News Reporting and Emotions

News Reporter and a TV Cameraman Interviewing a Mature Man in a Suit Standing on Steps

By Abaigéal Warfield and Amy Milka
The University of Adelaide

‘I require news reporters to emote about as much as I do my toaster’.[1]

This comment beneath an article in the Guardian encapsulates one side of a debate which has increasingly captivated journalists and their audiences: the place of emotion in news reporting. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, news reports are rapidly produced and disseminated, and journalists report ‘from the scene’, often within minutes of an incident occurring. In addition, the increasing use of online news media provides an interactive platform for audiences to not only respond to the news, but also comment on how news should be communicated. Thus, in recent years, when the news of crying news anchors made headlines on online news outlets, readers took to their keyboards to share their thoughts about where the line should be drawn between news and emotions. A quick foray into comments by online readers in response to news coverage of such cases reveal that different readerships form distinct virtual emotional communities who define appropriate ‘feeling rules’ for professional journalists in different ways. In this blog post, we dive into some of these below-the-line comments to uncover what issues are driving this debate.

The way we consume news is changing, and so are our expectations about how news should be delivered. The theory that journalists are impartial observers, objectively reporting the facts that constitute ‘news’, seems to disintegrate under scrutiny. As the recent polarisation of news channels in the United States reminds us, news outlets have always been partisan, shaping their content to suit their audiences and their moral or political agendas. But more importantly, journalists have never been like toasters – they are not machines performing an action or delivering a standardised service. They are individuals with opinions and emotions, who must sometimes perform their work in tragic and distressing scenarios. Their jobs involve emotion management in order to investigate and deliver a story, so is it really that surprising that journalists are sometimes affected by the news they report?[2] And while some news audiences persist in believing that news reporters should impartially deliver facts, media scholars note that ‘recent events such as 9/11 have been seen to accelerate a trend towards embracing emotion as a legitimate part of the journalistic culture’.[3]

More recently, the idea of journalistic impartiality and objectivity has been undermined by news reporters expressing their emotions during live TV broadcasts. Reporting on the mood in Paris following the terror attacks in November 2015, BBC correspondent Graham Satchell broke down in tears, cutting his report short. Emotions can also pervade the broadcasting studio, where BBC news anchor Kate Silverton was visibly upset following a recorded report of a baby being rescued from rubble in war-torn Syria. In both cases, news outlets chose to report these emotional outbursts as news in their own right, with journalists such as Anne Perkins in the Guardian interrogating the appropriateness of emotional displays in news reporting. Viewers and online commenters were divided, with some applauding the journalists’ empathy and humanity, while others bemoaned the lack of neutrality, claiming that emotional displays were ‘infantilising’ the audience by telling them what to feel.[4]

 

The story of Satchell’s emotional broadcast was covered by a number of online news sites, some of which allowed for below-the-line comments, including the Daily Mail and the Guardian. While opinions varied, distinct emotional communities emerge in these below-the-line comments, where participants can either affirm or reject each other’s opinions by ‘up-’ and ‘down-voting’.[5] While a broad range of responses is visible in both forums, the highest and lowest rated comments on both sites suggest that different virtual communities reacted to Satchell’s tears in different ways. In the Guardian the highest rated comments criticised Satchell’s emotionality, claiming that it was ‘unprofessional’ and that if he could not control his emotions, then he ‘shouldn’t be in front of the camera’.[6] Another top rated comment suggested that a little more stoicism from everybody ‘would be a good idea’, and, as mentioned in the opening of this article, one reader responded by saying he expected journalists to emote as much as his/her toaster.[7] Interestingly, comments similar to these, which strongly link professionalism to emotional control, were the most down-voted comments under the Daily Mail report. The most unpopular comment stated that ‘it’s a very sad and emotional situation but can we please see some professionalism from a BBC reporter, rather than a sobbing wreck’.[8] In contrast to the Guardian, the top rated comments in the Daily Mail almost all endorsed Satchell’s behaviour and spoke of how it made him human, with statements such as ‘just shows yr human’, ‘He’s human like the rest of us’ and ‘Even reporters have a heart’.[9]

We might also analyse responses to these journalists’ emotions along gendered lines. Strikingly, far more people posted comments about Satchell’s behaviour than about Kate Silverton’s.[10] This could be because the Guardian and the Daily Mail have more active communities than the Mirror or the Independent (which covered Silverton); however, it could also suggest that a male reporter crying triggered a wider response. It is also noticeable that while many internet commenters on the Guardian defended Satchell as simply ‘fatigued’ by the demands of the ‘unending live news cycle’, commenters on an article in the Mirror about Silverton linked her outburst to her gender, implying that women were more emotionally volatile and that she should ‘man up’.[11] One Independent reader accused her being a ‘drama Queen’ who ‘should be sacked’.[12] But gendered slights were also levelled against Satchell, with some commenters from the Daily Mail questioning his masculinity. One user mocked his name – ‘Satchel? Handbag more like!’ – while other users told him to ‘man up’ and labelled him a ‘drama queen’.[13] However, almost all of these gendered critiques were down-voted by other users. This brief analysis suggests that the understanding of ‘feeling rules’ for men and women are shifting in these virtual communities.

