Compassion Fatigue


War and Media class Final Report. Grade 18/20 :”> This report is the combination of the application theoretical theory of Compassion Fatigue into very specific situation, which is US and ISIS.

I. Introduction

On the evening of November 13, 2015, 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris and its suburb Saint-Denis with shootings and suicide bombings. After one day of the disaster, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks. The public nearly gone mad for this event, all the channels show their coverage about it, as well as the stories of the alive witnesses, the world’ sympathetic towards Paris was bigger than ever! However, before these events in Paris the same week, a suicide bombing happened at a funeral in a mosque, killed at least 19 people in Baghdad, but people did not notice about the bombings as well. All the attacks’ responsible are claimed by ISIS, but when it comes to Paris, everyone knows about it, and angry of it.

The question is, first, why did we – the audiences – only care and know about Paris attacks but not Baghdad’s? Second, we are having to deal with the Gaza conflicts, the Boko Haram kidnappings and attacks in Nigeria, and the ISIS militants continues to battle in the Middle East, etc. As tragedy and suffering continue to flood the headlines, is it possible for the public to experience compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, defined as a modern day syndrome happened when the media believe the public are bored by the formerly respected manner of telling the news “the way it is”; when audiences or journalists themselves lost interest in a story, this feeds back into news organizations’ decisions about what to show (Moeller, 1999).

This paper aims to discuss how Compassion Fatigue responsible for the rise of ISIS as well as the way it shapes the strategic narrative of the War on Terror past and present.

II. In relationship to ISIS rise prior to 2014

1. Media propaganda and the beginning of Compassion Fatigue

Back to 2001 when President G. Bush gave a speech after the deadly 9/11 event: the collapse of the World Trade Center by hijacked American airplanes, 3000 people were killed, and the crash was broadcast live on television worldwide. He said: “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”. And he was right! Al Qaeda is not the only one.

ISIS has been working as an Islamic Terrorist Organization for quite a long time, just a few years after the Al Qaeda was founded. But before and after the 9/11, media and America’s concern was all about Al Qaeda, about people’s freedom of religion being stripped in the Middle East, the public already have enough news about terrorists and conflicts in Iraq, so they did not pay as much attention to such organization like ISIS, in their perspective, Islamic Terrorist Organization is a very old story. According to Marc Lynch about Al-Qaeda’s media strategy, even before 9/11, Al-Qaeda invested heavily and creativity in propaganda and media from the start, with Bin Laden understanding that “rhetoric and satellite propaganda can be on equal footing with unmanned bombers and cruise-missiles.” At that time, the Al Qaeda was a really attractive drama-story- headlines that media and Americans was beginning to be plagued on the Islamic terrorist group’s battle to found a hardline Sunni Islamic state, and the series kept going even after the 9/11. All the coverage was so good that the common American conception of the War on Terror generally sees the battle of ideas as a confrontation between the United States and Al Qaeda.

2. Compassion Fatigue and The rise of ISIS

According to Frontline program explaining the Rise of ISIS, they claimed the rise began when U.S troops started to withdraw from Iraq and it was Al-Maliki – former President of Iraq – abruptly declared his Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashimi, a terrorist, without any prior process; he also alienated a lot of Sunnis with this action, and this was the trigger to the ISIS rise. But not until the video of ISIS beheading American journalist James Wright Foley went viral on Twitter, the world actually knew about ISIS’ existence. It was the moment made ISIS got out of Al-Qaeda’ shadow and started creating their own narratives. At the moment we are already turning away from such images, from Al-Qaeda’s media products and started suffering compassion fatigue, ISIS’ bloody message pulled us back to another risen global catastrophe.

3. The different between ISIS and Al Qaeda to avoid compassion fatigue

Showing off its work daily via Twitter and YouTube, ISIS has repeatedly demonstrated that it is much more than an Islamic terrorist organization, it is an entity with sophisticated command, control, propaganda and logistical capabilities, and one that has proven its ability to take and hold strategically critical territory at the heart of the Middle East. Not to mention, ISIS’ videos contained high-quality images and audio, were edited with on-screen graphics and video transitions.


Clint Watts, senior fellow at the George Washington University & Homeland Security Policy Institute, expressed his opinions towards ISIS: “It’s a big PR push”, “Much of ISIS’s rhetoric isn’t new, as al Qaeda leaders had long ago stated their goal was to establish an Islamic caliphate. But bin Laden and his lieutenants had always stopped affiliates from pursuing it, sometimes out of jealousy or competition”, “They never delivered on their objectives that they were touting,”. In contrast, ISIS declared the establishment of an Islamic State that has an area about the size of the United Kingdom in both Iraq and Syria. “You need a product. Al Qaeda doesn’t really have a product to sell” Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor at Haverford College and expert on Middle East security and radical religious groups, said. “ISIS has territory”. To be specific, ISIS has territory – to call for attention from Western governors, especially the U.S; and it has outstanding, “fresh” demonstration through brutal videos and images, for the media.

