What is meant by the term ‘compassion fatigue’?  How, and with what possible effects, has the discourse of compassion fatigue been employed within debates about television news coverage of...

What is meant by the term ‘compassion fatigue’?  How, and with what possible effects, has the discourse of compassion fatigue been employed within debates about television news coverage of suffering? 

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the words of Dr. Charles Figley, who is the director of Traumatology in Tulane University, 

"Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

This "secondary traumatic stress" disorder is another name for compassion fatigue. It is a secondary type of trauma, caused by what community workers experience as they help other people go through their primary trauma as they deal with their caseloads.

The description given by Dr. Figley refers to the actual medical panorama that is included in a primary complaint for compassion fatigue. Essentially, it is the desensitization of the emotions of those who have to deal, day in and day out, in situations that include maximum emotional stimulation.

The basic explanation is that people who are exposed to a great amount of emotional distress will, subsequently, learn to push the feelings aside in order to get their jobs done. Some will achieve this while others will internalize the emotional stimulation and compartmentalize it in some aspects of their lives. Some will want to re-live it under the influence of alcohol to "analyze without emotional taxing." Others will internalize it to the point of becoming mentally frustrated at any event that reminds them of the situation that they are dealing with. 

Figley also states to the American Institute of Stress (1995)

We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves

This description is similar to the well-known experience of "burnout," or the feeling that the situations that are dealt with daily are so energy-consuming that they take the entire time and energy away from the regular work day. 

The problem with compassion fatigue is that it can also happen as a result of excessive exposure to the news, dramas, or other media which dedicates itself to promoting events by appealing strictly to the senses.

The yellow press, which is notorious for its unnecessary use of extreme descriptions and gory details, is partially to blame for sensationalizing events that may be best explained simply as they really are. 

Moreover, the excessive use of compassion will inevitably result in the need to intensify the descriptors to cause the same amount of compassion the third or fourth time around when the news are repeated. Notice how these days the reports of soldiers being killed, terrorist attacks, and other similar news are actually competing for the attention of the general public as to which will generate more views and reactions. When there is a political agenda behind the promotion of a specific situation, the issue becomes even more complex in terms of preserving the impartial nature of news reporting. 

Back to the actual compassion fatigue, the reports show that it is a systemic effect that can affect entire organizations, and may result in absenteeism, low morale, lack of focus on detail, violence in the workplace (verbal or physical), and the overall decrease in productivity from a workplace affected by excess stress and compassion fatigue.