The Distant Sufferer: Measuring Spectatorship of Photojournalism

Teresa E. Weikmann, Thomas E. Powell


The response of news audiences to graphic visual portrayals of distant suffering is a long-debated issue among media commentators, producers, and researchers alike. The increasing visualization of news media makes empirical evidence on this issue more important than ever. Recent studies of graphic images indicate that pictures have the power to mobilize people via emotions. Yet, little is known about other potential reactions embedded in the theory of distant suffering, such as apathy or voyeuristic pleasure. This study uses an experiment to, for the first time, quantify overlapping roles of the spectatorship of suffering. Via cluster analysis, we explore in which combinations responses of empathy, voyeurism, protest, and apathy co-occur. Exposing participants to victimizing photographs suggests that personal characteristics of participants play a larger role in the processing of distant suffering than the pictures’ content. Besides shedding light on audience perception of suffering, this study provides empirical evidence for a fuller range of potential responses to photojournalism. The results are discussed in light of ethical difficulties with the visual depiction of war.


distant suffering, photojournalism, image effects, war and conflict, audiences, cluster analysis

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