Why emotions are central to the future of journalism
Journalism is becoming more emotional. The social networks and business models such as membership or subscription mean that content is being created to tap into people’s feelings, values and identities. Is this going to lead to increased sensationalism and bias or can it be harnessed to create more engaging, empathetic content? This is the text of Charlie Beckett’s lecture at Northwestern University on why we should think more constructively about the power of emotion in journalism today.
The classic liberal western modern idea of journalism has always had an uneasy relationship to emotions. It’s not taught in J Schools. It’s not a core component of the academic literature, except often to denigrate it as sensationalism or bias.
Yet, emotions have always been a part of journalism: its inspiration, creation, style, appeal and its resonance or impact. Despite being a material business and a craft that deals in information, the idea and practice of journalism has always been bound up in emotionally-charged ideals and myths. It is a mediated practice whose essential condition is related to life as lived, by individual human beings as well as communities. It is made by people for other people.
The idea of ‘human interest’ has always been seen by journalists as a useful tool or ingredient for journalism that seeks to connect the consumer to the subject, a method for injecting some warm blood into the lifeless body of ‘rational’ factual reporting.
Selection is Subjectivity
Mainstream journalism is conditioned by powerful collective professional norms and codes. But when it makes claims of representation such as truth, relevance and importance these are based on a selection of facts, analysis and argument. These decisions are, to varying degrees, subjective and influenced by identity, values, and feelings. In other words, emotions.
Emotions are increasingly driving journalism and they are both a challenge to the ‘quality’ of what is produced, and also an opportunity for the news media to further reinvent itself. Journalism has changed historically in relation to emotions and is doing so again. I will make the case that the reason/emotion binary is a false dichotomy. As Jane Austen showed, Sense and Sensibility must be combined for true happiness.
‘Traditional’ journalism values have enduring value, but they must be reconfigured with emotions as an organising principle. Not simply as an add-on marketing tool or a superficial way to gain attention. Not all journalism has to be emotionally laden. But when we deploy emotions as a key element to the creation and consumption of news in an ethically, politically and editorially conscious and intelligent way we create possibilities for more effective, engaging and relevant journalism. Emotions are going to become more important for news in the networked era, that is inevitable, the choice for journalists (and the public) is how they respond.
Emotions: a definition
‘Emotion’ is a nebulous term by its nature. and perhaps the most useful definition is in Karin Wahl-Jorgensen’s new book on the topic that distinguishes emotion from affect:
“Fundamentally relational, evolving out of the interactions of individuals with culture and underlying social structures”
I follow Karin in taking an interest “in which emotions gain purchase in the public sphere, why and with what consequences”. Emotions in the media context are speech acts and the interest in journalism in this regard is as a way of establishing and challenging emotional regimes.
Emotions: a constructive approach
I first wrote about this properly with Mark Deuze because we had noted both the increasing role of emotions in journalism and the confused and often defensive response of the news media. We sought to explore a more constructive approach:
“an agenda for journalists who seek not to rage against this algorithmic machine and its emotional power source but to harness its communicative potential”
I do not underplay the threats to journalism that emotional drivers can create but Mark and I wanted to identify theoretical and practical pathways to understanding the value of emotion:
“The trend is clear: toward a more mobile, personalized, and emotionally driven news media. The challenge for the networked journalist is clear: how best to sustain the ethical, social, and economic value of journalism in this new emotionally networked environment.”
The Paradox of Journalism Power
We have to situate this within the larger context of journalism change. Journalism is now significantly dependent on networks beyond the control of the news media. By that I mean the actual networks of the Internet: search, social media, messaging apps, blogs, websites and so on, made up of the material communications infrastructures of devices such as mobile or voice with their software, algorithms and UX designs. I also mean the networks of information influence such as governments, corporate communications and activists.
In this networked ‘ecology’ news organisations do not have the same agenda-setting power. They are not the prime gatekeepers. Their economic resources have diminished — especially in certain sectors such as local and international news. They face much greater competition both on and offline from multiple news sources as well as the greater distractions offered by digital media in general. So they have less control over their own content as well as diminished influence on the market-places for their production.
Emotions Give Power To Journalism
However, the paradox of journalism power is that individual journalists or acts of journalism can have more impact than ever before. There is more demand for ‘journalism’. The new tools are more efficient and effective. The same networks that offer competition and distraction from journalism also offer new and often enhanced pathways to connect to the public and to find new ways to be influential and relevant. This paradox and how it plays out matters. To the journalists, but also to the public, because knowledge is power and who controls the production and distribution of topical information is more important than ever.