 

The authenticity and purpose of these emotion displays were also called into question. In contrast to Satchell’s spontaneous emotion, the most popular comments on an article in the Independent implied that Kate Silverton’s tears were part of a performance with a political agenda: ‘Must be written in their contract: “cry when reading news about Syria. No tears needed when children are extracted from rubble elsewhere”’.[14] Are emotions being used in this way? Charlie Beckett has theorised that emotions are making their way into professional news culture, thanks to the advent of networked news. He cites the example of Jon Snow, a journalist who made a strong political statement about suffering in Gaza, but ‘couched it in emotional terms; to further his political agenda and move people to action’.[15] Beckett notes that ‘for many people he [Snow] crossed a line – especially for a broadcaster that is subject to regulation that insists on a kind of objectivity’.[16]

While there were numerous critiques of both Silverton and Satchell’s professionalism, many commenters saw their emotional displays as relatable, and as understandable reactions to unspeakably tragic events. Silverton also addressed the tensions evident in her performance, commenting on social media that ‘my job is to be inscrutable & impartial but I am also human’.[17] For journalists and media scholars, the increase in emotional reporting can be seen as a side-effect of unedited live news coverage, but also as a result of the ‘tabloidisation’ of journalism, in which the lines between objective reporting and entertainment become blurred. In this context, hints about the journalist’s emotions suggest sensationalism, a lack of rigour or a deviation from the ‘core journalistic values of objectivity, and detachment’.[18] But alongside such arguments comes the acknowledgement that journalistic emotions exist ‘behind the scenes’, and that the work of good journalists is ‘empathetic storytelling’.[19] This raises many questions. Where does the boundary between news reporting and emotion lie? Who draws it and how can we better understand how this relationship is understood and regulated? How has this relationship ebbed and flowed across time and space? Why has it changed? And where will it go in the future?

These issues, amongst others, will be the focus of ‘News Reporting and Emotions, 1100–2017’, an interdisciplinary collaboratory organised by the Change program of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. This collaboratory will be held in Adelaide from 4–6 September 2017, and seeks to bring together scholars working on news media, past and present, to discuss the role of emotions in news reporting across time, place and different media. You can find our CFP here.

Abaigéal Warfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Change’ program of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Adelaide. She is working on a project exploring how fear was constructed in early modern German news pamphlets and broadsides, specifically fear of the Devil and of witches. Abaigéal is a convenor of the Centre’s ‘Emotions and Media’ research cluster.

Amy Milka is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Change’ program of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Adelaide. Her current research considers the affective language of the courtroom in English criminal courts, 1700–1830. Amy is a convenor of the Centre’s ‘Emotions and Media’ research cluster.

[1] Commenter njwilson in response to Anne Perkins, ‘The Sight of a Reporter Expressing Emotion is a Sign of the Times’, Guardian, 18 November 2015.

[2] Antje Glück, ‘What Makes a Good Journalist?’, Journalism Studies 17:7 (2016), p. 899.

[3] Mervi Pantti, ‘The Value of Emotion: An Examination of Television Journalists’ Notions on Emotionality’, European Journal of Communication 25:2 (2010), p. 169.

[4] Commenter njwilson in response to Perkins, ‘The Sight of a Reporter Expressing Emotion is a Sign of the Times’.

[5] The Daily Mail did not moderate comments but the Guardian did.

[6] Commenter fragglerokk in response to Perkins, ‘The Sight of a Reporter Expressing Emotion is a Sign of the Times’.

[7] Commenter Choller21 in response to Perkins, ‘The Sight of a Reporter Expressing Emotion is a Sign of the Times’.

[8] Commenter Travis H in response to Stephanie Linning, ‘“Sorry, I’m so sorry”: BBC Reporter Breaks Down in Tears on Live TV During Emotional Broadcast at Site of Paris Vigil’, Daily Mail online, 17 November 2015.

[9] Comments from Babs, Mystery Man and Rachel15 in response to Linning, ‘“Sorry, I’m so sorry”: BBC Reporter Breaks Down in Tears on Live TV During Emotional Broadcast at Site of Paris Vigil’.

[10] The Daily Mail story on Satchell attracted 2,178 comments, the Guardian coverage had 247 comments. In contrast the Mirror story on Silverton only had 20 comments, and the Independent’s report about the same event had 124 comments.

[11] See comment from ThisNameisMine on the Guardian and comments from Gary Johnson on the Mirror in response to Kirstie McCrum, ‘Emotional Kate Silverton Weeps After BBC News Report Shows Rescuers Pulling Miracle Baby Girl from Rubble of Aleppo’, 30 September 2016.

[12] Comment by rolandflemming in response to Maya Oppenheim, ‘BBC Presenter Reduced to Tears as Syrian Baby is Rescued from the Rubble’, Independent online, 1 October 2016.

[13] See comments from Uvavu, Michael50 and The sage in response to Linning, ‘“Sorry, I’m so sorry”: BBC Reporter Breaks Down in Tears on Live TV During Emotional Broadcast at Site of Paris Vigil’.

[14] Comment by hkbabylon in response to Oppenheim, ‘BBC Presenter Reduced to Tears as Syrian Baby is Rescued from the Rubble’.

[15] Charlie Beckett, ‘How Journalism is Turning Emotional and What That Might Mean for News’, Polis: Journalism and Society at the LSE, 10 September 2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kate Silverton (@katesilverton1), Twitter, 30 September 2016: https://twitter.com/katesilverton1/status/781842484343300096

[18] Pantti, ‘The Value of Emotion’, p. 176.

[19] Glück, ‘What Makes a Good Journalist?’, p. 897. See also Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, ‘The Strategic Ritual of Emotionality: A Case Study of Pulitzer Prize-Winning Articles’, Journalism 14.1 (2013): 129–45.

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