ThePolitist has quoted the words from one of the Al Qaeda’ suicide bomber instructors, Ali al-Nariki: “I remember the good days of some 5-4 years ago. Then, even a small suicide bomb would generate coverage on prime time of CNN, especially as we did it right after that “Mission Accomplished” announcement. Oh, the good days.. good days indeed”. It is one of the most obvious evidences of how compassion fatigue affects media and its audiences, how media was so obsess with Al Qaeda that audiences started to get bore of it, to the everyday people killing and dying in Iraq that they totally ignored about an ISIS is rising, the terrorist organization that uses all the violence acts to get attention, and obtain a certain degree of respect as well as legitimacy from its opponents. Compassion fatigue is responsible for the achievement of ISIS, which is to capable of receiving the most coverage, what terrorist commit violence acts looking for.

III. Shaping the strategic narrative of the War on Terror Past & Present

No matter old or new media, traditional or developed, media is the vital tool that terrorists use to transfer their messages and goals. As mentioned above, there are three universal objectives every terrorist organization want to achieve: to get attention; to gain recognition; to obtain respect and legitimacy. In order to achieve these three objectives, terrorists have to capable of receiving most coverage from media. And the most effective they common use is acts of violence and agression that target civilians. Civilians are also part of news and/or media consumers, if they believe terrorism and war on terror is a threat to their safety, they want to be informed of the threats against them, therefore, consumers look to media providing news to fulfill their needs. The only difference between War on Terror past and present that this paper emphasize on is the change of distance as time flows along with the development of technology, which is one of the concepts of compassion fatigue.

According to Jessica Baran’s review on the article of Soriano about Terrorism and Mass media, she argues that this media relies heavily on the visuals it can collect for a story and the less sensational the visuals for the story the less important the story becomes to the television news media. Terrorists carefully select the places in which they carry out their attacks in order to provide the best media coverage. Because War on terror in the past depends mostly on mainstream television networks, such as national broadcast stations, for example, the 9/11 event, Al Qaeda chose New York to be their target, not only because of the U.S government but also it is a advantageous geographical location that will shock everyone, and will be easy to call for media’s attention.

As time flies and technology develops in a fast pace, Internet became popular, hence it provides broader access to media sources for everyone, as well as terrorist organizations, when they can rely on Internet to spread their messages and create their own narratives along with propaganda. As the geography is not important anymore, because Internet now provides global and instant access; the idea of distance changed from geographical to other perspectives such as distance in politics, in security, in national interest. In short, war on terror in the present time is faster!

[Compassion fatigue] is a consequence of rote journalism, and looking-over- your- shoulder reporting. It is a consequence of sensationalism, formulaic coverage and perfunctory reference to American cultural icons … As a result, much of the media looks alike. The same news. The same pictures.

Compassion fatigue works with the concept of distance, as war on terror change that what distance means, the change of compassion fatigue takes part in shaping the narrative of War on terror since then until now. The more increased access to images and media forms of suffering, of terror around the world, or the “distantiation from compassion” (Hoijer 2004), occurs compassion fatigue, rather than sympathy.


While major terrorist attacks like the Paris suicide bombings and mass shootings receive the most coverage; smaller incidents such as ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the southern part of Beirut; or the Boko Haram, receive ignorance from media, or “failed to attract the kind of social media attention of the Paris attacks”. As a result of compassion fatigue, journalists, media organizations are less likely to make news of terrorism the coverage unless something extreme happens, which according to Hoffman (1988), this repeated exposed to violent content makes the editors who decide whether and where to publish a story inured to its consequences.

IV. Conclusion

According to David Campbell, what is notable about compassion fatigue is that it means one thing in the context of health care and social work, and the reverse in relation to the media and politics. Just because what happens in the Middle East has become a tired issue, or the bombings in Baghdad is “nothing new” does not mean that these problems have been solved. By choosing to ignore from the news and terror events, your compassion fatigue is lessening your consciousness about the world. At this time, the perception of time and distance started shrinking, and the truth is that media is built around engaging audiences, so when audiences grow tired of a specific topic or issue, the media stop feeding into that story, and that not only indirectly support the terrorist keep doing what they need to in order to call for our attention, but also we may lose our ability raise awareness about current situations.

(1,924 words)



Baran, J. (2008). Terrorism and the Mass Media after Al Qaeda: A Change of Course?.

Peace and Conflict Review. Vol 3, 1, 1-4. Retrieved from

Campbell, D. (2012). The Myth of Compassion Fatigue. Retrieved from myth-of- compassion-fatigue/

Carter, C. J. (2014, August 20). Video shows ISIS beheading U.S. journalist James Foley.

CNN. Retrieved from foley/index.html

Compassion Fatigue – Why The West Is Washing Its Hands. (2014). Retrieved from why-the- west-is- washing-its- hands/

Hoffman, M. L. (1988). Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Lynch, M. (2006). Al-Qaeda’s Media Strategies. The National Interest. 83, 50. Retrieved from

Moeller, S. D. (1999). Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. Routledge.

Sargsyan, S. (2015, April 1). Al-Qaeda Denounces ISIS for Stealing All Media Coverage. The Politist. Retrieved from


Wellman, N. (2015, November 14). One Day Before Paris, There Was a Massive

Terrorist Attack the Media Ignored. U.S. Uncut. Retrieved from attack-didnt- get-any- media/

Wong, K. (2014). US officials warn that ISIS has created ‘propaganda machine’. The Hill. Retrieved from officials-warn- isis-has- created-propaganda-machine


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