Of its very nature, news reporting casts an inquisitive eye over every type of event, and all in some way touch on the human condition – tragedy, grief, triumph, the unique, the humdrum.
Into every one of those categories, human nature intrudes, seeking out as far as possible the truth or at least the clearest available version of events. That is, or should be, the aim of every news reporter. But lurking in the shadows of those events, ready to distort the true picture is emotion, the reaction to those events.
News reporters are not blessed with armour shielding them from the human, personal reaction to the events they are reporting on. Of course they are affected by what they see and hear, but they should remain detached, not influenced by it. It should have no place in their coverage of events. We are all able to imagine only too clearly the implications and the impact on ordinary lives of, say, the Manchester shootings. We do not need to be told how to feel.
The vocabulary of news should be neutral and accurate. Take this sentence, typical of coverage of a natural disaster – “Out of a population of one and a half thousand, only around a hundred have survived”. The use of the word “only” is enough to emphasise the scale of the tragedy. We do not need it to be spelt out, to be told that this is “a tragedy for this remote village”. We know that, the simple words tell us. Consider this quote from the US mini-series, The Newsroom – “I don’t want to feel sorry for any of them, I want facts.”
Years ago, news programmes and newspapers served us a recital of the day’s events. No frills, just the facts. Now it’s a maelstrom of events, forecasts, suppositions, guesswork. Why is this happening? Partly because reporters are facing increasing competition from other news outlets. They must win our attention even if it means breaking the unwritten rules and straying away from a purely factual account. Reporters now have to persuade us to hear, read and watch their version of events. To get us to do that they have an armoury of tricks, and ambushing our emotions is one of the most powerful.
“Desperate and frightened, hundreds of Syrian refugees are flooding onto the Greek island of Samos, where the local community is overwhelmed and barely able to sustain them.” The words are carefully chosen to trigger our emotions. There is little we, as individuals, can do to alleviate the situation, much as we might want to, but that does not discourage journalists from drawing us into the drama, making us feel as though we must react to the story. Gone is the simple record of events, leaving us to draw our own personal conclusions. Instead we are browbeaten into caring.
Not everyone shares the view that in cases like this news reporting should be detached. The influential Center for Journalism Ethics in the US believes that “good coverage of disasters is a skilful combination of the emotional and the objective sides of journalism. The idea that journalists must be detached and neutral in the middle of chaos is outdated and wrong. They are part of the world’s response, an essential communication channel for the rescue effort, and for the raising of funds for humanitarian agencies.”
This, it seems to me, is encouraging journalists to stray too far from the delivery of clear, balanced information. Reporters are indeed part of any response to a disaster, but the idea that they should be, for example, the catalyst for a fund-raising operation is wrong. The power of their words and pictures may well spark an international appeal for funds, but journalists should never lead or promote that initiative.
It is therefore vital that we understand when a journalist is speaking from outside the perimeter fence of straight news. When Channel Four News presenter, Jon Snow, stepped over that fence – literally – and delivered an impassioned appeal on behalf of the people of Gaza, many people were shocked. It was a highly emotional and clearly heartfelt message, but where, we thought, were those carved-in-stone principles of impartial reporting?
An interesting reaction came from John Ryley, head of Sky News – “We expect broadcasters as fellow human-beings to neuter and cauterise their own emotion to what they see. Jon has seen a lot of suffering around the world in the last 40 years, and we should respect that emotion”. Ryley thought he might even have been able to broadcast Snow’s piece, albeit with some signposting to signal that it was outside normal coverage.
Jon Snow, like any other journalist, has the right to sensitivity. But if you hand that gift of freedom to an inexperienced journalist or one with an agenda, it becomes risky. We may be offered an account founded in emotion and, in our ignorance, we may accept that account as a true commentary on the facts.
In the early years of broadcast news, the audience was offered unvarnished information, albeit with the sense of drama that any major news report carries. A BBC news editor I worked with years ago, would greet each incoming report from a war zone or disaster area with the words – “Where’s the blood?” Now he would be more likely to ask – “What is the mood there?”
Because, years ago, the news was delivered in a bare, sparse way, concentrating solely on the facts, we all saw the world as a much simpler place. Now has come the recognition that life, the world, globalisation, is not like that. There is a constant ebb and flow of events and, inevitably, of emotion. Journalism is at risk of fuelling that flow.
That picture of a Greek lifeguard carrying the body of a four-year-old Syrian refugee out of the waves will, unsurprisingly, produce an emotional response. Any news editor using that picture knows exactly what he is doing, and what its effect will be.
So is it possible to return to a detached, emotionless recital of the day’s events? Even back to the days years ago when the BBC could announce – “And that is all the news today”? Impossible. Twenty-four hour news stations and the appetite for continuous commentary have breached the dam forever. Competition encourages emotion because journalists now have to sell their stories.
News outlets or “platforms” will continue to grow and compete, using every device to pull in more viewers and listeners, whether it is feeding our emotions – or going one step beyond into the area of fake news. Those in the business of using fakery to attract hits on their website will almost always be playing on our fears and hopes. Our emotions are the target.
It is a dangerous time. The issue of Europe, confined originally to committee rooms from Brussels to Westminster, is now spilling into the streets. While the vacuum at the centre of government grows, ordinary people are being sucked in, becoming more involved. We will all be drawn in further if a second referendum finds favour.
Our emotions are under siege. References to “hard-line Brexiteers”, words like “red lines”, “chaos”, “project fear”, “crashing out” batter us on all sides.
We are totally divided, there are no obvious right answers. No one – literally – knows what will happen. Political journalists love it all, revelling in the hourly swings of fortune. But it is dangerous. Emotions are running high, the temperature is rising. Cool judgement and cold facts are needed as never before.