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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Emotion in reporting: use and abuse

The desperate streets of Port-au-Prince challenge the skills and resources of journalism. They also raise ethical questions about the shape of coverage.

The problems of disaster coverage have been examined at length. Critics complain about the narrow focus on dramatic events, the repetition of graphic images, the compassion fatigue, and the way the news media drops the story as quickly as it took it up.

However, the Haitian earthquake coverage raises another question: What is the place of emotion in coverage?

Parachuted into a disaster, journalists struggle to absorb what they experience, recoiling from the stench of death and the suffering of dazed and wounded souls.

In a 24-hour news world, reporters are always “on.” They don’t have time to collect themselves and then report. Instantaneous and continuous reportage means journalists’ raw emotions inevitably surface in the middle of on-air conversations and interviews.

Journalists are not automatons. Expression of emotions is expected. To conceal dismay, anger, or compassion at human suffering would be dishonest. Yet emotions in journalism can be over-used and manipulated.

Compassion or congratulation?

Among major US networks, there have been valid expressions of emotional tension. For example, NBC anchor Brian Williams explained on air that his news crew in Haiti struggled with the fact that they were about the only ones with food, water and electrical power. Yet they needed these resources to tell the world about the disaster.

But other incidents give cause for pause. The New York Times recently reported the following about Robin Roberts, host of ABC’s Good Morning America:

“On Friday, Ms. Roberts informed the adoptive parents in Iowa that ABC News had tracked down their daughter in her orphanage, unscathed and napping soundly. The network framed the moment with the words ‘Exclusive: GMA finds missing baby; adoption reunion miracle.'”

The Times article continued:

“On Thursday night Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, led a camera crew through one of the few remaining hospitals in the region. As he passed wounded and dying victims, he explained that there were no doctors or nurses there to treat them. But CNN made a point of repeatedly showing another scene in which Dr. Gupta ran through the street to minister to an infant, the camera lingering on him as he cradled her in his arms and examined her head for lacerations.”

Is this coverage a true expression of compassion? Or is it self-promotion? Is it compassion or self-congratulation? Or both? In a media era when networks and other outlets are struggling to survive, we should be wary of journalists using emotion-based reporting to secure audiences.

When it comes to the emotions, journalism ethics requires three things of disaster coverage:

  1. Use emotions proportionately: Emotional stories should not dominate the news coverage and overshadow critical analysis. Vignettes of people caught up in tragedy bring the story home to viewers. But when over-used they lead to compassion fatigue or divert editorial resources away from the big picture.
  2. Test emotions: Emotional claims should be tested against objective facts. The audience needs to hear not only the expression of emotion but also the knowledge-based perspectives of experts on disasters. The audience needs hard-nosed analysis on how the disaster response is affected by politics and other factors.
  3. Avoid self-aggrandizement: Journalists should not use emotions to make themselves the center of the story and to engage in self-congratulation. In an era where the use of media is “all about me,” disaster coverage needs to move in the opposite direction by focusing on the story, not the story tellers.

Emotion and objectivity

Good coverage of disasters is a skillful combination of the emotional and the objective sides of journalism. The issue is not whether journalists should display emotions. The idea that journalists must be detached and neutral in the middle of chaos is outdated and wrong. In a disaster zone, journalists are not neutral observers. They are part of the world’s response, an essential communication channel for the rescue effort, and for the raising of funds for humanitarian agencies.

The choice is not between aloof objective reporting and caring, emotional journalism. In journalism, the emotional and the objective impulses should converge.

The emotions provide motivation for journalists and encourage public engagement. The deep emotions aroused by tragedy can motivate journalists to dig further into the story. Stories that report the plight and emotional fragility of victims attract the attention of the world, and summon help.

Yet the emotions that motivate reporters need to be tested and channeled by the desire to be objective – the desire to verify, and to base stores on facts, expert knowledge, varying perspectives, and historical context.

The best disaster journalism is engaged and objectively tested journalism. Journalism based only on emotion can be incorrect or manipulated. Journalism based only on a studied neutrality is not only an inhuman attitude toward a disaster. It fails to tell the full story.

A journalism of disasters is not a journalism of Olympian detachment. It is not a journalism fixated on stimulating the emotions of audiences. It is a humanistic journalism that combines reason and emotion. Humanistic journalists bring empathy to bear on the victims of tragedy – an empathy informed by facts and critical analysis.

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