Africa: Documentaries Beat News At Eliciting Empathy for Poor

When British TV audiences watch stories about suffering in less developed countries, the main response is indifference, according to a study.

News reports are particularly poor at moving viewers, although non-news programming can produce deeper and more nuanced understanding of the issues it covers, the study found.

For the study, published in Media, Culture & Society last month, 108 people participated in focus groups to discuss how they respond to seeing less well-off people in other countries on television. Forty-eight of them then kept diaries for two months recording how they felt about the programmes as they watched.

“They wrote an entry in their diary every time they encountered something to do with people from ‘countries poorer than ours’,” explains author Martin Scott, who lectures on media and development at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. Forty-six people then took part in a second round of focus groups.

There were two key findings. The first was that “people were largely indifferent to distant suffering” they saw on television, he says. Some simply “didn’t care”, while others felt glad that they were not affected. “In other cases, it was a begrudging acceptance that this is just what happens,” says Scott. Some participants felt resistant to being made to feel a certain way, he adds.

But Scott emphasises that “this is not the same as saying that they didn’t want that news” and that viewers thought it was important to be informed.

Young men were the least empathetic, with older women being most compassionate. This broadly reflects the trends in charity donation statistics, such as those published by the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation, a group that offers advice to the charitable sector.

The second key finding was that non-news factual output did more to make audiences care than news. Scott found that such programmes could stimulate more complex understanding and humanise sufferers more fully. Documentaries and current affairs shows were best at inspiring eliciting emotional responses.

Scott reports a “surprising absence” of references to NGO television appeals for donations: the participants “just didn’t talk about these things very much,” he says. When they did, resistance was again a common response.

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