Philanthropy and Digital Media Representations: A Reflection of De-Sensitization and Influential Forces

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Self Reflection

When thinking about the topic of philanthropy throughout this course, I realized more and more the various aspects of digital media that affect and influence the world of philanthropy. For the purposes of this paper, I contend that philanthropy is the effort, usually through charitable organizations and donations, to increase the well being of humankind. As we consistently navigate our worlds through digital media and overstimulation in the information age, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I am de-sensitized yet highly sensitive to philanthropic organizations represented through digital media. 

First of all, digital media and its influence over us have powerful implications for the ways in which we make sense of our world. Throughout our course, we have acknowledged Nancy Baym’s analysis regarding how we interpret communication, for example, through interactivity and social cues (Baym 2010, pp. 6-12). I couldn’t help but think of the ways in which I am influenced by the social cues presented to me through philanthropic organizations presented to me through digital media including television and Internet platforms. I will give examples as to how the interactivity as well as a necessity for social cues in order for the field of philanthropy to thrive influences audience involvement and the act of collaborating with social workers and giving to charities and non-profit organizations. I reflect on Baym’s theoretical argument and the packaging of interactivity and cues I experience when reviewing philanthropic organizations and practices.  

Additionally, when I reflect on the promotion of human well being, I reflect on how Baym’s discussion on how digital media inspires both utopian ideology as well as distortion of reality (2010). I think of the various philanthropic organizations advertised in the media as well as how my own views have been changed and distorted through digital representations of media relating to the improvement (or downfall) of humankind. For example, I recognize that I am influenced by media representations of the traumas of Africa, but I cannot accept these either utopian or dystopian depictions at face value. However, I am influenced by them nonetheless. 

When I reflect on philanthropy I reflect on the One-to-Many modes of mass media communication in the era of digital media. I questioned whether or not the media really did have cumulative ‘effects’ on the masses, at least when it comes to philanthropy. Our society is often split in opinions, whether or not the mass media is depicting one or another perspective on the improvements of humankind. As Carey recalls, there are both ‘transmission’ and ‘ritual’ views; views that subject media research to the effects of tradition, and those that do a deep dive into the local and regional particulars of what people do with the media content they receive (Carey, 2009, p. 5). Throughout this course, I have been reflective of both views in which digital media is depicted with regards to the topic of philanthropy. I recognize and contend that we are simultaneously affected by what we receive and the very particular lenses through which we interpret what we receive through digital media.

Sites Exemplifying Aspects of Influential Digital Media for Philanthropic Organizations

The following links represent examples of philanthropic organizations with which the use of digital media exemplifies how specific influencers address the topic Habitat For Humanity (http://www.habitat.org/) advertises itself as a Christian organization aimed at promoting the well being of humans worldwide through the construction of new homes for humans who otherwise would not have them. The Habitat for Humanity plays towards our emotions by attempting to establish common ground, stating that regardless of race, location or religion, we all deserve homes, shelter, and food. It advertises its success as a nonprofit as well as its origins as a Christian organization. Habitat for humanity plays to our emotions while also in some ways masking the true traumas that the people for whom they build experience daily. Instead of presenting quotes and videos that represent the very worst experiences in the daily lives of the people for which they build homes, they instead present mainly images of people who are volunteers, advertising a good time while participating in philanthropy. Appealing to human emotions via representations depicting a good time on the website masks certain realities.

Also, Child Fund International (http://www.childfund.org/) is an organization currently celebrating 75 years of existence. Child Fund International is one of the oldest organizations aimed at improving the lives of children through donations from wealthier, western nations. The website highlights the faces of aesthetically pleasing yet forlorn-looking children, directly playing to our emotions as humans who understand the ‘innocence’ of children as well as helplessness they experience without our help. The website plays to our emotions with bold lettering and a call to reach out and change lives; keep these children alive. Additionally, the website interface provides links for donations, gifts, and sponsorships: all calls to open our pocketbooks and make a donation immediately.

