Faced by a plethora of media and news channels that routinely disseminate images of war, famine and disease, it is often argued that the media is directly responsible for desensitising the population to violence and suffering. The development of ‘poverty porn’ reveals an active attempt by the media to exploit human suffering.
Poverty porn is defined as any type of media that exploits the representation of poverty and lack of material resources in order to generate a strong emotional response from the viewer, often for financial gain.
Empathy is an important concept in this discussion. Poverty porn is utilised by many humanitarian aid organizations who ‘pull on our heartstrings,’ manipulating our emotions with images intended to generate an empathetic response, which in turn encourages us to donate to their cause.
While there are organisations and companies around the world who may use this exploitation for honourable ends (which in itself holds a level of irony), there are others who have ‘exploited the exploited’ for far less honourable means.
A CNN ‘Keep Them Honest’ report published in 2014 revealed that the Joseph Indian School in South Dakota annually sends up to 30 million forged letters to homes across America as their own form of poverty porn. These letters are written by the Native American students of the school who, in their correspondences, plead for help and money, often to escape an abusive father or a drug-addicted mother amongst a host of other scenarios.
When CNN approached the school late last year, they discovered the children who had supposedly ‘written’ the letters did not exist. The school received over $51 million in total donations in 2014 from this elaborate marketing ploy. While the money is being used to support the students, many members of the public and local community are outraged by the means of its acquisition.
At the core of the condemnation is the claim that these fake pleas propagate stereotypes and turn a proud people, in this case Native Americans, into a charity case. Is such exploitation acceptable in this, or any scenario? As the Huffington Post writes: “ Is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes?” Sure, there may be more honest means of raising money for and awareness of an issue. However, as aid is ultimately a financial industry, the sad truth is that this honesty may not be as effective. ‘Recognisable’ suffering is what we, as the audience, have come to know through poverty porn and it is to this suffering we are perhaps most likely to respond.