About Information Ethics Regarding Pain and Human Suffering

Mª del Mar López and Porfirio Barroso


Human suffering and pain in the media appear as front-page news. Sometimes, journalists deliberately select situations of suffering and pain, not for the so-called informative interest, but because they are images that speak for themselves: these images put tremendous emotional strain on the audience.

The main drive behind this research goes wide and deep: on the one hand, this study pretends to facilitate an explanation to the treatment that the media provides regarding such delicate topics, where there should even be a guarantee covering the maximum protection of the fundamental human rights of those who are suffering. On the other hand, the effects that they have on the receiver of traumatic information dealing with pain and suffering are analyzed. Lastly, a double analysis approach is being sought: an ethical dimension and a legal dimension directly connected with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the UDHR devoted to the rights of freedom of expression and freedom to hold opinions. In the writing of the UDHR and in the later work of internationalization of these Rights and Freedom, a very outstanding jurist was involved: René Samuel Cassin (1887-1976), Nobel Peace Prize winner for these contributions in the year 1968. The reason of connecting him with this research is because R. Cassin ended up being a grateful jurist due to the strong impression that the Dreyfus Affair was to have on him together with an article by Emile Zola “J’accuse.” The said case has great importance for its relationship with the history of journalism, and with the origin of the necessity of editing the UDHR in 1948. Also, this case has a connection with the right to legal information and special protection for those who are presumably guilty.

Some of the premature conclusions are the following ones:

  • The information on facts that involve pain deserves a special treatment, with accuracy and wisdom, so not to damage the sensibility of the audience or to increase more the pain of the victims and of its families. Consequently, this news generates many ethical problems related with the characteristic expression of the pain and the rising capacity of engaging the audience
  • Media, mainly the audiovisual ones, trivialize in many occasions the deepest feelings in suffering and they also commercialize the human pain. They use the sensationalism when treating these topics to capture audience, mainly if through this sensationalism they can appeal to the most insane and latent curiosity in the human being.
  • One of the reasons that took R. Cassin to participate in the elaboration of the UDHR was the great impression that the journalistic treatment of the Dreyfus Case caused on him: a clear case that damaged fundamental human rights, mainly the right to the presumption of innocence of who will be judged.