Ethics award recipient recommends 'solidarity' approach, avoid 'empathy fatigue'

April 18, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When journalists cover marginalized groups, such as the homeless, they routinely try to humanize their subjects in an effort to increase empathetic responses from audiences. But these humanizing techniques can actually result in “empathy fatigue," according to research honored with the inaugural Penn State Davis Ethics Award. The research suggests journalists would do better to aim for a sense of "solidarity" with the plight of marginalized groups rather than trying to cultivate empathy.

Anita Varma of Stanford University has been honored by the Don W. Davis Program in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications as the result of a national competition intended to recognize the best ethics-related dissertation successfully defended each year in the fields of communication and media.

Varma’s dissertation, “Solidarity in Action: A Case Study of Journalistic Humanizing Techniques in the San Francisco Homeless Project,” explicates the concept of solidarity as a normative frame for journalistic narrative, and analyzes a community-wide, collaborative news project on homelessness in the Bay Area. Varma is with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

“Anita’s scholarship offers an important contribution to the fields of journalism studies and applied ethics,” said Patrick Lee Plaisance, the Don W. Davis Professor of Ethics at Penn State. “She calls on all of us in journalism to think more deeply about our efforts to humanize marginalized populations and how to avoid contributing to ‘empathy fatigue’ when we do so.”

The award provides a $1,000 honorarium; travel support to present her scholarship in a session of the Media Ethics Division at the 2019 AEJMC annual conference, scheduled Aug. 7-10 in Toronto; and a fully supported guest-lecture visit to the Bellisario College of Communications.

  • Anita Varma of Stanford University

    Anita Varma

    IMAGE: Photo Provided
Last Updated April 18, 2019