Is ’emotional journalism’ harming objectivity?

Traditionally, mainstream news sources have operated on the journalistic principle of impartiality to deliver fact-based, trustworthy news. What was deemed professional relied on the guidelines of accuracy rather than any form of empathy.

However, the field of journalism has developed along with digitalisation and the onslaught of social media because new tools, formats and networks have allowed it to become more efficient. News is now readily consumed, and journalism is increasingly popular due to the fast travelling communication technologies that offer efficient pathways for reaching the public.

The design of networks, websites and social media platforms have led to ‘networked journalism’, which has enhanced the potential influence and value of emotions. It is a strategic and tactical concept that combines both citizen and professional journalism by allowing the possibility of consistent public participation through interactive, shareable information.

Networked Journalism

Networked journalism requires a connection to different platforms like Twitter and Facebook to distribute affective, ‘liquid’ news which helps facilitate a more personal relationship between the journalist and their audience. While there is nothing entirely new about using spectacle and emotion in mass media, the fast pace of contemporary journalism forces us to “feel faster than we think” (Beckett and Deuze, 2016, 4).  

Emotion is an organising principle for understanding and creating networked journalism because it aims to engage the ‘former audience’ by bringing consumers of news and their potential content back to the process of informative and affective storytelling. The current networked era of journalism has become more subjective because it relies on the input of non-professionals to help drive the creation and consumption of news stories on digital channels, mainstream print newspapers and social media, where the visibility of ‘identity politics’ and social solidarity is highly prioritised.

Networked journalism has been built on people’s increasingly intimate and dependant relationship with technology and the constant dialogues, discourses and frameworks they are constantly predisposed to. Emotions are engrained into the cultural and socio-political discourses which communication allows because they inspire connection and social change, thus reformulating the very idea of news. Therefore, this relationship between social media, news, data and emotion has rendered journalism as no longer purely synonymous with the traditional idea of impartiality.  

In some ways, mainstream journalists who refuse to incorporate emotional elements into their articles and news stories have lost power compared to more personal, affective forms of networked journalism. The preference for emotion-led stories, and the lack of control over news consumption has diminished the gatekeeping power of classic, impartial journalism and increased the power of ‘personal’ journalism.

Not only is this story-telling reliant on emotions, but it is often delivered from a first-person perspective in a more confessional, intimate tone of voice that approaches social and identity issues. In mainstream newspapers and sites, the features, lifestyle and comment sections have gained traction for providing more emotive think-pieces which actively engage, and even include, the ‘former audience’. 

‘Feminised’ Blogging & Media

This need for emotion and personalisation has led to the phenomenon of blogging and more alternative forms of confessional journalism like podcasts. The confessional format voices stories from more personal, rather than objectively professional and fact-based, perspectives.

Popular media has become more cosmopolitan, multicultural and ‘feminised’ as a response to the current social climate and marketing conditions. This has given way to online and print publications such as gal-dem, a blog which began as a zine “committed to sharing perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour”. Gal-dem has an entire first-person section dedicated to emancipatory, liberal pieces gathered through both submissions and requests.

gal-dem’s fourth annual issue UN/REST shot by rising photography star Nwaka Okparaeke

One post by Debbie Weekes-Bernard (2020), Deputy Mayor of London, shows how she calls on both her platform and Caribbean identity to personally “urge the government to pay attention to the crisis of ‘undocumented’ children”. She begins with a broader appeal to the city’s multi-cultural diversity and then draws on the direct pain she feels for the 10% of families with undocumented children who are not supported by the EU settlement scheme.

The accompanying image of young children playing happily by London Bridge is juxtaposed to the threat she describes. This juxtaposition disarms the reader so that they, too, will feel emotions such as worry, fear and sadness. While Weekes-Bernard presents data and facts to support her claims, the first-person narrative is what drives the piece. Spreading the word about causes or issues one believes in and defining oneself to others is an inherently emotional act. 

Gal-dem moves away from traditional reporting by approaching news topics such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s ‘step back’ from their roles as ‘senior’ royals. Issues are tackled with a left-wing, clearly partial rhetoric which ties popular events usually covered by mainstream media with a deeper contemporary outlook, bringing in social issues like capitalism, misogyny, homophobia and colonialism.

Combined with lighter cultural themes such as music, horoscopes and ‘life’, the relatable and personable style of gal-dem has led to their transformation from a small zine to a representative brand which many of their 57.3 K twitter followers turn to for news.  

