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Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death Hardcover – September 23, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Compassion fatigue"?the dulled public sensitivity toward crisis?isn't inevitable, asserts Moeller, director of the journalism program at Brandeis. But formulaic and sensationalistic news coverage promotes it, she claims. In four worthy but somewhat belabored case studies, Moeller analyzes major American media coverage of recent crises, such as the Ebola virus, Ethiopian famine, the assassinations of Sadat and Rabin, and "death camps" in Bosnia. In these stories she found certain things were emphasized, others ignored: coverage of sensational disease, she notes, obscures more ordinary killers; images of starving children overshadow political causes for famine (and famines without photo opportunities are often ignored); the "Americanization" of assassination emphasizes that killers are crazy, rather than politically motivated; and lack of a simple heroes-and-villains story line obscured the Kurdish tragedy. The solution, she argues in an earnest but pollyannaish conclusion, is for the media to invest in international coverage, aiming for nuance and quality over sensationalism. More valuable for its analysis of what's wrong than on how to make it right, Moeller's book could have been made more helpful still through a brief comparison with media in other countries.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Moeller's patient dissection of media is a penetrating analysis, concluding that after more and more death and war, disease and worse, consumers just get tire of caring. Change is needed. -- Morton Times-News important resource for journalism schools... -- The Evening Post
[Moeller] provides challenging detail and analysis [and] raises uncomfortable truths in a readable, provocative manner. -- The Australian
Compassion Fatigue is a reportorial and moral success... [Moeller] demonstrates, in great detail and with tremendous discernment, how [our] self-absorption has served as a prophylactic against understanding. -- National Post
Criticism of the press for its foreign coverage is hardly novel, but in this unrelenting, uncompromising book, Moeller manages to cast a fresh, unwavering eye on the problem...That Moeller's suggestions probably will not be acted upon should not diminish the accomplishment of this impressive book. -- Columbia Journalism Review
Her exhaustive analysis of coverage is a great accomplishment, as is her own retelling of these events. She helps us understand how the media shape our view of the world--and thus shape future events. -- Philadelphia Inquirer
With careful scholarship and nuanced argument, Moeller presents the image of media that have simply stopped doing their job. -- Kirkus Reviews
This is a very important book. Criticism of the American press--broadcast and print--for its foreign coverage is hardly new but Professor Moeller does a masterful job of exposing the causes and the result of this failure. Her work should open the public's eyes, and, indeed, those of the press itself, to the danger to our democracy if remedy is not forthcoming. -- Walter Cronkite
The challenging premise of this well-written book will be of interest to both students and consumers of the media. -- Library Journal
[A] penetrating analysis of an aspect of current media superficiality... -- Booklist
Compassion Fatigue excels in its careful dissection of the institutional, philosophical, and logistical obstacles that prevent the media from effectively monitoring this planet. -- Charlotte Observer
A fascinating exploration of how crisis reporting impacts public opinion and how this affects future coverage. -- William Small, former president of NBC News and United Press International, professor emeritus at Fordham University
Compassion Fatigue is a calm but unflinching look at some of the most desperate stories on the planet. Susan Moeller has engaged the press in exactly the right terms: formulaic performance, sentimentality, missing context, not fighting hard enough to do a story. When these charges are backed up fairly (as they are in Compassion Fatigue) the press will listen. Eventually. -- Thomas C. Leonard, Assoc. Dean, Graduate School of Journalism University of California, Berkeley
For graduate, research, and professional collections. -- Choice
Compassion Fatigue demystifies the editorial formulas which lead to homogenized, Americanized and unconscionably-thin international news coverage. In this important work, Susan Moeller holds American news moguls, editors, journalists and their audiences accountable for failing to overcome public apathy and to assume the unprofitable responsibility to accurately report and measure the human significance of epidemic, assassination, massacre and famine. -- Scott Armstrong, former Washington Post reporter and co-author with Bob Woodward of The Brethren, Inside the Supreme Court
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 398 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (September 23, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415920973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415920971
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,634,057 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Peter E. Harrell on January 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
Moeller divides her book into six sections; an introduction, a section on media coverage of disease, a chapter on media coverage of famine, a chapter on coverage of assassinations, a chapter on coverage of genocide, and a conclusion. Each section if filled with case studies and alternately amusing and horrifying anecdotes; she recounts, for example, that the editor of one Boston paper said that "the distance from Boston common divided by the number of bodies" decides which stories make the final cut. The book makes a great read (especially relative to the bulk of academic writing), and you'll certainly pick up little tidbits you can later cite in conversations about current events.
The conclusions Moeller draws, however, are cliché. What do you know, the media disproportionately focuses on the US, and most of what we see of Africa and the Middle East is tragedy, so we get a skewed picture. And the media sensationalize everything, and are fond of shallow, sound-bite explanations of complex tragedies. Who would have guessed any of this without reading the book? I also find her conclusions somewhat contradictory; she argues both that excessive coverage of disasters leads to a hardening of the public's sympathies AND that the media need to increase coverage of foreign tragedies. I think she's arguing that the type of coverage needs to be changes - fewer pictures of starving children, more hard-boiled analysis, but her conclusion is so brief she doesn't elaborate much. So while you will probably enjoy the book, and love the stories, I doubt that when you have finished you will feel that you have a better understanding of the American media.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Gregory McMahan VINE VOICE on January 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"At breakfast and at dinner, we can sharpen our own appetites with a plentiful dose of the pornography of war, genocide, destitution and disease." So says one of the first lines in introduction to Compassion Fatigue. With that statement as simultaneously an opener and a teaser of the things to come, Professor Moeller takes the reader on a guided tour of the presentation and commodification of human tragedy and suffering.

Compassion Fatigue tells you the how and the why behind what makes the nightly news, and also reveals why a great many other things do not make the news. While mostly a critique of US based media and journalism, it does reveal the gradual trend towards the 'One World' view of things and events that has come to typify reporting of any sort.

Without intending to do so, the book does much to demonstrate that the media, always locked in competition with other forms of 'programming' for our attention, has resorted to marketing information- current events, as a form of entertainment. In place of in-depth, investigative journalism, we now have soundbites featuring 'talking heads', and the cuter or more obscene the personality (and increasingly both), the better.

Each of the so-called 'Four Horsemen'- war, disease, famine and death, are presented and profiled in turn, with detailed discussion about the mechanics behind their delivery to readers and viewers. This book differs from most critiques of the media because it tells the narrative with the assistance of journalists themselves, in the words of the journalists.

Many people in the media know what they are doing is not only questionable, but in some cases, flat out wrong. However, marketability (how well something will go over with viewers) matters more than anything else.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By James C. Costa on December 7, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Tired of giving gifts that don't mean anything? Then this book is the perfect gift to give to someone you care about. This book teaches us that we need to look closely at what is being fed to us daily in newspapers, TV, and radio. Ms. Moeller forces us to look at how Americans wants their news served to us so we can tolerate it instead of tasting it and truly understanding the complexities. I applaud her bravery in criticizing the mainstream press which will certainly not be interested in reviewing or having her on as a guest. If you care about the world buy this book and give it to as many friends as you can.
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