Is 'Compassion Fatigue' Setting In?

NPR's All Things Considered has completed a series of reports on the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. This past week, the program left the confines of Washington, D.C., where NPR is headquartered, to originate from New Orleans.

I thought it was among the best radio journalism in years — the culmination of months of consistent and clear-eyed reporting. The scope of the tragedy caused by the hurricanes of 2005 has left a people bereft and their unique culture shattered, possibly for many, many years. The losses in Louisiana and Mississippi are simply catastrophic and are shared by all Americans. The fallout from Katrina on the Bush administration continues, and the political consequences remain unpredictable. Some scholars have noted resemblances between Katrina and the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Chernobyl had serious political consequences for then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as Katrina is having for President Bush today.

This story is far from over.

Listeners like Ann LeVasseur thought last week's NPR reports were compelling:

The series on New Orleans now at the time of Mardi Gras is to be commended. I've felt that the devastation and [a] lot of the people affected [have] been ignored and forgotten. NPR's coverage is most informative and touching. Keep it up. Whatever is the best decision for the future of NO, it should NOT be forgotten.

While Nancy Powell says:

I really do respect NPR reporters for the incredible professionals they are, [putting] their lives on the line every day… in all of the hot spots on this globe, so that the rest of us can be privy to the true news… we have another horrendous war going on and so many Americans have no clue about the history of the region and what we are doing there now... Thank you also for the wonderful programming. I have NPR on every day as much as possible and your home page is my home page.

But other listeners wrote to say that they have had enough of these kinds of NPR stories. Listener Nancy Swafford says, at first, she wanted to know about Katrina, but I am sick of hearing about this disaster on NPR. There are thousands of serious problems around the world that beg for attention and news time. I would much rather hear about some of these other situations and less about the New Orleans problems.

Listener Aaron Rourke was even more forthcoming:

I am SO tired of Katrina coverage! We've heard it already! Devastation! We know there's devastation! My god, if NPR continues to bombard me with four or five Katrina stories every day, I'm going to shoot myself! Stop, for the love of God, stop!

NPR's reports on the war in Iraq are also evoking similarly split responses. Listener Lynne Harrison says:

I have reached the point where I simply turn off the radio now when NPR starts with all the death statistics and recounts in great detail the ins and outs of Iraqi politics. Enough already.... All this emphasis on the death count does nothing constructive whatsoever.

'Compassion Fatigue'

I've seen this before. It's called "compassion fatigue" and it happens whenever there is a long-running news story that shows no signs of resolution. Listeners can become bored by even the most compelling story, if it seems never to change. Journalists are challenged to report the story in ways that must keep the interest of the audience without ratcheting up the drama to the point of distortion.

Less News or Less 'Fluff'

The current news environment, where the daily leads are almost always stories of war, human or natural disaster, or threats to global security, casts a huge shadow over the kinds of social and cultural stories that are an NPR trademark. Listener Timothy Haxton makes the point:

Instead of getting detailed news reports and analysis of the innumerable important national and international issues, I have been hearing long and uninformative human interest stories. Even worse, there seems to have been a significant increase in articles about religion. These have not been news reports (which of course could be quite significant) but have instead been various discussions about individuals faith or beliefs or feelings about their religion.

Faced with these completely contradictory demands, what is a news organization to do?

The executive producer of All Things Considered is Chris Turpin. I asked him how he balances the hard news with the softer, less news-oriented features.

It's a tough question because it all depends on how you define features (or hard news for that matter.) We're looking to cover the news of the day, but our goal is always to have a textured, sound rich program with a good mix of material. Some days we do better than others at achieving that, of course. Most days it's a 50/50 mix.

Question: Have you sensed that NPR is running more feature or "fluff" material than it used to?

No. I think the very reverse is true. If you pick a random show from 10 years ago you'll hear far more "fluff" than [you] do today. NPR is far more of a "news organization" now than it was then. If anything, the balance might have swung too much the other way. My fear is that we're covering too many marginal or incremental news stories and in the process the heart and soul of our programs is getting squeezed a tad.

