“Witnessing” or “Mediating” Distant Suffering? Ethical Questions across Moments of Text, Production, and Reception

Ong, Jonathan Corpus
Television & New Media

This article identifies that the current literature on “distant suffering” lacks a nuanced account of the relationship between televised representations of suffering and the audiences that encounter these in their everyday lives. Text-centered studies overemphasize how news narratives cause compassion fatigue, while audience-centered studies enumerate audience responses with inadequate references to the textual elements and social factors that shape these responses. While recent theorizations about “media witnessing” have provided a guidepost in thinking about the ethical consequences of showing and seeing suffering in the media, it however obscures the normative from the descriptive and universalizes the experience of the “witness” it speaks about. To address these gaps and develop a holistic approach to examine televised suffering, the article proposes the use of mediation theory to account for the distinct ethical questions that arise from the specific “moments” of mediation and how they should altogether inform the ethical critique of media.