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About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Recent entries

What a Fix!

This is the 19th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India…

Two Villains

This is the 18th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India…

How This Nobel Has Redefined Literature

This piece was published today in the Times of India. It’s rare that when a prize is given to someone,…

To Defeat Pakistan’s Generals, Let’s Embrace Their Artists

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page. I am a hawk when…

The Girl From Haryana

A slightly shorter version of this feature on Sakshi Malik was published in the October 2016 issue of Elle India.…

12 April, 2007

Compassion doesn’t scale

That’s the conclusion of a new study that explains just why the story of one dying child may move us to tears, but the news of a genocide where a million people died hardly affects us. Paul Slovic, a researcher, is quoted as saying:

We go all out to save a single identified victim, be it a person or an animal, but as the numbers increase, we level off. We don’t feel any different to say 88 people dying than we do to 87. This is a disturbing model, because it means that lives are not equal, and that as problems become bigger we become insensitive to the prospect of additional deaths.

There is a lesson in this for journalists. When we cover events that have caused many deaths, the most effective way to convey the effect of the carnage is to focus on stories about individuals. When I was travelling through Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, for example, I ignored the bigger numbers and just tried to blog about the small stories, hoping that they would be more evocative. (Examples: 1, 2.) A better example: The Gujarat riots of 2002, which can either be represented by a list of casualties, which would mean nothing to most people, or a single photograph like the one below, of Qutubuddin Ansari by Arko Datta.


If there were five such people in that picture, our attention would be diffused and the impact, I suspect, would be far less.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted by Amit Varma in Journalism

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