Political Blogging & Radicalisation

Political blogging is a form of commentary and citizen journalism which allows the ‘former audience’ to take back the means of journalistic production. Since the emergence of freely available weblog software, the number of regular bloggers has expanded from 30,000 to the current several million (Dahlgren, 2009, 178). Journalistic blogging is no longer done from the margins and it often reflects on dominant mainstream news from more personalised perspectives, such as gal-dem’s first-person coverage. While this strategy could be highly partisan or biased, especially as it gives equal opportunity to neo-fascist groups, it also perhaps increases journalistic transparency by providing access to more ‘truths’ and perspectives.   

Emotional storytelling is a powerful way to gain popularity in a networked era where the mediated other can be listened to and heard. Arguably, such narratives bring greater moral and political value to the process since they combat the lack of representation in mainstream journalism, which is largely made up of white, heterosexual men.

Social media and blogging allow for a penetration of people’s ‘filter bubbles’ because consumers of news are no longer only exposed to the people and ideas they already agree with (Burkeman, 2018). Perhaps emotions have the capability to decrease individual bias by allowing people to deliberately engage with diverse views. Although this may lead to outrage and hostility on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, this kind of ‘education’ is a social good. 

The rise of first-person and confessional storytelling has been analysed by Rosalind Coward as the “biggest growth area of journalism” (2013, 12) because it is suited to the intimate culture of social media where the inner emotional life of citizens, public figures and journalists is no longer viewed as trivial (Lindgren, 2016, 1).

Personal narratives in blogs and podcasts are driven by evocative storytelling in written and audio formats which profit from the contemporary fascination with identity and the self. Coward’s own column for The Guardian documents her caring for her mother (Lindgren, 2016, 1). This sort of seemingly anecdotal subjectivity in narrative journalism works to emphasise the experience of subjects in a way which can capture the attention of audiences where pure impartiality cannot. 

Emotions can also be entertaining to modern audiences, who find most of their news online. Tom Wolfe’s ‘New Journalism’ technique used elements such as the ‘historical present’ in the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune.

This novelistic form of writing blurred the lines between fact and fiction in the 1960s and 70s. He wrote an entire non-fiction, historical story in the present tense to create a sense of “immediacy” which was understood by many young writers and featured in Rolling Stone and Esquire (Kaplan, *1987*).

Even his interviewee plays off of New Journalism by the satirical backdate. The radical twist on journalism aimed to breakdown the formality of the country’s professional conception of news, usurping expectations of impartial fact in order to “sweep aside the structure of maintaining divisions between people of different status” (Kaplan, 1987). These affective terms of narrative journalism also existed in the pre-internet era as a creative device which brought different audiences together.  

The Case for Neutrality

In the era of ‘hybrid media’, the expression of emotion on social media and blogs has led mainstream journalism to also adapt a more personalised, affective news media. However, some argue that neutrality is why people should pay for journalism since the idea of subjective, anecdotal reporting can create an ‘emotional dystopia’. Audiences don’t want to feel emotionally manipulated and often come to news for facts offered by traditionally objective, data driven journalism.

In 2014, Jon Snow spoke in an unusually direct, emotional video on the Channel 4 News social media channels about the Gaza conflict. This can be viewed as an example of how ‘value signalling’ and emotions threaten perceptions of journalism. In the video, Snow describes the horrific experiences he had seen, pleading to viewers to take direct action. Some primary conventions of reporting, such as a neutral tone, are removed in his entirely emotional appeal and he uses human gestures outside of the journalistic lexicon to describe how the children were hit. The dramatic imagery intends to stimulate one’s emotions in order for his message to resonate with the audience. As the camera pans around him, he seems to directly talk to each audience member individually and arguably pushes the viewers’ boundaries by intensely addressing what many would consider to be politically sensitive details. 

You could argue that this framing allows Snow to contextualise and humanise sensitive issues. There is a sense that he is being constructive by trying to end the video with a positive, hopeful message of compassion. He could be presenting these objective facts through an emotional lens as a necessary good which would increase the profound audience engagement with his report.

Channel 4 backed the anchor’s video blog, revealing that it led a child to write to the UK foreign secretary (Deans, 2014) while journalist James Ball (2014) protested Ofcom’s regulations; he argued that Snow’s opinions should be fit for TV and he shouldn’t have to resort to Facebook or YouTube. 

