Cutting through compassion fatigue

Before it became possible to access the news around the clock and wherever you are on digital devices, the population learned the latest news at pretty much the same time.

When you heard Michael Buerk describing the famine in East Africa on the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News or listened as Trevor McDonald introduced a report about an earthquake in China on ITN’s News at Ten, it felt as if everyone you knew was seeing the same reports and being affected by them in the same way.

It could be argued that an increase in the amount of news we can consume has lessened its impact.

Take the refugee crisis. Shocking at first, reports of people trekking across Europe or entrusting their lives to flimsy boats in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean soon lost the impact, with the suffering of real human beings reduced to statistics and sound bites that could be easily ignored.

Thankfully, there are still journalists working hard to cut through this `compassion fatigue’ and rouse us from our apathy.

When BBC Radio 4 reporter Emma Jane Kirby decided to talk to ordinary Italians about how they viewed the refugee crisis, she came across the remarkable story of an optician on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Although he’d seen refugees regularly in his village for some time, he’d not given them or their plight much thought.

That all changed during a boat trip with friends when the group heard what they thought was the sound of squabbling seagulls. Getting closer, they realised the sound was coming from people whose boat was sinking. ???? managed to save 47 but more than 360 died that day.

“He was such an ordinary guy”, recalled Emma Jane. “He was concerned with his own life, just like everyone is; his children, his business, his tax forms, what have you.

“When he told me his story, he told it to me in a very flat voice, no drama he absolutely doesn’t want to play the hero. He says a hero would have saved them all.”

He was an ordinary man who found himself in an extraordinary position.

“The phrase that stuck in my head and meant I couldn’t keep him out of my mind was when he said to me, `It was me in that boat that day. But tomorrow I may not be there. Will you?’ I realised that he was an everyman figure. He’s a guy just like us and it could have been any of us in that boat.”

Emma Jane hopes her book, The Optician of Lampedusa, will prompt readers to think again about migrants.

“The book makes us board the boat with him and it is up to us to decide whether we want to see what he is going to take us to see, or whether we turn away.

“He was reluctant to speak to me, but agreed when I told him the purpose of doing it. I said our readers and listeners had become saturated with the stories, They were no longer distinguishing between Fatima’s story, Sayeed’s story etc.  They were all becoming the same.

We risked just making it an everyday occasion, and people were switching off. He winced when I said that and he did reluctantly speak to me. When it came to doing the book he was really nervous and I went to see him and showed him the attention the original report had got.

carmine-menna-with-one-of-the-refugees-he-saved-copy
Optician Carmine Menna and one of the refugees he saved

It was, admits Emma Jane, a gift of a metaphor for a story about an optician.

He said So people can see Yes, I told him, `you are helping people to see`.

He’s never read it. It came out first n French and its now out in English but he doesn’t read either language so he will wait until it comes out in Italian next year. He’s chuffed with it, but he s incredibly discrete.

As you’d expect, Lampedusa and its optician have left their mark on Emma Jane.

“I was back for the third anniversary and went on that boat with him and some friends and three he had saved. I can’t tell how emotional that was.”

In her time as a breaking news journalist, she was first on the scene at events such as plane crashes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks but with says she has always preferred to go back afterwards, to find the one person who will be the `microcosm of the macrocosm’.

“I’ve had a lot of abuse for being `pro-migrants’, but as a journalist its our job to tell people thr truth and we cant hide from the ugly truth of what is going on now. The book and the original interview has no political message, and I think that’s the whole point.

“You can be pro or anti-immigration, vote left or right, but nobody can accept that people are drowning every day. I think we need to keep the story alive. We need something like these human reports which can cut through the compassion fatigue.”

If you know anyone who says they are fed up with reading about migrants, or who feels the refugee crisis is someone else’s problem, I’d challenge them to read The Optician of Lampedusa without having it alter their view.


The Optician of Lampedusa (Amazon)

Review: The Optician of Lampedusa


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