Why we no longer empathize with the news

We watch, we purse our lips. And apart from the occasional eyebrow raise and sympathetic look, we don’t move. We scroll past, and the moment is lost in an avalanche of information it is up to us to filter and capriciously decide whether or not to care about.

The pattern is a scripted maneuver we have come to be familiar with. A callous government drops bombs, refugees drop tears. A gunman enters a school, students cower in fear. And while only a few of the millions of such incidents pervade our news feed, the ones that do still don’t elicit a worthy response from us beyond mild displeasure. Are we apathetic monsters? Does the senseless death, rape and abuse of millions of people not touch us?

The fault is not entirely with us, but rather with the cycle of news itself — we read about too much suffering, too many times, to the point where we are desensitized to it all. And this is definitely not to blame the nature of news itself — it is of utmost importance to stay informed; I’m writing for the Tribune at the moment. It’s just that with all these tragedies overwhelming our various feeds in an incessant queue, we effectively don’t truly empathize with most.

Major media outlets blow up with one news segment after another, each often a rambling continuation of the previous one, about war, drugs and the current administration. And so when we look outside our windows and see not a haze of bombs encroaching our idyllic suburb, but rather placid normalcy, we feel disconnected from the tragedies we see so relentlessly happening on television.

It’s in effect a complete rejection of cultivation theory, in which repeated exposure to media instills the belief that our reality aligns with what we see on television. Now, instead, the tragedies playing out on television news channels contrasted with the sunshine and rainbows outside confuses us into believing that whatever unpleasant news we see and read of is part of a distant reality not in any way concerning our present one. And so, because we subconsciously don’t feel relevant to tragedies happening around the world, we fail to empathize with them.

It’s the clichéd phrase “seeing is believing,” but in reverse. We see too much, and so we believe too little. We’re suspended in disbelief. If so much violence is happening around the world, why is it that our world, our lives, are still intact? And because our world is still intact, we think that things can’t possibly be that bad.

As students, we read the news more than most. We know, with absolute conviction, of the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, of the cultural genocide in progress of the Chinese Uighur Muslims, but can we actually claim to have ever shed a tear in solidarity? Although we try to understand, we genuinely cannot because we do not know how these incidents feel, nor are we shocked by them anymore. And so we live a life of faux understanding. We are indignant on the behalf of those people who we hear are wronged, all while not truly understanding their situation.

It’s not really our fault — we didn’t ask to be born into the peaceful, insulated suburbia, and so we can’t blame ourselves that we don’t naturally comprehend the plight of those less fortunate. But that’s not a valid excuse for long — it is in our hands to try. We can’t just sit around in our air conditioned rooms, blast off a couple of Internet searches, and feel like we have benevolently chosen to stay informed on matters of suffering people, all before stepping out to hang out with friends at T4. The news isn’t a separate state of reality than ours, and so we must recognize that it is the heights of hypocrisy to indulge in playing the blame game with the news, when we in fact have not done much ourselves.

We must get our hands dirty, venture out beyond the walls of the Internet, and experience firsthand the troubles of the world, before we can claim to understand. Only then can we graduate from the position of an informed observer to a concerned effector. And when we stop scrolling past the news and actually become a part of it — that’s what matters.