However, viewers can also be left feeling helpless, uncomfortable and manipulated due to the extreme imagery and emotion. The Spectator had also published an article deriding Snow’s “biased, inaccurate and one-sided” report for perpetuating the problem by emotionally “crowd-bating” and misrepresenting Israel. Perhaps this kind of emotional manipulation, even for a ‘good’ cause, is not ‘real’ journalism because it pushes boundaries and increases the perception of bias through value-signalling and identity politics. 

The journalist and news organisation perhaps cannot always be acting responsibly if they broadcasted extreme, arguably sensationalised footage on prime-time television. Journalism is now aware of the logistics of audience engagement and studies have found that 58% of people avoid news because it negatively impacts their mood, while 40% feel a sense of helplessness (Wong, 2019). The primary reason for news-avoidants is emotion rather than mistrust or a fear of misinformation.

Perhaps there is also an enhanced market for non-emotional news and data journalism, such as the Financial Times’ factual and ‘truthful’ visualisations. Understanding the news is often an emotional experience and frequent consumptions of videos like Snow’s could increase feelings of overwhelming fear or depression. Perhaps, a solution to the ‘problem’ of emotion could be more data driven journalism which does not make audiences feel manipulated. 

Sensationalism

Sensationalism is often an editorial tactic in mass media because it manipulates truth by amplifying less significant matters. In contrast to Snow’s video, it usually includes a lack of transparency and aims to create irrational, antagonistic and sometimes even violent discourses.

By using emotion to frame certain groups of people as different, ideologically radical journalism can create fear that lends itself to extremist, neo-fascist narratives.

There has been a rise of alt-right publications such as The American Renaissance which constantly refer to mainstream, liberal media to define themselves. Although they often portray themselves as objective and factual, they use emotions to spear-head racist and xenophobic propaganda under the guise of ‘race realism’.

A YouTube video posted on their blog is titled ‘The Disgraceful Shaming of James Watson’ with the subheading “not even the world’s most famous scientist is allowed to speak the truth”. (I chose not to link this to decrease any attention to the channel.)

The reporter victimises Watson as a “non-person” who has been “sunk into obscurity” and deprived of a voice due to the mainstream media’s “insane…egalitarian nonsense”. Watson’s eugenics and scientific racism called for “a genetic basis for grouped differences in intelligence” and insisted on the inferiority of African people’s IQs.

However, while these claims are a clear scientific falsehood, they are framed in the video as a sad truth which today’s radically liberal society rejects by enacting a “spectacle of cowardess and spitefulness”. Taylor’s argument uses a mixture of emotional language and what he presents as factually given evidence in order to gain the viewer’s sympathy for Watson and propel racist rhetoric.  

Mainstream publications such as The Daily Mail also use obvious emotional representations and language techniques to ostracise immigrants, such as the headline “The ‘Swarm’ On Our Streets” which associates animal, insect imagery with the ‘migrants’ and uses sibilance to capture one’s attention.

Both examples of sensationalism centre on outrage tactics used to polarise marginalised people and prime the reader with fear, anger, and disgust. While The Daily Mail’s language of fear and hatred is strikingly obvious, The American Renaissance operates under the false and more dangerous idea that their reporting on ‘race relations’ is impartial and objectively true. Moral anger is the most viral emotion, particularly online, as it encourages attention and pivots on identity politics. Therefore, emotions can fuel this dark side of singularising media sources through the hateful and excluding propaganda which many alt-right and extremist movements rely on (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019,3). 

Emotions Equal Ethics?

However, emotions can also be extremely valuable to both audiences and journalists because they can help reflect on a more diverse agenda of ideologies, values and identities. This could be seen as more ethical than impartiality because it allows one to think beyond themselves. 

As news is becoming more intimate and instant, emotions are perhaps a guiding principle integral to journalism that is networked by audiences. In the hyper-competitive news market, a balance between securing engagement and more cosmopolitan, ethical reporting is vital.

Emotions have become more powerful because the technological algorithms are driven by attention economics where news benefits from personalisation. The audience’s consumption behaviour usually includes sharing on social networks and expecting some form of interaction such as watching a video or taking part in a poll.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalism from 1955 to present has been found to extensively use emotion across all genres to dramatise stories and depict complex news events effectively (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019, 2).

