Compassion, Awareness and Pinkwashing

pink-crop.jpg“Would you like a Review-Journal?” asked the cashier at the 76 gas station on Sahara Avenue. I hesitated. I’d already read the news.

“It’s free today,” she said. “It’s the pink paper.”

She didn’t say why the paper was pink. It was Oct. 1, the day when, for three years now, Stephens Media has printed its daily on rose-colored newsprint to remind readers of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I didn’t need to be reminded. Eleven days earlier, a friend had undergone a lumpectomy. She was scheduled to begin radiation therapy this week. The last time she and I had talked on the phone, I had trouble understanding her through her fear-choked sobs. Her prognosis is good, but she’s constantly on my mind.

The pink R-J was well-intentioned, an unambiguous civic good deed, but still I wonder if pink madness is missing its mark. When does pink, as it seemed that day at the gas station, become an end in itself? Sometimes it seems as if every business in town has joined the fray, with varying degrees of comprehension of what’s at stake. A well-meaning sales representative recently asked my friend the following question: “Would you like to support breast cancer?”

Even when good information is made available, as it was in the pink R-J, there are risks: Media saturation raises the specter of compassion fatigue or, worse yet, apathy. Studies of news coverage of trauma suggest photos depicting human suffering can backfire, making people feel helpless. (Then there’s the issue of unwarranted pinkness: The Las Vegas Sun had no breast-cancer-awareness content, yet it, too, was along-for-the-ride pink, complete with an unexplained ribbon on the masthead.)

More insidious is the possibility of pinkwashing: exploiting a noble cause for commercial purposes. Most of the advertisements in the pink paper had some direct relationship to fundraising, patient support or research, but a couple gave me a queasy feeling—such as one casino’s emphatic half-pager prompting readers to earn enough points for a pink-ribbon charm bracelet by playing slots.

My desk is piled high with news releases pitching stories on everything from lip gloss to topless revues—all in the name of breast-cancer awareness. With so much fun going on, who has time to ask tough questions? But another release, from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, did ask: Is the state doing its part to combat cancer? Arguing that it doesn’t, the network cites missed life-saving opportunities to pass legislation (such as smoke-free laws) and allocate funding (for early-detection programs). That’s another side of awareness—the stories with more numbers than tears, the ones not only about good neighbors but a responsible citizenry.

Still, stories of survival and support sometimes have the power to move even the most pink-weary among us. The R-J, for instance, told the story of Jolene vonMillanich, a 25-year-old woman who died last year from a rare form of breast cancer, and Trish Georges, a cancer survivor whose nonprofit helped vonMillanich in her final months.

It is a story of strength and compassion, and unlike all the pink ribbons in the world, it makes the message real: There are people who need our help; we have the power to make their lives better. In the end, that’s what the parties and pink poker tables and rock concerts are about. Remember that.

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