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Media numbness: Are we desensitized to the war on Gaza?

Media numbness: Are we desensitized to the war on Gaza?

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In a study published over 30 years ago by the University of Oxford on the relationship between media institutions and shaping public opinion, researchers concluded that it is the media that imposes the importance of news on viewers, not the other way around. When people were asked which current issues they regarded with the most importance, their answers echoed the media cycle. The media determines which stories matter, not the public.

News agenda-setting theory dictates that as an audience, we determine the importance of news according to the order in which it is broadcast on the news bulletin, rather than based on personal beliefs. Our minds naturally register the second news item as less important than the first.

This is crucial in understanding our desensitization, as Arabs, following the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, and how we perceive current war coverage on Gaza. More importantly, how has this ‘media numbing’, or desensitization, affected popular movements and public opinion?

Media numbness, or media desensitization, occurs among viewers during prolonged wars, where they lose interest and shock at what is happening, making horrific news a daily routine. Can we really become desensitized to the news of massacre in Gaza?


What is 'media numbing'?

Media numbing is when we no longer perceive the importance of news due to the repetitive news cycle, over extended periods of time, regardless of its magnitude or significance. Media numbing develops over three stages: media stress or fatigue, media saturation (overconsumption), and finally, media numbness, or desensitization.

This concept may seem far-fetched at first glance when considering the brutality of the news; Can we really become desensitized to the news of massacres in Gaza?

As an audience, we determine the importance of news according to the order in which it is broadcast, rather than based on personal beliefs. Our minds naturally register the second news item as less important than the first.

As a story becomes part of our daily reality, we can certainly become numb to it. If we recall how we became accustomed to news of the Iraq war, and then the wars in Syria and Yemen, we can begin to understand how a similar reaction might form to the war in Gaza. Especially, if the tone and pace of the current coverage continues.

The mechanisms of media desensitization are clear and simple. A specific news story will remain in the news cycle for an extended period of time, accompanied by the words “breaking news”, regardless of its importance. News outlets will flood us with analyses, reporters and live broadcasts, delivered very in a steady tone. In summary, the first part of achieving media numbness is to remove diversity of news, exploiting one story, as we can see today in the coverage of the war on Gaza.

The danger of media numbness

In a statement to Raseef22, media and communication expert Yosra Hassan explains that “when audiences are flooded with news and messaging, their ability to absorb and process the information they are receiving at the necessary speed is reduced. This negatively affects readers and viewers’ ability to form independent opinions, causing them to accept information they receive without thinking about it.”

Media expert Yosra Hassan tells Raseef 22, “when audiences are flooded with news and messaging, their ability to absorb and process the information they are receiving at the necessary speed is reduced, affecting viewers’ ability to form opinions.”

Hassan considers ‘media numbness’ to be the most dangerous outcome of a repetitive news cycle. She tells Raseef22, “I fear it might lead to indifference and a loss of interest. Despite the influence that media, especially social media, has played in exposing Israeli war crimes, we must realize that if this war continues, the ill-considered media hype will result in a numbness and desensitization among audiences. They might lose interest and an urgency to act, or cause despair."

Today, there is concern that news of the war on Gaza will become routine and predictable, falling in rank on the news bulletin, regardless of the urgency of the situation. Is this possible? How do we resist becoming desensitized by the news coverage of Gaza?

Giving people their story

How can the media report on prolonged events and wars without leaving viewers numb? Mohammed Shamma, a human rights correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, told Raseef22, “Repeating news about the number of killed in Gaza, for example, will make us get used to the event over time. Those killed risk becoming a number... It is the media’s responsibility to shed light on the lives of those who have lost loved ones, for example, recount how their lives have changed, or honor those who have been killed by recounting certain personal details. This kind of coverage can make a difference.”

Today, there is concern that news of the war on Gaza will become routine and predictable, falling in rank on the news bulletin, regardless of the urgency of the situation. Is this possible? How do we resist becoming desensitized by the news coverage of Gaza?

He points out that current coverage targets emotion, such as panic and anger, and repeats statements including "We are all martyrs for Palestine" and "Our lives are not precious." However, that is the sole narrative, and the camera only shows destruction.

