4th August 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

The Road to Propaganda Paved With Good Intentions: Why Journalists Need To Keep Their Emotions Under Control

Stefanie Chernow

As much as journalists may try to be completely objective, the reality is that behind the ink on the paper there is a reporter who has his or her own experiences and views of the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than the coverage of the current Gaza crisis where only the most cold-hearted person would be unaffected by the bloody casualties, particularly the images of children being sacrificed to war.

In these circumstances emotions run high, but can journalists remain neutral, or should the audience be privy to the reporter’s emotional reactions as well as to fact-based story-telling?

The case for an emotional response is made by the progressive cleric and religious commentator Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian who recently admitted that the deteriorating situation in Gaza has affected him personally. “Being calmly rational about dead children feels like a very particular form of madness,” Fraser writes. “Whatever else journalistic objectivity is, it surely cannot be the elimination of human emotion. If we don’t recognise that, we are not describing the full picture.”

Yet the problem with Fraser’s call for writing from an emotional basis is that it may undermine the professionalism of journalism when the messenger becomes the story.

In a rebuttal to the idea of ditching objectivity in favour of more emotional engagement, David Loyn from the BBC warns “Emotion is the stuff of propaganda, and news is against propaganda. Reporting should privilege the emotional responses of audiences, not indulge journalists.”

Loyn points to the case of Channel 4 reporter Jon Snow’s video of his experience in Gaza and makes the case that objective journalism still has a place even during the darkest of moments: “In his appeal, Snow said the world had shown it was not that interested in the death of children in Gaza. Almost three-quarters of a million hits showed that many were interested. But how did they know enough to care?”

They care, says Loyn, not because of reporters who had put their emotions on show. Instead, it’s because “the horrors of Gaza have been bravely narrated by reporters fully equipped with compassion and empathy, but not wallowing in their own feelings.”

The hard point he’s making is that the Gaza story at its roots belongs to the people of Palestine and its children — not to the reporters and the media people covering the drama.

Giving a face and name to victims and making the story come to life has a far greater news value than journalists making the story about themselves and ultimately undermining what is newsworthy in favour of pushing a certain personal view.

Loyn explains using the example of The Guardian’s Jerusalem Correspondent: “Peter Beaumont’s description of a father gathering the remains of his baby son in a carrier bag – is not reported emotionally. Instead, the writing is poetic in its spare intensity. ‘This is my son,’ he said and nothing else, tears tracking down his face.

“The missile that entered the house made a hole ‘the size of a toaster’. The domestic details take us there, and when we arrive, we find Beaumont, one of the finest reporters of his generation, to be a helpful guide, not an obstacle. He is not in our way telling us how he feels.”

It takes reporting of the highest quality, but the emotions of journalists do not need to be broadcast in order for the story to have impact, as much as the human side of us wants to vigorously expose atrocities.

Journalists have a professional responsibility to let the audience come to its own conclusions by simple, careful reporting of facts and events with humanity and perceptive insights, rather than by pushing a personal emotional response into the public space.

Photo source: Flickr CC-BY-SA Dale Spencer

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