Doctors without borders (http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/) uses a slightly different approach than the above two websites mentioned. Immediately upon entering the website a pop-up appears calling visitors to donate to the organization directly to the frontier where it is needed the most: Syria, where thousands are losing their lives frequently today and suffering from neurotoxic symptoms and are in need of immediate medical attention that only the MSF/ Doctors Without Borders is able to give with the consumers’ donation. These not only plays to our emotions but influences our knowledge, assuming those visiting the site are privy to world news. Some sites and articles also provide additional information on particular perspectives of philanthropic depictions in digital media realms.

Links to Sites Providing Exemplary Perspectives on Influential Forces for Philanthropic Organizations

In this article entitled “Philanthropy in a Recession: An analysis of UK media representations and implications for charitable giving” (http://www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/cphsj/documents/br-mor-phil-recession.pdf), the economic downturn experienced in the UK as well as other western economies leads the authors to discuss the potential impacts on non-profit organizations aimed at improving the human condition. The paper recognizes the ‘assumption’ of the masses that charitable giving would decrease during times of economic downturn. Even though the paper systematically analyzes representations in print media coverage, it recognizes that in print the majority of non-profits are neither portrayed as vulnerable or robust during recessions (Breeze, Morgan 2009, p. 6). The paper reiterates that philanthropic acts don’t occur whether or not an individual has a significant amount of money to spare, but rather, they occur when individuals and organizations are motivated by a passion for the cause, explorations of themselves, and opportunities to build relationships with beneficiaries (Breeze, Morgan 2009, p.12.). This goes to show that philanthropy is directly impacted by all media forms and whether or not they can be successful in communicating and inspiring those that are exposed to it in order to be a successfully marketed philanthropic effort.

This article entitled “Keeping up with the digital age: How the American Redcross uses social media to build relationships in the digital age” (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0363811110001335) discusses how respondents use digital media when keeping up necessarily with public relations, volunteers, as well as acquiring feedback. The article also suggests that social media is necessary to build and deepen existing relationships while cultivating successful nonprofit organizations.

Additionally, this article entitled “The discourse of global compassion: the audience and media reporting of human suffering” (http://mlab.uiah.fi/~kavetiso/tsure/Global_Compassion.pdf) discusses the global discourse of compassion and how it has intermingled with all discourse to the very core of that which is human: politics, violence, and everyday thinking. While there may be a growing awareness in relation to human suffering and increased calls towards philanthropic causes, there are few quantitative and qualitative studies regarding the media’s actual influences on our interpretations and reactions to distant suffering. This begs the question: how do people actually emotionally and charitably react to media engagements? This article recognizes the misgivings of what the other articles deem obvious and forthcoming: that digital and even print media cause us to react emotionally and compassionately, which needs to be questioned more often.

Links for Further Exploration

Claims thus far and examples of philanthropic strategies need further exploration. The following links provide additional context for the impact of this essay. This article (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/pal/crr/2000/00000003/00000002/art00004) examines the strategies behind the use of images that are meant to modify and influence senses of social responsibility in the aftermath of what can only be described as negative media exposure (images of violence, volatility, and war). This study suggests that corporations can use philanthropy as methods of curbing negative media exposure aimed at exposing corporations’ wrongdoing towards human beings. Thus, the article can serve as a platform for how businesses use digital media and philanthropy to create and/or re-create branded images, which is another field of study to explore regarding philanthropy and digital media.

This site (http://www.edfunders.org/sites/default/files/A_Renaissance_of_Wonder_Online_Final_0.pdf) highlights the study of the creative use and transformation of digital media in Pittsburgh philanthropic practices. It calls for community leaders and educators to collaborate via digital media and to strive towards creative new models and programs aimed at promoting philanthropic causes. Subsequently, the work calls for new participatory practices in order to facilitate philanthropy, suggesting that participatory practices are needed rather than just overly stimulating and (potentially) increasingly underwhelming depictions of human suffering in the media in order to facilitate philanthropic actions.

Original Perspective and Analysis

Drawing on historical, theoretical, scholarly and persuasive perspectives regarding digital media’s influence on the practice of philanthropy and philanthropic giving, I contend that digital representations of philanthropy are both de-sensitizing and also highly successful in influencing the general population. While perspectives range from the recognition that digital media does, in fact, have a powerful influence on our emotions all the way to recognizing that we may or may not be apathetic and de-sensitized, there is something that can be said for both. While we are influenced by interactivity and social cues, we are also overly stimulated and emotionally irresponsive at other times. Upon reviewing my reflexivity throughout this course as well as the links provided, I contend that philanthropy and digital media are part of the information age and representations are critical for the success or failure of any philanthropic organizations.

