What I’m Reading: The Spectatorship of Suffering


I am currently studying Religion in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University. As part of the literature course, our professor has asked us to write a bibliographical review of sources that we may use for our thesis. I have chosen to write my thesis on media and its effect on immigration policy. Therefore, I will be reviewing articles and books that focus mostly on the refugee crisis sparked in part by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.

In Lilie Chouliaraki’s book The Spectatorship of Suffering, she discusses and analyses the various ways that Western spectators view suffering of a distant ‘Other’. Television and other forms of media has put a veneer of aesthetics over suffering, where there is a disconnect between the visualization of suffering and the actual reality of it (Chouliaraki 2006). In this age of hyper-visualisation, Chouliaraki says that “spectators today are not required to call on their capacities to create and interpret meaning” (2006: 51). This means that, like other parts of their lives, they are only consumers.

Chouliaraki defines three types of news reporting of disaster news: adventure news, emergency news and ecstatic news (2006). I concentrated on adventure news and emergency news, as my thesis will go over media coverage about the so called ‘migrant crisis’ and conservative immigration reform in the United States.

Chouliaraki defines adventure news as “news items that […] consist of random and isolated events” (2006: 97). In normal news, they are stories of tragedy that are told in a minute or so, and given no context. In this way, the spectator not only has no chance to feel pity, the sufferers are completely dehumanized (Chouliaraki 2006). Adventure news is categorised by three main themes:

  • descriptive narratives that register only ‘facts’
  • singular space-times that restrict the spectator’s proximity to suffering
  • the lack of agency that dehumanizes sufferers and suppresses the possibility of action in the scene of suffering (Chouliaraki 2006: 98)

Adventure news is especially prevalent in 30-minute news shows, where there are multiple bits of news to get through. These news stories are usually devoid of context and seemingly unconnected to any other events happening either at the same time, or historically (Chouliaraki 2006).

The other type of news I concentrated on was emergency news. Emergency news is news that demands action from the spectator, but not in any direct way (Chouliaraki 2006). In emergency news, the suffering is closer, both verbally and visually. Instead of static maps and lists of those killed or injured, there are dynamic images and videos that place the disaster in a specific time. Finally, the suffering a slightly humanised by their actions, however limited they may seem to Western spectators (Chouliaraki 2006).

Chouliaraki’s books are quite dense with complicated academic writing that can be intimidating, but the research and analysis is quite helpful, especially when deconstructing how news brings suffering to indifferent spectators. I hope, with my thesis, to create context for media’s impact on actual political policy.

photo: jane b


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