Empathy and news media: Modeling the selfie worldview

In an all-about-me world driven by selfies, how can media create true influence?

Piyush Sharma
Updated: Apr 23, 2019 11:16:12 AM UTC

Piyush Sharma - a versatile leader working at the intersection of business, civil society, academia, social and policy impact - is Executive-in-Residence at ISB and UCLA besides being a global CEO coach and a C-Suite + Start-up advisor.

Image: Shutterstock

Sharon Stone created history at the World Economic Forum Davos meet in 2005 by interrupting the speech of the Tanzanian president. She simply said, “I am Sharon Stone. I would like to offer you $10,000 to help you buy some mosquito nets today. Would anyone else like to be on a team with me and stand up and offer some money?” Stone ended up raising $1 million for malaria-stricken Tanzania, in five minutes.

Another case in point is Harvard University's Steven Pinker’s argument for reading as a “technology for perspective-taking”, which not only evokes people’s empathy but also expands it.

Guttenberg’s printing press, more than 500 years ago, possibly qualifies as the first real ‘empathy technology’. The mass production of books led to increased literacy, and unleashed the possibility to populate others’ minds.

The story of the evolution of media is a story of the ability of each successive medium to provide an immersive experience…to evoke empathy. Historically, we were reading the news, then listening to it, and finally watching it all. The internet and emerging technologies, including augmented and virtual reality today, enable us to go beyond-–to feel it, to experience it, to understand it and to become influenced by it.

The key to media connection is empathy. The Sharon Stone example, as an ‘empathy maker and shaper’ demonstrates it well.

Marketers who are inundated with data, analysis and big numbers realise this well. That’s why an engineering marvel automobile is sold on the strength of emotion that it evokes with that attractive woman in the advertisement.

The primary aim of content is to effect traction through engagement. In the modern world, even as content attempts to create human connections at scale, it starts with empathy.

Since the new empathy technologies enjoy the privilege of the intentional building of opinion on purpose, they can deliver a wide range of emotions-–happiness, sadness, love, hate, boredom, anger--you name it. Consciously, one emotion that the modern media may decide not to evoke, is empathy too. In fact, it can sometimes feel as if the media content is designed for the exact opposite.

TV news has become about manufactured dissent. Popular music lyrics emphasise power and individualism. Reality TV celebrates rebellion. Clickbait journalism and obsession with eyeballs has encouraged trolling, mocking and judgment.

This is in contrast to the empathy-building journey of a great piece of literature, where one empathises with the protagonist. When their flaws are finally manifest, one is humbled and sees oneself in their complex, imperfect lives. Research has since proven that those who read more literary fiction are better at detecting and understanding others’ emotions.

Influence is the currency of attention. Our empathy for strangers is no exception. Imagery, videos, coverage, and timing all play their respective roles. That is how the ‘12 boys trapped in Thai caves’ tragedy captures the world’s attention when more long-term issues such as child-trafficking and children in detention don’t to the same extent.

A picture is worth a thousand words; modern media knows this well. That is how viral, blanket coverage of tragic incidents evokes an unprecedented reaction. The touching image of the little Honduran girl crying as her mother is detained by officials at the US-Mexico border in June 2018 is said to have generated an enormously disproportionate PR value.

The role of self
In an age of post-truth, when fake news, data leaks and deliberate other vested interest technologies play manipulative games, does one have a moral responsibility to think differently?

Further, in an all-about-me world driven by selfies, how does one provision for empathy?

Who would argue for not sympathising with the soccer team trapped in the cave? Regardless of the outcome, the story does disappear from our minds as the next challenging crisis arises. In becoming victim to the failings of our moral cognition and the all-pervasive media servings and influence, shouldn’t we ensure the reality of longer-term problems doesn’t disappear too?

The author is a global tech, media and entrepreneurial leader who works for value creation and catalytic growth, across large enterprises and start-ups.

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