Instead of speaking of their own emotions, the most successful news stories narrate those of their subjects for normatively ‘good’ purposes such as rendering their struggles visible and hoping to generate compassion (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019, 2). Therefore, the impartial basis of traditional news is not necessarily the only way to deliver trust-worthy stories because empathy can help validate different perspectives and tell compelling stories that can result in societal changes.  

The Financial Times’ news-based Uber Game synchronises data with empathy in interactive graphics which allow the reader to experience the choices people working in the gig economy are forced to make. The player is given one week to earn $1000 in order to understand the drivers’ perspectives in an entertaining and emotional way. The rigorous journalism that went into making the game separated emotional storytelling in the service of journalism from the use of empathy used for advocacy and activism (Wong, 2019).

Over 500,000 people have spent about 20 minutes playing the game, which is far more than the 1 minute spent on the average Financial Times article (Wong, 2019). Audiences reportedly reflected on their own place in the system, therefore the creativity and quality of the game has produced a serendipitous learning experience where the journalistic value stemmed from the personability and emotional aspects. Emotions can be operationalised as a principle to foster editorial creativity which integrates self-conscious subjectivity and transparency.  

Emotions can be understood as a complement to objectivity because they allow for representative, empathetic storytelling techniques which help us understand the perspectives of overlooked communities. Reporters would ultimately benefit by adding affectivity and empathy into the mixture of many news stories in the practice of gathering and delivering sensitive data (Kim-Bui, 2018).

Not only will this ensure the attention of audiences who share and engage with networked news, but this kind of storytelling will also give others the opportunity to indulge in new perspectives. In order to avoid bias and sustain the ethical value of journalism in this emotionally networked environment (Beckett and Deuze, 2016, 5), journalists must maintain openness and distinguish between empathy and partiality.

Compassion should not be the primary aim of news reporting as it could lead to bias, however allowing the visibility of other people’s perspectives is key for more ethical reporting.  

Conclusion

The infiltration of emotions such as anger and fear into journalism has often led to less fact-based, sometimes sensationalised news reporting which can be used to propagate extremist ideologies, frameworks and narratives. However, emotions ultimately prompt a greater human interest in the perspectives and personal experiences of others.

This would not be possible to the same degree if human lives and tragedies were consistently reduced to neutral, fact-based reporting.

Emotions ultimately allow for more empathetic, creative and diverse journalism and it is not impossible for such storytelling to maintain the journalistic ideal of objectivity. Subjectivity has value and the rise of confessional journalism gives voices to marginalised people without compromising the social or economic currency of news organisations.

The real question is how to consistently reconcile the problem of sensation, which causes fear and news avoidance, with a more meditated and controlled use of emotion that does not pose a threat to the idea of the news media as a source of trust-worthy information. Ultimately, complete objectivity is not always necessary or wise. 

The shift towards emotional forms of journalism is not necessarily a threat to the idea of the news media as an impartial source of trust-worthy information. ‘Affective’ communications and powerful storytelling can change journalism for the better because emotions such as empathy facilitate an identification with different people. However, emotions can also manipulate audiences and threaten journalistic integrity, particularly when news pushes ethical boundaries that seems to breach the audience’s trust. I argue that a standard of complete objectivity cannot always deliver fully ethical, high quality storytelling. I will explore the success of interactive, creative narrative production as well as the popularity of personal journalism in the networked era, examining how these techniques expose audiences to different perspectives. It is important to reconcile objectivity and emotion by harnessing the dangers of subjective journalism which could lead to extremism or sensationalism.   

Bibliography  

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Burkeman, O. (2018). Why are we so angry. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0000sw6 

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Ellicot, C. & Wright, S. (2015, July 31). The ‘Swarm’ On Our Streets. The Daily Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20150731/281479275122836 

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Murray, D. (2014). Jon Snow’s view of the Middle East is biased, inaccurate and dangerous. Retrieved from: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2014/07/jon-snows-view-of-the-middle-east-is-biased-inaccurate-and-dangerous/ 

Silverstone, R. (2006). Media and morality: on the rise of the mediapolis. In Mediapolis or the Space of Appearance (pp. 1-55). Cambridge, England: Polity press. 

Taylor, J. (2019). The Disgraceful Shaming of James Watson. Retrieved from:https://www.amren.com/features/2019/01/the-disgraceful-shaming-of-james-watson/ 

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Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2019). Questioning the Ideal of the Public Sphere: The Emotional Turn. Social Media + Society, 5(3), pp. 1-3. doi: 10.1177/2056305119852175. 

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