The more we know, the more we care?

An interesting question came up in last Saturday’s Times – they’d had some criticism from readers about the apparently-out-of-context inclusion of property values in news reports, e.g. ‘Speaking at his £600,000 home in Hampshire, Mr Yeates…’ in an item about the murder of Mr Yeates’ daughter. Some readers wrote in, and Sally Baker, who writes the fascinating Feedback column, responded with an explanation about the need to add ‘colour’ to news reports, or else they ‘would consist only of the barest “who, what, when, where, how” details, and leave too much to the imagination.’ She ends with this: ‘if we know a little more about them, doesn’t it help the rest of us to sympathise with those caught up in such rare and ghastly events, while we offer silent thanks that our own lives have been spared?’ [emphasis mine]

And I think the answer to this question is: yes and no… it’s tricky.

Yes, a bit of detail does help to make a person more real to us, less of an anonymous “statistic”. That’s one of the reasons for giving people made-up names when for some reason you need to protect their identity – it’s a lot easier to feel for someone if you read about them as John or as Ann than if they’re nameless.

But as soon as you add any detail, as soon as you start colouring in the picture, you also risk alienating some of your readers, you risk a collision with some of your readers’ prejudices – including those we’re not conscious of.

Even a name says something – a person’s name can give you clues about ethnic origin, or social class, or it can kind of ping a connection in your brain because you’ve known a person called, say, Sandra and you have an image in your mind of what Sandras are like.

And mentioning the value of someone’s property – that definitely pings into people’s prejudices, big time. It’s right up there with mentioning in the UK that someone was privately educated – that definitely reduces the sympathy levels amongst a large chunk of the population (though possibly slightly less amongst the readership of The Times).

On the counselling course we had to write an essay about prejudice – to identify some of our own and look at how they may affect our ability to be of help to certain clients. It was a fascinating and humbling exercise, because once you start listing all your prejudices you see you’re not quite the totally impartial and accepting kind of person you’d like to be… none of us are. We take one look at a person and have a whole set of preconceived ideas about them just based on their looks, their clothes, their hair style, their jewellery. oh, and their body language of course… I heard a really interesting example about body language from someone who came to England from Jamaica: about youngsters from her culture getting into trouble with the police here in England because these boys had been brought up never to look an adult in the eye, they were taught it’s not respectful, they would lower their eyes as a mark of respect; but to the English policemen, that looked like they’ve got something to hide.

But I wasn’t going to get into misunderstandings, just prejudice. Just the fact that we humans do have certain preconceived ideas about people who live in expensive houses/who went to certain schools/who drive certain cars/who give their kids certain names/etc etc etc – it’s endless. So the more detail you include in a news report, the more chances are for people to lose sympathy for the person caught up in “ghastly events”… whilst at the same time it is necessary to fill in some detail so that the person will become real to us. And of course some of the details will affect different people differently – my prejudices are not identical to yours.

4 thoughts on “The more we know, the more we care?

  1. lol… yes, that's quite a lot of peanuts. which means the average reader's sympathy goes down as soon as they see that. whereas in truth a man whose daughter has been murdered is not likely to feel any less pain just because he has a nice big house.

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  2. definitely true. listing the monetary value of his house might make sense if she'd been kidnapped and a ransom was being asked for. but in a case like this, i would think they'd want to add something like how both he and his daughter shared an interest in ____, to help you empathize with him more.

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