Research: Stories, Not Statistics, Can Overcome Compassion Fatigue

September 9, 2015 • Recent, Research • by

Mother Teresa understood compassion fatigue when she proclaimed, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.”

What Mother Teresa knew from personal experience has been documented by behavioral research showing that people relate to the suffering of one as a tragedy but tune out the loss of thousands as a statistic. The recent public reaction to news photos of a young boy’s body, washed up on a Turkish beach is a sad example.  “The more who die, the less we care,” grimly concludes psychology professor Paul Slovic, a leading researcher in the field.

Influenced by this research, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claims to go to great lengths to find an individual who exemplifies the larger story that needs to be told. Rather than focus on suffering and grim statistics, Kristof says he seeks to move his readers by covering people who have overcome their desperate conditions. “To me, the lessons of this research are two-fold,” Kristof explains in the online publication Co-Exist. “First, tell an engaging individual story to suck people in. Second, show that it’s not hopeless, but that progress is possible.”

Does this approach to reporting the news make a difference?

In a study recently published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, I used content analysis and media metrics to assess how Kristof applied these social psychology principles, and, more importantly, whether they engender reader response. The results of this study, “Compassion Fatigue and the Elusive Quest for Journalistic Impact,” underscore that there is no “magic bullet” by which the media’s message activates a powerful uniform response.

The first stage of this research examined the threshold issue of whether Kristof practices what he preaches, applying the social psychology principles he publicly espouses.

In an examination of a year’s columns, I found that Kristof routinely put a human face to tough and distant social issues, with a preponderance of stories focused on one or two individuals. His columns widely included elements of triumph over adversity and provided mobilizing information exhorting readers to action. Unwilling to abandon statistics, Kristof injected quantitative information (usually in small amounts) in nearly all of his columns.

While Kristof clearly employed methods intended to overcome compassion fatigue, the effects of these efforts were not apparent.

The study turned to a broad array of Internet metrics to gauge the online reader’s digital response, from Facebook “Likes” to blog references on Google, from the New York Times accounting of most-viewed stories to Technorati’s algorithm gauging a story’s standing in the blogosphere. None of these metrics showed a significant positive relationship with story personification, overcoming adversity, or mobilizing information.

Counter to experimental research indicating that statistics diminish empathy, the study found reader engagement positively corresponded with quantitative information, though the results generally were not statistically conclusive.

However, the study did find that reader response was clearly connected to story topic and geographic proximity.

As predicted, the correlation between reader response and topical issues of high interest to the American public (i.e. abortion, Israeli conflict, presidential election) was positive, strong and statistically significant. By every metric, stories reported in or focused on the United States or Canada engendered greater reader response than foreign stories.

It should be no surprise that Kristof’s column on Lady Gaga’s campaign against bullying elicits greater response than a column about a young woman who had escaped from a Cambodian brothel. These results highlight why news media gravitate to superstars and sensational issues while tough and often distant issues such as human trafficking get relatively little notice.

One wishes there were a simple story formula in which the focus on the individual would trigger a direct emotional response, as it did in the experimental conditions posed by psychological research.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Kristof’s reporting approach is ineffective.

Despite Kristof’s penchant for reporting on remote and grisly topics, his columns routinely made the New York Times “most popular” list and his professional Facebook page has attracted more than a half-million subscribers. Several charities report that his column generated in excess of U.S. $100,000 in contributions when Kristof wrote about their organizations. Clearly, Kristof has built a large, engaged following as he reports on the disenfranchised around the world.

Indeed, it is possible that Kristof’s unique readership tended to mute the impact of the columnist’s narrative emphasis. As engaged readers, those who comment or otherwise respond to a column may already be well attuned to the issues raised by Kristof. If so, these informed readers likely react more to hard information than a narrative story of an individual’s plight. Supporting this supposition was the finding that the reader’s response was strongest when columns provided information specifically advising what should be done.

The results also may reflect the limitations of the digital metrics used in the study. Personification remains a powerful journalistic device, but audience engagement is a complex phenomenon not readily distilled by algorithm or click count. More research is needed to understand what kinds of reporting elicit public outrage when human rights are violated.

It is hoped that this line of research encourages others to evaluate how social psychology may guide news reporting on genocide and other mass suffering. The answers that communication scholars provide could garner more effective news coverage and elicit a stronger civic response to human suffering.


This article is an adapted short version of the study “Compassion Fatigue and the Elusive Quest for Journalistic Impact: A Content and Reader-Metric Analysis Assessing Reader Response,” published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 3 (Autumn 2015), 700-722.


Pic credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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