It’s just a number. Or is it?
Poking around the ReliefWeb site the other day, I stumbled on its analytics page—the place where it lists how many visitors come to the site and the kinds of information they might find there. Administered by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ReliefWeb bills itself as a global hub for people who need—or want—to find out what’s happening with humanitarian emergencies around the world. And guess what? In an age of supposed “compassion fatigue,” the number of visitors to the site climbed by 10 percent last year.
I’ve been thinking about that hike since reading something our new president, Barack Obama, said: ”Empathy strikes me as the most important quality that we need in America and around the world.” Perhaps the 8.9 million viewers who checked in with ReliefWeb last year would agree with him. And the country that showed the most interest in the news ReliefWeb shares was the United States. The site received nearly two million visits from people in the US.
But what about those who sink into indifference when they hear about another calamity striking some faraway place they are hard-pressed even to locate on a map? It may be that they simply can’t compute: 5.4 million people dead in a decade of fighting and hardship in Congo: 2.7 million chased from their homes in Darfur; 7 million people hungry and relying on food aid in Zimbabwe. Numbers are shocking—and forgettable. Faces are not.
Empathy requires making an emotional connection. And for that, you need a story, not a statistic.
But I think we’re hard-wired, as humans, to want those connections—and in a world roiling with trouble, that’s the good news.
Now, if only there was something we could all do about that other bit of bad news we’ve been hearing so much about : the demise of newspapers, one of the most important venues for global story-telling. Who’s going to care about humanitarian disasters when all that’s left are statistics strung out in headlines?