Question: Do you think that there is some "compassion fatigue" in the audience?

Sadly, I think there is... We're finishing up a week of programming from New Orleans, about an unbelievable human tragedy that is going to be with us for years to come. (Hosts) Michele Norris, Robert Siegel and our producers (are) telling stories that desperately need to be told. Still, much of the mail we've received from listeners has been of the "enough, enough" variety. I wish it wasn't so, but I can understand why the audience is a tad jaded. Just look at the news cycle the last few years: Katrina, Iraq, tsunami, Kashmir quake, 9/11, the list goes on and on. There are days I wake up and, frankly, don't feel like turning the radio on.

Turpin puts it well and "compassion fatigue" has indeed set in among many listeners and I fear, among some NPR journalists as well.

Getting the Balance Right

As a result, the presence of any feature material these days may sound more prominent because humor, culture and other similarly lighter subjects contrast with the terrible seriousness of the news overall.

Getting the balance right and presenting the right palette of information and features is part of the mystery and the alchemy of radio making. I think NPR gets it right especially when it leans more toward the serious. As Turpin says, "compassion fatigue" can affect journalists too, especially when a story continues for months without an end in sight. So it's important that reporters, editors and producers make sure that every effort is made to ensure that the writing and reporting are as crisp and as compelling as possible.

There is, in my opinion, another possible explanation for why "compassion fatigue" is more noticeable now: it's called early March. Journalists and listeners may also be suffering from the end of the winter blues.

But as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley says, "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

From the Serious to the Tabloid

NPR's reputation for earnest seriousness took a hit on Feb. 28. That's when Morning Edition chose to start the program with a report concerning the case of the former Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith before the Supreme Court.

Nina Totenberg's report was straightforward enough. But some listeners wondered if they had tuned into Entertainment Tonight by mistake when, in the intro, they heard that the case involves... voluptuous celebrity Anna Nicole Smith, her deceased billionaire husband, and his allegedly greedy and crooked son who was found to have stacked the deck in the probate process.

There may be a place for that story, but it did not, in my opinion, deserve to lead the program. In addition, the "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" quality of the intro writing left me with the impression that some NPR journalists were looking a little too hard for a break from the awfulness of the news.

But this was not the way to do it.

A Picture Tells a Thousand Radio Reports

This week, the Associated Press released a leaked video of President Bush being informed that the levees in New Orleans had been breached a day before he stated that he had no knowledge of this.

Listener Jon Holz says he heard no mention of the video on NPR:

I have been listening and waiting for an in-depth report on the AP report regarding Bush knowing ahead of time about the impending Katrina catastrophe. Yet, no word. Does NPR consider this unimportant? Not newsworthy?

The leak of the video to the media was reported on NPR newscasts, but not particularly prominently on NPR newsmagazines. NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving explains why:

We did (report) the videotape... in a segment of ("All Things Considered") on Thursday, March 2.

But more to the point, everything that Bush is reported to have said in the video story has been reported before, on NPR and elsewhere, starting back months ago. It's in the House and Senate reports on Katrina.

What we got this week was the videotape. But there is no statement anywhere on the tape that was not on the transcripts we were working with and reporting on for several weeks.

What the video adds is video. And that makes a difference for people, seeing an actual picture of something (even a bad one). But it's not something we can put on the radio.

News can also be defined as something everyone is talking about. It might have been more helpful if the story had been given more prominence to avoid the impression shared by many listeners that NPR was downplaying it.

A Correction?

I mentioned in last week's column that the musical interludes between news stories, called "buttons" were so-named because, according to lore, they keep the garment of the program together. It seems my explanation (obtained from once-reliable sources) was too high-minded.

A number of public radio veterans like Michael Crane from NPR member-station WMFE in Orlando, Fla., wrote to say it actually comes from the phrase "panic button."

I heard many years ago that it was named for "hit the button, hit the button!" to play some music because a piece wasn't ready. Sounds much more "Broadcast News" to me, and more likely right.

That sounds true to me too.

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