The Financial Industry of Suffering

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.

Sarcastic Poverty Porn

Satirical news organisation ‘The Onion’ makes a comment on the financial industry of poverty porn

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.

Image sourced from http://www.theonion.com/articles/for-only-5-per-month-you-can-help-continue-photogr,10457/ 

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One thought on “The Financial Industry of Suffering

  1. jlrsymonds says:

    Hi Steph,

    This blog post was very effective in terms of making me reflect upon my own response to “poverty porn,” which I’ve come to realise probably affects me a lot my than I consciously realise. Your discussion of the ‘Keep them Honest’ report reveals just how devious some organisations can be, in their attempts to extract money from generous, charitable people.

    This discussion, although slightly different, reminds me of the recent furore regarding the admissions made by Belle Gibson regarding her fraudulent fundraising to treat a non-existent cancer diagnosis, and for donations which were ever received by real charities.

    As a society we are often easily manipulated into believing what we see – sometimes, it can be a fear of how others will regard us if we question such stories, but more often than not, it can be blind faith in the intentions of people we’ve never met.

    Thank you for including the images and video, as well as the appropriate hyperlinks – it makes your post engaging for the reader, and shows the depth of research you have conducted in its development. One critique I have, and I know it seems finicky, but I would suggest if you have images left-aligned, that you should surround them with text.

    Thanks for the greatly informative post, and good luck with your blogs for the BCM310 subject.

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