The 'Emotion Trap' in Political Journalism
Some journalistic reporting appeals to emotions and often obscures the facts as a result. But journalists can also reveal what went through their minds whilst investigating a story, thereby encouraging readers to think for themselves.
By Diemut Roether
Election nights are a time of visible emotion: elation and loud cheering in one camp, stony, disappointed, sometimes even tearful faces in the other. And television coverage on the night of an election spends a lot of time trying to elicit those emotions. News reporters ask questions we’re more used to hearing from sports reporters: "How shocked are you?” “What went wrong?” "Was it a close shave?” “Is this a terrible, catastrophic result?" But political journalism on television in general, not just on election nights, tries to bring out subjective reactions, feelings and moods.
We come across these attempts to simplify complexity, to reduce complicated political events to emotions, all the time. My impression is that the more the media report, the more they fall into this ‘emotion trap’. Because it’s easier and, above all, faster to report feelings, to stir up rapid reactions than to investigate the underlying factors that caused a certain outcome. Georg Mascolo, former editor-in-chief of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, once said, “The less you know, the more you have to sound off.” I would add that the fewer journalists know, the less they’re able to assess a situation, the more they try to convey emotion.
Facts are losing ground
Our day and age are all about rapid emotional reflexes. We ‘like’ what our friends post on Facebook. We post happy or sad smileys. We adore cute cat pictures. We’re inundated on every channel with information to which we react with rapid effects: I like it, I don't like it.
And these tendencies are exacerbated by the little portable devices on which we read the news. We use them, both to exchange personal communication and to get information. Whilst waiting for the metro or a bus, we surf, we scroll, and we skim in search of quick emotional kicks. On the other hand, it takes time and concentration to read a long, thoughtful article. But we usually don't have that kind of time or concentration during those brief intervals in which we browse on our smartphones rummaging round for instant excitation.
We live in an age in which facts are losing ground to feelings. The German word ‘postfaktisch’ was chosen ‘Word of the Year’ in 2016 by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (German Language Society). ‘Postfaktisch’ (literally ‘postfactual’) is considered an apt German translation of the English term ‘post-truth’ which has been a meme in the English-speaking world for some time now: the American author Ralph Keyes came out with his book The Post-Truth Era back in 2004.
The German term gained currency in public discourse in the German-speaking world thanks to physicist and philosopher Eduard Kaeser, among others. In August 2016 he wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung about the ‘postfaktischen Zeitalter’ (post-truth era), which he defined as follows: ‘Fact gives way to the factoid: the exploitation of impulses
A quote from Georg Pazderski, the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Berlin, provides a good illustration of this process: “What counts isn’t just statistics, but public sentiment. What people feel is reality too.” That was his reaction when confronted with the fact that the statistics did not show any significant increase in crimes committed by immigrants.
Appeals to emotion kick in instantaneously
The AfD aren’t the only ones out to exploit this subjective reality for political ends. Subjectively perceived reality is a breeding ground for conspiracy theorists and rabble-rousers of all stripes. Emotional appeals often have it easier than facts because they don’t have to be proved because they create an illusion of direct spontaneity and authenticity. It’s hard to refute perceived reality because arguments have to be understood and logically connected, whereas appeals to emotion kick in instantaneously.
Perceived reality rules the social networks. On platforms like Facebook, individuals and groups pit their own narratives against establishment journalism. They string rumours together and work ressentiments up into conspiracy theories on social media, which then find their fans there: “Someone has finally come out and said what I feel, think, and fear.” Empiricism counts for nothing on these forums, where it is supplanted by subjective reality.
Journalists may be tempted to draw on social networks as barometers of public sentiment. They figure social media will tell them straight out what the proverbial ‘man in the street” really thinks and feels. Round-ups of public reactions on the web have become the new standard fare in online journalism. But they are no more edifying than street polls on TV. They’re entertaining trivia, infotainment.
Media expert Bernhard Pörksen wrote in Die Zeit in 2016 that trash and serious news are direct competitors on the Internet "on the platforms of the universe". The "popularity principle” rules. “We deliver whatever appeals” to the public.
"Thou shalt not bore thy audience"
Website tracking enables editors to monitor the popularity of their pieces more or less in real-time. This is why news outlets run so many articles about the same topics. They have to keep feeding the hype, so they work up the same information a little differently each time. And if an article on the web doesn't ‘catch on’, they simply redraft it and try posting it again.
Journalists learn early on that it’s important to stir up emotions in their reading or viewing audience, to grab them, and draw them into the story so they’ll read the article or watch the video all the way to the end. The cardinal rule is: Thou shalt not bore thy audience. But making emotion an end in itself, a substitute for information and investigation, can have dangerous consequences. The web is teeming with stories aimed at eliciting knee-jerk reflexes, gut-level reactions, mawkish sentiment, rather than thoughtful reflection.
When we journalists seek to ride that wave of emotion, we shouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, it breaks right over our heads. We shouldn’t be surprised if all these emotional kicks we’re constantly trying to produce turn against us at some point. It’s the spirits we conjure up coming back to haunt us.
Make complexity sexy
‘Lügenpresse’, the ‘lying presses, is another such affective ‘post-truth’ label used to express frustration, among other things. Frustration at finding that reality isn’t as cut-and-dried as some people would like it to be. Frustration about false promises, illusions kindled and dashed. Frustration about yet another article that doesn’t live up to the headline’s promise. Because we’ve stirred up emotions, but left the reader to deal with them alone, because we don’t encourage them to think it all through for themselves. Perhaps because we haven’t thought it all through ourselves.
Nowadays, research and reflection get short shrift way too often in the everyday business of journalism. In understaffed editorial offices, the premium is often on simply churning out reams of copy, on quantity rather than quality. Not for nothing does Netzwerk Recherche, a German association of investigative journalists, insist that investigative journalism become par for the course again for news outlets and media companies, and ‘sensibly integrated into their everyday work’. Investigating is a craft, writes Netzwerk Recherche: “Just as a tiler lays tiles, a journalist has got to investigate.”
During my training in journalism, I learned that my job was to reduce complexity. But if you keep telling people that things are quite simple, they’ll eventually start believing it and eschew the effort involved in grappling with complex issues. Nowadays, on the contrary, it’s the journalists’ job to make complexity sexy. To put across to the public that complexity isn’t something to fear, for it’s part and parcel of life.
When I investigate, my findings change my assessment as well as my feelings about the facts of the story. We should let the public participate in these considerations and invite them to reflect as well. Taking our readership seriously means not leading people to believe that absolute certainties or simple solutions exist, but making it clear that we have to live with anxieties if we are to safeguard our freedom. Taking our readership seriously means not catering for gut-level reactions and knee-jerk reflexes, but inviting reflection.