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Original Article

How Media Portrayals of Suffering Influence Willingness to Help

The Role of Solvability Frames

Published Online:

Abstract. When we hear stories of distant humanitarian crises, we often feel sympathy for victims, but may stop short of taking action to help. Past research indicates that media portrayals of distant suffering can promote helping behavior by eliciting sympathy, while those that prompt a more rational response tend to decrease helping behavior by undermining sympathy. The authors used an online experiment to test whether certain media frames could promote helping behavior through a more rational, rather than emotional, pathway. The study tested whether framing distant suffering as either solvable or unsolvable might promote helping behavior if a rational evaluation of a crisis leads one to determine that help is efficacious in solving the problem. Survey respondents were randomly assigned to read one of three messages: a high solvability message, a low solvability message, or a control message. Contrary to expectations, both low solvability and high solvability conditions increased participants’ intentions to help. The results suggest that this is because framing problems as unsolvable drives up sympathy, thus promoting willingness to help, while framing problems as solvable drives up perceived efficacy, also promoting willingness to help. The authors conclude that, in contrast to earlier studies, and to the assumptions of many of those working in media, emphasizing rationality can promote helping behavior if audiences rationally interpret the problem as solvable. Implications of the findings for ethically portraying distant suffering in the media are discussed.