Media Portray Sufferings: Ethical or not?

Bizarre, human interest, conflict, consequence, superlatives and impact are some elements in news worthiness. As learned in journalism classes, these components are necessary to capture the attention from viewers. It is the work nature in media to sensationalize and to portray a story in a scandalous manner. The media builds on an angle to give life to the story, in return to trigger audiences’ feelings –in this case, sympathy and empathy.

This matter in question whether is it ethical to portray the sufferings of others for the sake of stimulating viewers’ humanity. Personally, I think this form of news representation can be helpful in certain circumstances. An example is the image of the green-eyed Afghan girl, taken by Steve McCurry in 1984, which became the front cover of National Geographic. That picture did manage to draw attention to the plight, inspiring many people to work voluntarily in refugee camps. (Simons 2016) The Haiti earthquake in 2010 is another example which received a hefty amount of donation funds from both public and private sectors globally. (Attkisson 2010) In contrary, there were also some injudicious encounters. For example, the image of starving child and vulture taken by Kevin Carter in 1993 showed an opposite reaction. The photographer took his own life, as there were overbearing critics from publics towards the formal for not aiding the boy at that time. Yet, the truth behind was that Carter had been advised to not touch the victims due to disease. (Time 2017) In fact, he did wait for 20 minutes alongside with the boy in hopes the bird would fly away. (Time 2017) When it did not, he even scared the bird away for the boy to continue towards the feeding centre. (Time 2017)

The underline issue is also that the media approach towards death or sufferings can be different based on a perceived value relating to the person’s life. Referring to Urist (2014), a study showed that “the U.S. media gives more sustained and personalized attention to some deaths than to others.” An example would be the discrepancy coverage of both Paris and Beirut attacks in 2015. The Paris attack, which occurred a day later after Beirut incident, received more awareness as Facebook featured its Safety Check tool and allowed users to overlay the colours of the French flag on their profile pictures as a solidarity expression. (Al Jazeera 2015) However, the news of Beirut incident was not greatly addressed. Indeed, the reasons were surely because Paris attack was bigger and deadlier than the Beirut attack, and the location, Paris, is one of the major cities in the world. However, the menace behind this is that the media fails to report news with “the same sort of empathy and humanity it deploys”. (Peters 2015) This in a way will reflect upon viewers’ to regard which news is deemed more important and valuable.

In relation, this subject “distant suffering” came to light as what are the morally acceptable responses upon the sight of sufferings seen on media. As suggested by Luc Boltanski (1999), the analysis of distant suffering includes “the dilemma facing spectators bombarded with mediated images of human misery”. When mass media aggravates a particular situation that may occur too far away from our lives; we wonder if we should take actions to act upon it or to only have feeling of agony and grief for the sufferers. As a spectator, it cultivates a disposition for us to feel such sensibility that we may be able to make a difference for those sufferings. (Boltanski 1999) This discourse questions the ethical role of contemporary media in how the sufferer is portrayed and how the scene of suffering is narrated. In correspondence, the dispute in regards of audiences being the receivers of such news is also contentious. Nevertheless, it can actually be a utilitarian move to unify the world, as seen in the case of Asian Tsunami in 2004.


Al Jazeera 2015, “The media bias between Paris and Beirut”, accessed online 4/4/2017, <;

Attkisson, S 2010, “Haiti Earthquake Aid: Nearly $15 Billion in Donations”, CBS News, accessed online 4/4/2017, <;

Boltanski L 1999, “Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics”, Cambridge University Press, online pdf, pp 114 – 131, accessed online 4/4/2017, <;

Peters, J 2015, “Does Paris Matter More Than Beirut?”, Slate, accessed online 4/4/2017, <>&gt;

Simons, JW 2016, “The story behind the world’s most famous photograph”, CNN, accessed online 4/4/2017, <;

Time 2017, “100 photos”, accessed online 4/4/2017, <;

Urist, J 2014, “Which Deaths Matter?”, The Atlantic, accessed online 4/4/2017, <;






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