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/ 

Raising Aliyah- A Reflection

When a person genuinely opens up to you, it is almost as if you are linked by an invisible bond. Every emotion and nuance is passed through this channel, and for a short time you are given a rare and precious insight into the life of another.

This assignment was not only an exercise in creating a cohesive audio report, but also in empathy. While it is one thing to convert an interview into a coherent sound bite, it is a completely different task to truly capture the raw emotion of a personality in only two minutes.

Although I prepared a list of questions for my subject prior to the interview, I did not anticipate which questions would generate a strong reaction. Caitlin, who I see at least once every week, transformed into a completely different person as she confided in me her innermost thoughts and feelings. One of the most difficult parts of the interview was when she told me that she cries herself to sleep every night. This is something I’m sure very few people know about her; which makes it all the more precious to be told. It made me realise that one of the most important things to establish in an interview is trust.

Technically, this was achieved by conducting the interview in a small, quiet room which created an intimate environment. I sat adjacent to Caitlin and held the microphone on the table between us so as to minimise any potential disruption from moving it back and forth.

Cutting the interview down to two minutes was also difficult. With 20 minutes of raw material, it would have been possible to create a dozen different stories depending on the quotes I extracted and the angle of the story I chose.

In Caitlin’s case, there were about eight sections that stood out as the most powerful parts of the interview. These were the times when she had spoken about Aliyah’s future and how her own life has been affected by raising a special needs child.

Caitlin was an extremely strong and articulate subject. For this reason I ensured that any music and sound effects that were added to the recording in post-production complemented the personality of her speech, while not overpowering her. In the end I believe the instrumental track I chose fits well with the timing of the piece and helps to create a poignant, yet uplifting tone. Furthermore, the pauses between each section are essential, allowing the music to rise and the significance of Caitlin’s words to be absorbed.

One of the tricks I discovered in using the editing platform Hindenburg Journalist Pro was to fill the gaps between Caitlin’s speech with ambient sound from the interview. This eliminated the often abrupt cut-off of the recording. Adding a fade to these additions also helped to create a smoother transition between each section.

The final product exceeded my expectations of what I believed I could achieve. I did not expect to be granted such an incredible insight into a very personal topic, although I think that I did justice to both Caitlin and her story in the finished piece. While every interview I conduct in my future as a journalist may not always yield as successful results, it’s a privilege to be involved in such a case when it does.

Stephanie Allman

The audio report Raising Aliyah can be found at https://soundcloud.com/steph-allman/raising-aliyah