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Metaphorical bystanders: the mediation of distant suffering and audiences’ reception

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The mediation of distant suffering raises fundamental ethical, political, social and policy-related questions. This paper maps the academic debate on the representation of distant suffering, focusing on the moral consequences and effects on audiences. The paper identifies two key thematic concerns in this debate: (1) media, particularly news, coverage of distant suffering; and (2) humanitarian organizations’ communication of social suffering. The paper examines various critiques of this literature. Conceptually, empathy and compassion are assumed to be the main emotions that media coverage and humanitarian communication on distant suffering should seek to provoke; more complex emotions, such as ambivalence, conflict and anxiety, and responses such as rejection, are largely overlooked. Methodologically, the majority of studies of media coverage and humanitarian organizations’ communication of distant suffering rely on textual and visual analyses. Surprisingly, although they are interested in audiences’ responses to and engagement with mediated messages on suffering, empirical studies of audiences’ reception of these messages are scarce. Social Psychology studies on this topic are primarily based on laboratory experiments, and provide very little insight into audiences’ responses to humanitarian appeals and distant suffering in ‘naturally’ occurring situations and settings. Consequently, studies that focus on analyses of media and humanitarian representations often assume their audiences to be homogenous bodies of ‘viewers’ who can be categorized by certain moral dispositions produced by these texts, failing to acknowledge the huge variations in the ways different people might receive, as well as reject these messages. In related psychological studies, because of the primacy of positivistic and individualistic approaches, the notion of the individual who receives these mediated messages on distant suffering is de-contextualized and ahistorical. The paper concludes by suggestions for advancing research into the mediation of distant suffering, and proposes a particular research design which focuses on audiences’ reception of humanitarian appeals. Paper prepared for the Fifth Anniversary Conference of the Department of Media and Communications, ‘Media, Communication & Humanity’, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, 21-23 September 2008.

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