Nancy Baym (2010) recognizes that we interpret representations through interactivity and social cues that influence our responses. It has been explained throughout this essay that we are increasingly de-sensitized because we are living in the digital media age (Breeze, Morgan 2009, Briones 2011). Reflecting on this course reiterates that we are desensitized to digital media influencers and less impressed than before.  However, increased interactivity, as well as social cues, has been shown to be successful in the 3 links provided that demonstrate aspects of how digital media successfully contributes to the existence of nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Child Fund International, and Doctors Without Borders. These organizations play to our emotions, our cultural values, and the tensions that we recognize human beings are experiencing worldwide. 

We also recognize that digital media influences our utopian visions of what a world should look like for human beings while also recognizing that depicted visions influence our views of what a world should not look like for human beings. For example, the Child Fund International website depicts children crying, unhappy and starving. Whether or not people are acknowledging that we are being influenced by representations in digital media with regards to philanthropic ideology, it is happening nonetheless.

Reflecting on Carey’s ‘transmission’ and ‘ritual’ views, we see that Habitat for Humanity plays towards the ‘transmission’ viewpoint depicted in research. The ‘transmission’ view, stemming from traditional cultural values and translating them into understandable and relatable digital media, is clearly visible on the Habitat for Humanity’s website. Constantly calling out Christianity as mission-critical for the goals of Habitat for Humanity’s organization is directly related to how tradition affects our interpretations of digital media. Additionally, the ‘ritual’ view recognizes that researchers and readers of digital media must respect and understand local, regional, and perhaps even international understandings of interpreted forms of digital media. It should, therefore, be recognizable that viewpoints, whether or not directly influenced by tradition as well as the direct lens through which tradition provides represent that perspectives of philanthropic digital media are variable as well as similar.

Symbolic representations used in digital media philanthropic representations can be more effective than words. Child Fund International does this well, forcing us to interact with the images of pained children. The call to become interactive and proactive while facing the disturbing yet aesthetically pleasing images of children in need contributes to the perspective that forcibly interactive images and words influence our actions. This is in slight contrast to my viewpoint that we have become, in certain ways, de-sensitized to these images. Now, more than ever, we are exposed to these images (Hoijer 2004, p. 514). Thus, compassion is coupled with de-sensitization in digital media, and the study of such emotional responses has yet to be discussed and explored thoroughly (Hoijer 2004, p. 513). 

Additionally, the Doctors Without Borders website shows another approach, and subsequently, another opinion regarding human emotional reactions to digital media representations for philanthropic organizations. The website explores our content knowledge, using terms unfamiliar to the laymen (doctorswithoutborders.org 2013). This is a perspective utilizing a different form, assuming a target audience, assuming that the audience is not only de-sensitized to media influences but privy to information about the world. This perspective represents a ‘knowing’ approach to digital media representation.

However, whether or not the general population is familiar with the events of the world, the world has also experience numerous recessions that some scholars think is fairly contributive to the fact that humans assume philanthropic and nonprofit organizations suffer due to the general decline in individual and household income in reference to the world and western economies. While humans might assume that fewer people are giving to charitable organizations, we are not, and are still influenced by strong digital media influences towards philanthropic causes (Breeze, Morgan 2009, p. 3). This is in a sense combative with the theme running throughout: that humans are de-sensitized as well as steadily influenced by digital media representations aimed at promoting philanthropic causes. 

Additionally, neither in contrast with or directly contributing to the argument presented herein, the creative use of transformative and anomalous usage of digital media for philanthropic organizations contributes to progressive causes striving for improving the human condition (A Renaissance of Wonder Supporting Creativity Through Digital Media and Learning, 2012). However, the continual and supposedly necessary use ‘creative’ and ‘transformative’ aspects of digital media in order to play to our emotions and reactive responses and drive towards giving to philanthropic causes contributes to the argument that the current state of man reveals the desensitization to human suffering and need to be constantly reminded through new forms of digital media. 