Sharing our narrative with the world

For Western audiences, the media's insistence on delivering an Israeli perspective on the story might be a cause of media numbness. Repeated and premeditated answers may cause disenchantment in viewers. With the Arab narrative suffering from stereotyping and Islamophobia, it becomes easier for Western audiences to accept the Israeli narrative.

We cannot assume that Western audiences have a thorough understanding of our geo-political history. Rather, we must assume the opposite, that our story as Arabs is unknown. Our role is to repeat our narrative and history, in order to educate Western audiences on the nature and reality of this conflict.

Yosra Hassan highlights the role of social media in the war, and commends its ability to deliver viewers around the world with an alternate perspective: that of the Palestinians. Hassan explains that in today’s world, “the victor is the one who convinces the world of their narrative. Our duty, as Arab media and its viewers, is to tell this narrative in more than one way, not through fixed and repetitive patterns that could lead to disinterest and boredom.”

Moving from recounting numbers to recalling names is one way to prevent media numbness. The belief that ‘they are not just numbers’ has encouraged journalists and outlets to shed light on the stories and identities of the victims they are reporting on.

Mohammed Shamma says that the narrative is owned by the media on the ground, “where the journalist becomes like a machine.” Shamma explains that journalists must keep up with events. Considering the pace at which this war is unfolding, journalists can easily lose sensitivity to individual events, or sometimes they lack the luxury of time “to give us more than just the faces of the victims in Gaza.”

"They are not just numbers"

Moving from recounting numbers to recalling names is one way to prevent media numbness. The belief that ‘they are not just numbers’ has encouraged journalists and outlets to shed light on the stories and identities of the victims they are reporting on.

One such example saw the publishing of photos of journalists killed in the war, alongside their names and the news outlets they reported for, or this graphic which features the names of those killed and missing.

Egyptian writer and journalist Sayyed Mahmoud tells Raseef22, “For years, Ibrahim Nasrallah [Palestinian poet] warned of Palestinians turning into numbers, and before him, Mahmoud Darwish warned against becoming used to the news.”

Rawan Al-Jayyousi, the director of MADRAJ - Media & Digital Runway for Arab Journalists, reaffirms the previous idea. She states, “Faces and human stories cannot be forgotten, but the continuous sequence of numbers can be forgotten. Capturing a building after a bombing does not resemble telling the story of the residents of that house. Presenting numbers with in-depth analysis stimulates memory, leaving a significant mark that makes ignoring the information inaccurate.”

In a conversation with Raseef22, Al-Jayyousi discusses the nature of the ‘open studio’ and live broadcasts, providing a platform for a continuous stream of repeated information, where urgent, breaking news and trivial matters are broadcast in the same vein. Al-Jayyoui believes that the frequent presence of analysts and guest speakers who provide opinion rather than thoughtful analyses contributes to emptying issues of their depth.

Focusing on human stories, diversifying methods of presenting the news, and insisting on telling our narrative to the world are the most important ways to resist media numbness today.

Media fatigue... Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as examples

Previously, audiences worldwide, especially Arabs, experienced media fatigue with the news of war in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Repeated and continuous news or information, regardless of how shocking or impactful, resulted in overconsumption, and consequently, desensitization. Public opinion and a societal sense of duty, through posting on social media, protests, or boycott movements, can decline.

The worst thing that can happen here is a decline in the progress of public opinion and societies' desire to intervene in political decision-making, whether through posts on social media, protests, or boycott movements.

Mental fatigue leads to a reduction in the diversity of perspectives and voices. Is it the moral responsibility of media outlets and their employees to prevent such desensitization? Several BBC employees resigned over the network’s problematic coverage of the war on Gaza.

Sayyed Mahmoud highlights the frequent gap between individual editors and employees, and their beliefs, and those of the outlets for which they work. With many brushing aside their beliefs in favor of aligning with their employers.

Mahmoud goes on to say, “We always learn to adhere to professional standards, seek accuracy, and review sources. But we have not found anyone committed to abiding by these standards. Then, [foreign media] have the audacity to ask us to review our thoughts and move beyond 'conspiracy ideas'. I struggle to do this knowing there are innocent victims murdered before me, martyrs killed in flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, all the while, the killer tramples over the law as the world watches.”



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