Neoliberal Disaster and Compassion Fatigue

By Toby Miller and Rune Ottosen


The recent earthquake in Nepal has drawn global attention in ways that offer something positive in the wake of these tragic moments. Why? Because we have seen compassionate collective feelings expressed for one another at profound levels. Altruism and trans-territorial citizenship appear to have transcended consumerism and nationalism.


But the overall story of this disaster, its causes and coverage,is very complex, due to twin factors: the political economy and the media.



Weather and geology describe not only naturally-occurring events and circumstances, but ones that are affected by humans: the weather shifts along with anthropocentric climate change, and geology changes with everything from mineral extraction to manufacturing and transportation.


Much discussion of the background to the temblor has criticized Nepal as a failed state, riven by corruption, Maoist revolt, monarchical homicide, and unsuccessful constitutional reform. Those elements are all factors, but so are several other issues, which are grounded in historical and contemporary inequality


The dwellings that collapsed mostly failed to meet construction codes: homes that were built from bricks, timber, and mud collapsed in large numbers. Newer buildings, carved from steel, cement, and reinforced concrete,generally remained standing.


The people living in unsafe accommodation were largely indigenous and poor. In many cases, they were recent migrants from country to urban areas, drawn by neoliberal policies (ironically, of course, as ever, policies enacted by states in the name of free markets).


Such policies were generated and implemented under the sign of the World Bank and other high priests of comparative advantage and similarly fanciful doctrines that have been so powerful in economic policy making since the 1970s. They have stimulated programs favoring privatisation and specific industrial sectors, such as tourism, textiles, clothing, and footwear (consider the Bank’s notorious national enterprise surveys impact has drawn populations away from rural areas. Fundamental issues such as land reform and the redistribution of wealth and income have been missing from the agenda.


It was ever so. Scandalously, the Asian Development Bank predicted that good would follow from the 2004 tsunami. The economic impact would be ‘somewhat positive’ because despite ‘a deep sentiment of sadness’ created by such disasters, ‘a quick recovery process follows in a V-shape’ with ‘a large multiplier effect’


The Bank’s reaction to the 2015 earthquake has been more judicious and less arrogant, but remains fixated on corporations as keys to relief and rebuilding and unable to acknowledge the devastating impact of market forces on nature in terms of urbanization and poverty housing



As we all know, for countries in the Global South, First-World assistance at such times of crisis depends to a certain extent on Western media organizations defining a disaster as newsworthy. In order to qualify, the tragedy should supposedly be beyond human agency, such as when weather and geology combine to wreak havoc.


There is much debate in the aid community over ‘compassion fatigue’ in the West, supposedly ‘the unacknowledged cause of much of the failure of international reporting today’ because of ‘the public’s short attention span, the media’s peripatetic journalism, the public’s boredom with international news, [and] the media’s preoccupation with crisis coverage.’ Countering this fatigue leads to a focus on simple formulae, images of childlike innocence disrupted and imperiled, and a ratcheting up of capricious horror as a qualification for attention


Patrick Cockburn argues that so-called natural disasters amplify tendentious practices in reportage, from denunciations of looters to wildly misleading footage and voice-overs


In addition to the impact of the political economy on where and how the Nepali population lives and its subsequent vulnerability to natural disasters, the media have failed to revise their own obsessions with Mount Everest and Kathmandu.


That focus derives from generations of imperial exploration and conquest and masculinist desire climbing is a largely white, wealthy-world pastime Everest in particular incarnates the desire for conquest and mastery as a symbol of power contrast with that ethos of domination, Kathmandu has a place in the West’s imagination as a site of spirituality that differs from its own materialism


These fixations have produced two tourism legacies. One is about strength and bodily courage. The other is about excess and relaxation. Each legacy gives Nepal a curiously fetishized symbolism, such that the white tourist’s body is both centered and surpassed—but remainsat the core of popular narratives.


The GDELT Project monitors media coverage across the globe Its first statistical findings about the Nepalese earthquake of 2015 asked, provocatively, ‘How many Nepalis equal one Everest climber?’ The answer was quite shocking: 7% of reported deaths occurred on Everest, but they occupied almost a quarter of media coverage


Most famously in this instance we have seen outpourings of media grief for the loss of a Google executive climbing the mountain for fun—not working and living in exploited conditions without a skerrick of effective choice, as was the case for most people affected by the tragedy


During the rescue operation in Nepal, the main characters in a Norwegian press story were the rescue dogs Gere and Mir, who formed part of the Rescue Group Norwegian Search and Rescue Team. The headline read: “Norwegian dogs contributing in the rescue of woman in Nepal.”


We learn that the dogs set a Norwegian record in Nepal since this was the first time such an overseas mission had found survivors of a natural disaster: a 24 year-old woman was found by the dogs and taken to hospital. After the main framing of the heroic dogs we finally read that five days after the earthquake had rocked Nepal, thousands of people had died. The conclusion and hope is that the Norwegian rescuers will find more survivors


Of course, this issue of coverage and chauvinism isn’t only a problem of the wealthy West. The Indian media have been criticized by Nepalese for their jingoistic accounts of Indian heroism and centrality in earthquake relief

The US media have a tasteless but relevant saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ In other words, pain and suffering recorded in dramatic circumstances are good candidates for headline status.


Some of this folly derives from the narcissism of journalists—their competitive desire to be first, to be authentic, to show sensation, to meet the needs for repetition and newness in 24-hour rolling cycles of storytelling—in short, to thrive on suffering


Recent revelations about NBC news anchor Brian Williams inventing huge slabs of his “eyewitness” reports provide telling examples of how this desire for spectacle can lead to mendacity and self-delusion


More importantly, it encourages short-term attitudes that focus on footage and narrative rather than cause and response


The message is clear. In addition to the immediate empathy and altruism engaged by this disaster, we need to learn about two crucial spheres: the political economy’s role in reconfiguring nature and allocating its costs and benefits on an unequal basis, and the dominant media’s obfuscatory obsessions.


Rane ProfessorRune Ottosen is a Norwegian professor of journalism at Oslo University College. He has published many articles and books within the field of press history, the role of the journalists and media coverage of war and conflicts.




Toby Miller

Toby Miller

Toby Miller is a British-Australian-US interdisciplinary social scientist. He is the author and editor of over 30 books, has published essays in more than 100 journals and edited collections, and is a frequent guest commentator on television and radio programs. Toby Miller was Distinguished Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside, USA. He is presently 20% of a professor at Cardiff University/Prifysgol Caerdydd. He can be reached at