Additionally, Clay Shirky claims that we are currently in a time where we have seen an uprising in the expressive capabilities of human history through digital media (Shirky 2009). Stating that digital media is present in time for positive attitudinal and influential transformation is understandable. However, the degree to which that actually can be measured is arguable. Are we in a time where digital media is actually revolutionizing the ways in which we think and view the world or has that time been continuous for some time at this point? While the internet, as Shirky contends, is a more or less worldwide medium in which groups and individuals can communicate almost instantaneously, we are also seeing a ‘consumer-product’ blur, which consecutively blurs the lines of what is effective or ineffective citizen participation. Shirky also recognizes that we are in fact all involved in this game together and that it is often taken for granted (2009). Shirky’s argument doesn’t effectively argue against the case that we are desensitized in the realm of philanthropy, philanthropic notions, and images and messages meant to invoke philanthropic feelings and goals. 

Additionally, in this information age where digital media is an appropriation of all past and present forms of media through which the majority of people, especially in western societies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, receive their information, the importance of mastering emotional responses aimed at target audiences is obvious. From a philanthropic business perspective, “Images of suffering are appropriated to appeal emotionally and morally both to global audiences and to local populations. Indeed those images have become an important part of the media” (Kleinman & Kleinman, 1996, p.1). Kleinman and Kleinman recognize, additionally, that images of these experiences are being used more widely, in many different ways, and are even commoditized. These images of human suffering are used more than just for philanthropic causes, and we are becoming increasingly desensitized, contributing another theme running throughout this argument: that which we become desensitized to forces the onset of creative thinking and transformative uses of digital media. Researchers must continue to question how far usage of digital media can actually go if philanthropic organizations are to remain or become successful. The need to question what else can be done, because philanthropy is never something that is done enough to alleviate the worst of human suffering, is a theme that runs throughout. Philanthropy is created through digital media and it does not always succeed.

Therefore, digital media and influences presented through different forms meant to evoke emotional responses in order to promote philanthropic causes are vast and different. However, stemming from what coursework, websites, and scholarly articles have depicted, it becomes clear that perspectives are similar yet different. It becomes clear that we are simultaneously de-sensitized and exposed to philanthropic causes, and interpretations of digital media representations range from apathy, discontent, and compassion when it comes to philanthropy.

References

Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Breeze, B., & Morgan, G. G. (2009, September 8-9). Philanthropy in a Recession: An analysis of UK media representations and implications for charitable giving. In NCVO/VSSN Researching the Voluntary Sector Conference 8-9 September 2009. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/cphsj/documents/br-mor-phil-recession.pdf

Briones, R., Kuch, B., Liu, B., & Jin, Y. (2011). Keeping up with the digital age: How the American Red Cross uses social media to build relationships. Public Relations Review, 37(1), 37-43. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0363811110001335

Carey, J. (2009). A Cultural Approach to Communication. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 11-28. Retrieved from http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Carey-ACulturalAproachtoCommunication.pdf

Child Fund International. (n.d.). Child Fund International. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.childfund.org/

Habitat's vision: A world where everyone has a decent place to live. (n.d.). Habitat for Humanity Int'l. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.habitat.org/

Hoijer, B. (2004). The discourse of global compassion: The audience and media reporting of human suffering. Media, Culture and Society, 26(4), 513-531. Retrieved from http://mlab.uiah.fi/~kavetiso/tsure/Global_Compassion.pdf

Inside doctorswithoutborders.org. (n.d.). Doctors Without Borders. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

Kleinman, A., & Kleinman, J. (1996). The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriates of Suffering in Our Times. Daedalus, 125(1), social suffering, 1-23. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20027351

A Renaissance of Wonder Supporting Creativity through Digital Media and Learning. (2012, April). Http://www.edfunders.org/sites/default/files/A_Renaissance_of_Wonder_Online_Final_0.pdf. Retrieved August 28, 2013.

Shirky, C. (2009). Clay Shirky: How social media can make history. TED: Ideas worth Spreading. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html

Werbel, J. D. (2000). Strategic Philanthropy: Responding to Negative Portrayals of Corporate Social Responsibility. Corporate Reputation Review, 3(2), 124-136. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/pal/crr/2000/00000003/00000002/art00004