Mirjam Vossen: Compassion in the Media Trap

Rene Boer



Our fellow man in need: we meet him less and less frequently in real life and more and more often via the media. The person in need is a newspaper photo, a television character or a Facebook post. What does that media reality do to our compassion? In a quest for an answer, researcher Mirjam Vossen brought 11 media characters – partly fictional – to life, people who react completely differently to the needs of others or of themselves. Here she introduces a few of them and makes a case for greater wisdom with regard to our media consumption.

In December 2015 Pam van der Veen travelled to Lesbos to spend a week helping stranded refugees. She distributed fruit and rain ponchos, heated up little jars of baby food and at night stood waiting on the beach for boats crammed with Syrian refugees to reach the coast. She wrote about it in an article for the Dutch daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. Pam was plagued by doubts about her relief effort: ‘Why am I doing this? Is it altruistic? A sense of guilt? Am I reacting too hysterically to the refugees’ misery?’ She nevertheless decided that she had to keep doing it.

Birgit van Wijngaarden’s reaction could hardly be more different. She was also confronted with Syrian refugees when four single men came to live in her neighbourhood. Birgit doesn’t know where they’ve come from exactly, or what they’ve been through. She’s never met the men, but their arrival strikes fear in her heart: ‘Nobody can guarantee they’re not rapists. You know how they think about women in that culture.’

With a little fantasy you could give Pam and Birgit a role in the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. In this parable a wounded traveller is lying at the side of the road. Two passers-by walk past and give him a wide berth. The third, the Samaritan, dismounts from his horse in order to take care of the unknown man. The wounded traveller is of all ages, just like the passer-by who helps him or, for whatever reason, walks past. There is one difference: we are meeting him less and less often spontaneously at the roadside. Nowadays we become acquainted with him via the media. Between people in need and ourselves stand Facebook, the daily newspaper and the evening news.

The reactions of Birgit and Pam, however different they may be, share one thing in common: they stem from what they’ve picked up from the news. Pam says that is literally the case with regard to her decision to go to Lesbos: ‘I had last a difficult time with the images that I saw in the media every day. Leaky little boats on the Aegean Sea, drowned children, families stranded in the mud. It made me sick to my stomach.’

Entangled realities

Our reality is intertwined with the media reality, and that’s what this narrative is about. About the wounded traveller in our daily lives and the images we have dished up to us. And about the question of how that affects our merciful compassion. What prompted Pam’s and Birgit’s reaction, and why? What have the media told them – and all the rest of us? What are we not being shown? And what impact does that have on encounters with people in need in our ‘real’ lives?

To start with, let’s take a closer look at the media drama surrounding the person in need. For that’s what it is: a stylized drama with a limited number of stock recognizable scenes and characters. Journalists, programme producers and bloggers ‘frame’ the reality when they translate it into text and image. They use a limited repertoire of familiar scripts, with logical arguments about causes, consequences and solutions, with underlying emotions and morals, and with matching characters. In my research I try to distinguish between the various frames.

‘Poverty frames’

What are these frames and how do they influence the media messages about people in need? Here I list four and introduce the most important actors in brief.

The first frame revolves around the ‘tragic victim’. The suffering soul, struck by a calamity that he or she can do nothing about. The victims could be refugees in boats on the Mediterranean Sea, families in the hell of Aleppo, young girls in the hands of Boko Haram. One of the characters who fits within this frame is Ziko Kasonga, a handicapped beggar from Malawi, who lost the use of both legs at the age of 14. I interviewed him a couple of years ago. His tragedy was the sheer bad luck of being born into a poor family in one of the poorest countries in the world. Now he begs, day in day out, at the entrance to a supermarket, without a hope that things will ever get better. A more general type within this same frame is ‘the saviour’ or ‘the ministering angel’, the person who cannot bear the sight of the victim. This is the person who, like Pam van der Veen, has to do something: ‘Something. Anything whatsoever.’ In the victim frame everything revolves around compassion and empathy, around the moral obligation to alleviate the suffering.

Optimism and hope

A second frame is that of ‘progress’. In this frame the person in need is not pathetic, but someone who needs a prod in the right direction. A little push to reach the first rung of the ladder, then he can climb up for himself. The compassion from the victim frame is supplanted by optimism and the hope of a better future. The person who helps assumes the role of guide, of teacher, of trailblazer. As in the tale of the fictitious but highly recognizable character Lieke Overmeer, a young woman who during a holiday in Ghana ended up in a poverty-stricken village. She saw that the women there fetched their water from a dirty river and that children at school were sat on the ground. ‘We’re going to help these people make progress,’ she decided. Within a year she ensures that the village has a water pump and the school has tables and chairs.

In narratives with a victim or progress frame we see people who get down from their horse when they see a wounded traveller. The interests of the other are the priority. In other frames, however, they make a detour around him, and here self-interest prevails.

Self-interest first

The third frame concerns ‘impending doom’. The person in need poses a threat to us. He comes from a different world and has different habits. We don’t know what his intentions are. He upsets our peace and quiet. In this frame it all revolves around fear and distrust or, to put it differently, around our need for safety. The actors in this scene include Birgit van Wijngaarden, with her protest against the arrival of Syrian refugees. ‘There are too many of them, they come from everywhere and they bring foreign cultures and beliefs with them. That’s asking for trouble.’

In the fourth frame, ‘everyone for himself’, the potential ‘helper’ doesn’t dismount from his horse either. In this frame everyone is responsible for his own destiny. People who are in trouble have brought it upon themselves. We see that in reports and commentaries about ‘benefit scroungers’, homeless people and people with big debts. A role is reserved for Anke Barends, who once gave 10 euros to a tramp. He immediately spent it on alcohol, so she’ll never do that again. Why should we have to help them at all, she wonders: ‘You’re always the cause of problem behaviour yourself, so it surely can’t be someone else’s responsibility to sort out your misery?’

