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Empathic reactions to press photographs from the War in Ukraine: A Q-sort study

  • This study scrutinizes press photographs published during the first 6 weeks of the Russian War in Ukraine, beginning February 24th, 2022. Its objective is to shed light on the emotions evoked in Internet-savvy audiences. This empirical research aims to contribute to the understanding of emotional media effects that shape attitudes and actions of ordinary citizens. Main research questions are: What kind of empathic reactions are observed during the Q-sort study? Which visual patterns are relevant for which emotional evaluations and attributions? The assumption is that the evaluations and attributions of empathy are not random, but follow specific patterns. The empathic reactions are based on visual patterns which, in turn, influence the type of empathic reaction. The identification of specific categories for visual and emotional reaction patterns are arrived at in different methodological processes. Visual pattern categories were developed inductively, using the art history method of iconography-iconology to identify six distinct types of visual motifs in a final sample of 33 war photographs. The overarching categories for empathic reactions—empty empathy, vicarious traumatization and witnessing—were applied deductively, building on E. Ann Kaplan's pivotal distinctions. The main result of this research are three novel categories that combine visual patterns with empathic reaction patterns. The labels for these categories are a direct result of the Q-factorial analysis, interpreted through the lense of iconography-iconology. An exploratory nine-scale forced-choice Q-sort study (Nstimuli = 33) was implemented, followed by self-report interviews with a total of 25 participants [F = 16 (64%), M = 9 (36%), Mage = 26.4 years]. Results from this exploratory research include motivational statements on the meanings of war photography from semi-structured post-sort-interviews. The major result of this study are three types of visual patterns (“factors”) that govern distinct empathic reactions in participants: Factor 1 is “veiled empathy” with highest empathy being attributed to photos showing victims whose corpses or faces were veiled. Additional features of “veiled empathy” are a strong anti-politician bias and a heightened awareness of potential visual manipulation. Factor 2 is “mirrored empathy” with highest empathy attributions to photos displaying human suffering openly. Factor 3 focused on the context. It showed a proclivity for documentary style photography. This pattern ranked photos without clear contextualization lower in empathy than those photos displaying the fully contextualized setting. To the best of our knowledge, no study has tested empathic reactions to war photography empirically. In this respect, the study is novel, but also exploratory. Findings like the three patterns of visual empathy might be helpful for photo selection processes in journalism, for political decision-making, for the promotion of relief efforts, and for coping strategies in civil society to deal with the potentially numbing or traumatizing visual legacy of the War in Ukraine.
Author:Marion Müller, Katharina Christ
Series (Volume no.):Trier Center for Language and Communication (4)
Document Type:Article
Date of completion:2023/02/06
Publishing institution:Universität Trier
Release Date:2023/02/13
GND Keyword:Kriegsfotografie; Mitgefühl; Muster <Struktur>; Russisch-Ukrainischer Krieg; Visuelle Kommunikation
Institutes:Fachbereich 2
Licence (German):License LogoCC BY: Creative-Commons-Lizenz 4.0 International

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