Emotions and Media

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Amy Milka & Abaigéal Warfield

The Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions has long argued that emotions make history, and that emotions can lead to change. A new research cluster seeks to better understand the role that the media plays in shaping and creating emotions, and how these emotions can lead to social and political action – not just today, but also in the past.

Media permeates the very fabric of our lives. From checking our email when we wake up in the morning, to scrolling through Twitter or browsing news headlines, we are immersed in an extended media environment. While many people would like to believe that they are not influenced by what they read or see, this is simply not the case. All of these media messages, whether we like it or not, are constitutive of our reality. They help us to see, and, we would argue, to feel, the world around us. Sociologists have long recognised that news media not only reflects social opinion, but can construct it too. The same goes for emotions: media can indicate to audiences what should be important to them as an emotional community, and can also suggest how they should respond emotionally to situations or stimuli. From instilling fear to inspiring hope, the media (in it’s various guises) produces emotional responses. However, that said, there is never a direct correlation between authorial or editorial intention and reception. Emotional responses are individual, but, simultaneously, individual responses are shaped by shared cultural and social contexts. As a result, messages can sometimes tap into a shared concern, promoting a shared sense of feeling and, thanks to social media, such messages can be in turn ‘shared’, becoming viral.

Scholars around the world are recognising the power and influence that media has in the present day, and special institutes and labs have been founded to explore the nature of contemporary media. For instance, the Visual Social Media Lab in the UK brings together a group of interdisciplinary researchers interested in analysing social media images and online visual cultures. Three post-doctoral researchers at the Columbia Journalism Review, Lene Bech Sillesen, Chris Ip and David Uberti, are exploring how empathy is changing (or not changing) with technological advancement, with more people spending less time reading lengthy narratives.

Narratives can be powerful. To quote from their article, they can help us to imagine life in another person’s shoes:

The more transported you feel, the more likely you’ll be to change your opinions and beliefs about the real world, psychologists Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock write in The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives. That feeling can be so strong that it leads to altered behavior, such as giving a $100 bill to a family of strangers. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano even suggest that reading narratives make us more empathetic overall, because stories force us to engage in intense perspective taking.[1]

Images and photographs can also stimulate intense emotional engagement, sometimes prompting what has been labelled as ‘emotional politics’. According to Lisa Procter and Dylan Yamada-Rice, emotional politics is at play when ‘users’ emotions appear to have played an important role in contributing towards a collective political narrative that is displayed in the tweets they produced and shared’.[2] The case that Procter and Yamada-Rice were investigating was one that ‘moved’ the world in September 2015 – the image of Aylan Kurdi (Alan Kurdi), the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the shore. The emotional politics of this image were examined at length in a rapid response paper by the Visual Social Media Lab.

The image of Aylan Kurdi’s body, lying face down on a beach in Bodrum, spread quickly across social media and many news outlets. Responses were immediate and highly emotional. Within hours, the hashtag #kiyiyavuraninsanlik (‘humanity washed ashore’) appeared to capture, and indeed to provoke, feelings of grief, anger, shame and frustration felt by onlookers in Europe and across the world. Individuals on social media, reporters and politicians all expressed the intense emotions that the photograph elicited for them as parents, reminding them of their own children. Kurdi’s posture, mimicking sleep, and the familiarity of his clothes and shoes created a jarring contrast with the harsh realities of his story. In the following days and weeks, these complex emotions became the subject of many artistic representations of the image, many of which envisaged Aylan safe and asleep in a bed, or alive and playing with his family. Still others recreated the image in gestures of activism, with multiple subjects lying along the beach, emphasising the emotional currency of the story, but also its ubiquity: Aylan’s body could also represent the hundreds of lives lost during the European migrant crisis. As Francesco D’Orazio has shown, the photograph appeared to initiate a change in perceptions of the situation in Europe.[3] Users on social media ceased to speak about ‘migrants’ (those who move by choice, for economic reasons or self-interest), and instead discussed refugees (those fleeing war, violence and persecution). This one emotionally resonant image had changed the terms of a political debate, making it personal, and provoking empathy.

The power of this image in the media was such that newspapers, politicians and other observers appeared obliged to comment upon it. It appears to have spurred an increased interest in volunteering, donation and other philanthropic activities. Despite politicians acknowledging the emotional impact of Aylan Kurdi’s death, however, there is little evidence that the image of his body, and the public interest it generated, has had an impact on policy regarding the intake of refugees. Indeed, in the afterlife of the story such provocative images also risk being instrumentalised by the media for political agendas, and then being forgotten as yesterday’s news.

For those interested in media ethics, this case raises bigger questions about media, emotion and what people ‘need’ to see. In the age of the smartphone, few events go undocumented by a camera, and the media must think carefully about the way that using shocking images (even videos) of violence impacts upon the story they are trying to tell and the emotions of their readers. Some newspapers considered the photograph of Aylan Kurdi too disturbing for their front pages, for example. Do such images play an important role in raising awareness and harnessing the public’s emotions, or is there a risk of the media capitalising upon morbid curiosity without generating sympathy or change?

How should affecting material (images, videos, testimony) be used by the media, and how can it be misused? How can the public’s emotional responses to a story shape the media’s portrayal of it, and vice versa? These questions are pertinent in discussions of the media’s role in our lives today, but they are equally important for historians of media and emotion. By thinking about the emotional impact of text and image, affective responses and how they are articulated, we can begin to reconstruct the media’s role in shaping the emotional styles of a given period. The Centre for the History of Emotions’ new research cluster on ‘Emotions and Media’ hopes to provide a forum for scholars to discuss these issues, but also to present commentary on the way that media shapes our emotions in contemporary society.

Abaigéal Warfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Change’ program of the Centre, led by Professor David Lemmings. She is working on a project exploring how fear was constructed in early modern news pamphlets and broadsides, specifically fear of God, the Devil and witches.   

Amy Milka is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Change’ program led by Professor David Lemmings. Her current research considers the affective language of the courtroom in the English Criminal Courts, 1700-1830.  The project analyses the shifts in language and address which accompanied the introduction of lawyers into the courtroom, the changing role of the jury, and new approaches to prosecution and defence.

[1] Lene Bech Sillesen, Chris Ip and David Uberti, ‘Journalism and the Power of Emotions’, Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 2015). Available at: http://www.cjr.org/analysis/journalism_and_the_power_of_emotions.php. ,

[2] Lisa Proctor and Dylan Yamada-Rice, ‘Shoes of Childhood: Exploring the Emotional Politics Through Which Images Become Narrated on Social Media’, in The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*, ed. F. Vis and O. Goriunova (Visual Social Media Lab, December 2015), p. 57. Available at: http://visualsocialmedialab.org/projects/the-iconic-image-on-social-media.

[3] Francesco D’Orazio, ‘Journey of an Image: From a Beach in Bodrum to Twenty Million Screens Across the World’, in The Iconic Image on Social Media, p. 11.

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