Refugee news

There are more frames than these four alone; there are frames that are about ‘injustice’, frames in which it is about ‘our culpability’ for the problems of people in need. There are frames everywhere; a ‘frameless’ media reality doesn’t exist. The media’s framing of reality isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that this framing is one-sided and selective reality. We think, or at least hope, that media reflect reality, but nothing could be less true. In fact we are only shown a wafer-thin slice, a cut-out that portrays certain scenes and characters much more often than other ones, a cut-out that does no justice to reality.

For three months in 2015 I tracked how Dutch media were reporting on Syrian refugees. The majority of stories failed to explain their problems, but reported on the problems that their arrival entailed for people in Europe. We saw crowded railway stations, overflowing asylum-seeker centres and tent camps in Calais. In the long read ‘Hilversum calling’, correspondent Rob Zoutberg would later describe how the news caravan had travelled alongside the stream of refugees. We barely saw any further images of the war in Syria. Not because the violence subsided, but because the struggle became so intense that no photographer dared to go there. Thus the ‘impending doom’ frame gained the upper hand over the ‘tragic victim’. Through the filter of the news media, Syrians primarily became people who would disrupt our peace and security. It’s no wonder that Birgit van Wijngaarden is concerned.

Slow progress

It is not only through what we see and hear via poverty frames that the media distort reality; the media also distorts by means of what they don’t show or broadcast, by what they ignore. The first thing that fails to pass through the media trap is anything that is simply going well. News is based on drama, on misery, on conflicts. For example, seven public consultation evenings about the opening of an asylum-seekers’ centre became unruly and made it to the evening news for weeks, but the 41 evenings that had taken place without incident over that same period weren’t worth a mention.

News, even news with a ‘progress frame’, is primarily about what isn’t going well. Slow-moving positive trends, such as the fact that poverty and infant mortality around the globe have halved over the last 20 years, receive much less attention on television or in the newspaper, and not even in advertisements by aid organizations either. Three-quarters of these adverts are exclusively about what still needs to be done: more children in school, medicine for refugees, sowing seed for farmers, more aid – in brief to lift people from poverty and misery. These same adverts confirm precisely what Henk Hamer thinks, namely ‘that all those billions of development aid for Africa’ haven’t worked. In short, that aid for people in need is utterly pointless.

Keeping the victim out of sight

The second thing that perishes in the media reality is, paradoxically enough, the voice of the recipient of charity. Or, to be precise, the voice of recipients that is foreign to the classic role of being grateful. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of this, for example when refugees talk honestly about abuses in asylum-seeker centres. But Mariam Shehade from Syria prefers to say nothing about this, afraid of being portrayed as a spoilt complainer. Mozes Owech from Uganda also keeps a low profile. A character in Edith Tulp’s novel De bushsoldaat (The bush soldier), Mozes is a former child soldier who meets two aid workers. They want to take care of him, but Mozes doesn’t want any help whatsoever. He doesn’t want to talk about his past, but he doesn’t dare to refuse their help.

The discomfort about receiving aid is paid scant attention in the media. There is even less space for scenes in which the ‘aided person’ has any criticism of the aid-giver, for scenes that elucidate how ‘helping’ simultaneously underscores the inequality with the victim, for example. Nelly van de Ven, who works as a volunteer for Sinti and Roma people in Gemert, expresses this tellingly when she looks back at her poverty-stricken youth in the Dutch province of Brabant: ‘The wealthy ladies from the village came to our home with great aplomb to bring clothes and household goods, whereupon my mother had to say “thank you very much” a dozen times.’ Then, Nelly explains, those same women could sit in the front pew in church on Sundays.

Nelly primarily conveys her indignation, but for presenter and comedian Trevor Noah, who grew up in Johannesburg, this inequality degenerates in fury. In a satirical sketch he rants against the way in which aid organizations portray children from Africa. Why, Trevor asks, do they keep producing advertisements that feature pitiable African children with flies in their eyes? ‘Those adverts mean that we look terrible,’ Trevor rants. ‘They mean that the whole of Africa looks terrible. They make me look terrible. And that makes me angry.’

A preference for the bad

The media frame reality and they do that selectively. In doing this they have a predilection for bad news, misery and conflicts. They pass normality by, ignore what is gradually going better or is simply going well. Moreover, they barely give people in need a voice outside their role as thankful victims. That brings me to a final question: How does that media reality affect our concern with others and our charity or love of our neighbour? The answer is neither predetermined nor the same for everyone, but we’re all exposed to the influence of media reality. That is something to dwell upon constantly.

This is how the distorted media reality can prompt us to mercy and compassion in our everyday lives. Without dramatic stories with a victim frame we wouldn’t know that there are people outside our field of vision who are needy. It is in part thanks to the media that Pam van der Veen and hundreds of thousands of other volunteers in the Netherlands devote themselves to people who they don’t know personally. And thanks to the media, millions of donors give money to charities, to people whom they’ve never seen. The media are a catalyst for acts of mercy.

The media reality can, however, push us in the other direction. For example, by the constant stream of stories in which the arrival of asylum seekers is presented as a threat to our security. This one-sided reporting prompted Birgit to protest against Syrian men moving into her neighbourhood. For her this is based on perceptions that bear no relation to any actual peril she faces.

This narrative therefore concludes with an appeal for critical media consumption. Which frame are we being shown? Do we realize that it’s a stylized cut-out? And that there’s a whole background, with stories that we don’t see and voices that we don’t hear? These are questions to be pondered before we stop for a wounded traveller, or simply walk on by.

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