective. Turning to alternative news sources is perhaps one solution, maintaining an awareness of journalistic injustice and the normative behaviours it seeks to induce is perhaps another. Prescription is hard and can never be whole. Cultural power, when it controls and delimits knowledge and feeling, is insurmountable. Even the well-intentioned article is subject to it; even the well-intentioned, well-written article is a compartmentalisation, an abstraction.

[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin, 2003)