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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What to Do When the Numbers in the News Become Benumbing

makeshift hospital ward for isolation of overflow Covid-19 patients

makeshift hospital ward for isolation of overflow Covid-19 patients

Anita Varma

Carlos Osorio / Associated Press

Anita Varma, PhD is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.

Each morning, a new set of numbers awaits in the news: the number of documented cases of coronavirus (by country, by state, and by county), the number of hospitalized cases, the number of intensive care cases, and the number of people who have died from the virus. Then comes the latest unemployment figures, along with projections about how many more people are likely to lose their livelihoods and their lives in coming weeks.

Quantifying the scope and consequences of coronavirus is, of course, an important journalistic endeavor. At the same time, stories and standalone infographics that begin and end with quantification do not humanize the people experiencing grief, illness, and financial insecurity – which risks alienating audiences and desensitizing people who have not yet experienced the grave impact of coronavirus firsthand.

A common answer in American journalism is to offer numbers-based stories as well as human interest profiles, often of one particular individual or a handful of individuals. Personalizing the pain and trauma attached to numbers quickly runs into a different, but nevertheless troubling, problem: instead of faceless charts, readers end up with a pinhole focus on select individuals who often have a distinguishing characteristic or particular notoriety – which persists in leaving thousands of people experiencing the same issue out of the story and out of public representation.

The problem with the existing binary between statistics-based reporting and individual human interest stories is that readers become tired. Social psychologists call this “empathy fatigue” or “empathic over-arousal.” No one has an unending capacity to empathize, even those who are classified as “highly empathetic.” When people grow fatigued in the face of observing widespread suffering, they tend to 1) become distressed, 2) blame the victim, and 3) go numb and turn away.

Blaming the victim is often represented as a cruel and unusual political maneuver, but also may happen outside of people’s conscious awareness, as part of an attempt to reconcile and rationalize away cruel realities with a desire to maintain a view of a just world.

All of the above has unfortunately already begun to unfold in the context of coronavirus. For example, we are seeing victim-blaming of Black communities based on extrapolated risk factors, as well as advice from mental health professionals to reduce exposure to news coverage to mitigate distress. Both indicate that audiences are entering psychological fatigue territory as they consume news at peak rates, and that framing the broader story of coronavirus in terms of numbers or individuals falls short of offering the kind of public education people can process right now.

A better alternative is for journalists to humanize affected communities and people with an ethic of solidarity. Often conflated or confused with charity or empathy, solidarity shifts focus from the individual or the population in aggregate to a space in-between that American journalists strive to serve: the community.

At the level of the community, it becomes feasible for journalists to offer numbers as well as the perspectives of members of these communities. Shifting away from purely individualized struggles, an ethic of solidarity would mean standing with communities affected by not only representing their pain, but also their views on what happened, what their needs are, and amplifying their ideas on how these needs can be served.

In the context of reporting on death tolls, a solidarity approach might sound farfetched. Certainly, an ethic of solidarity cannot resurrect people who have passed away for an interview. Yet as historians will readily contend, people’s perspectives do not die with them, and seeking out people’s viewpoints by speaking to those they were in-community with offers a way to represent the people who have been lost without reducing them to morbidity and mortality statistics.

In past cases, such as the Syrian refugee crisis or “distant disasters,” audiences displaying signs of fatigue led news industry leaders to decide to minimize coverage of the topic. With coronavirus, minimizing coverage is unlikely due to its immediate salience – but also points to a chance for news reporters and editors to reevaluate their approaches to informing their audiences – lest they lose them for good.

This piece was written with support from the Democracy Fund for an ongoing initiative called Solidarity Journalism. If you are a reporter or member of a news organization and would like to participate in a digital workshop on implementing solidarity approaches to reporting, please contact avarma2@scu.edu. 

Apr 9, 2020

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