Emotions As A Game
The Financial Times’ Uber Game is a good example of an adaption to new technology that sustains and enhances journalistic value. The FT is a news organisation that has restructured itself as a 24/7 global digitally-led brand with a subscription model that works across a range of platforms. It is remodelling its journalism and in this case introduces a core emotional element into what is an excellent piece of in investigative business reporting.
This game is enjoyable.
It puts the reader at the heart of the process.
As you play it you are informed but you also come to empathise with the Uber drivers.
The game is based on extensive interviews and research by real journalists and real Uber drivers.
The result is a compelling piece of journalism in a new format with emotion literally driving the engagement resulting in better informed citizens.
This kind of innovation is flourishing across news media. I have just been to the 20th anniversary conference of the International Symposium of Online Journalism where some inspiring case studies and strategies were on show. But this is a systematic question and there are profound structural issues that won’t go away — indeed they will grow.
While some organisations are thriving thanks to developing new models such as subscription or philanthropy the fundamental business model problem remains — how to secure sustainable funds for journalism capacity, especially when news media will continue to be dependent to some degree upon the platforms.
This is part of the bigger context in which the public have an abundance of information while the news media still puts too much resource into duplicating content and failing to specialise in adding value.
The political focus has been on elections but anti-media authoritarianism and populism is growing and has become more disruptive endemically through attacks on journalists and the promotion of division, uncertainty, and polarisation especially through continuing forms of Misinformation.
While much news media has become better at engagement with some audiences there is still a News Gap problem of relevance for the public acerbated by a lack of diversity of journalists and journalism agendas. We are still horribly, structurally, out of touch. That’s not good for an industry that claims to know what’s going on out there.
Truth, Trust and Technology
At LSE last year I led an attempt to address the wider media policy challenges around the platforms, journalism, political communications and media literacy. We proposed an innovative form of Internet intervention, a massive campaign for media citizenship and new rules for political communications. But perhaps the most important part of the report was the analysis of the problems, causes and goals for media policy — including journalism. To be effective it must recognise that we are in a changed environment for information.
We called it the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission because I know that those words are routinely misused and have to be contested.
Take trust. We all talk about rebuilding trust, but perhaps we should also welcome the growth of scepticism? Realistically, we must accept that we are now living in a low-trust world.
Truth: journalists talk about a post-truth phase, they make truth-telling claims. But there was no Golden Age of a universally-acknowledged consensus (indeed, that would be unhealthy) and the news media often contributed to false or misleading narratives. Perhaps we should recognise that we live in a multiple-truth world?
Technology: many of us hoped that technology could drive democratic renewal but we now recognise that it is ideological and economically shaped just like any form of media and communications.
I am sceptical of finding external solutions to the news media’s resource problems though I welcome policy moves around public service media, philanthropy and a better deal from the platforms for news. But before we make strategic business or policy moves we must better understand the key role of emotions. The information sphere must be shaped by ethics and emotions as well as economics and ideology.
Why Emotions Are More Important To Journalism Now
There are three main drivers of increased emotionality in news.
The first is technological.
News is intimate — it is mobile and blended. Even the analogue is now networked.
The social networks’ design and algorithms use emotional cues to drive attention and sharing. Emotion as identity, values, feelings and personal relationships is the fuel for their business models.
Second it is news media economics:
We have the data to understand and exploit the emotional drive to consume news at a time of ultra competition. That is making newsrooms adopt more emotional techniques, but often without understanding why they work and their effects.
And finally, it is about human behaviour.
The greatest foundational myth of classic modern journalism was that it was consumed primarily for information.
In the digital era we can see the other, more important reasons (just as we have come to understand it in political and commercial marketing).
For example we might share a piece of content to pass on information. But there are a host of other emotional drivers: to express ourselves, to affirm our views, as a ritual, habit or performative gesture.
It may be driven by something ‘irrational’ but very human: curiosity.
The threat of Emotions to the journalism
So what if identity, values, and feelings dominate over facts, evidence and rational argument?
I don’t want to fall for a simple binary narrative — the utopian/dystopian divide has not served us well in previous historic iterations of how journalism adapts to technological or other shifts. But clearly there are dangers about a more emotionally driven journalism
Emotion can be irrational, instinctive, unthinking.
It can veer towards the superficial, narrow-minded, prejudiced, and violent.
Anonymous algorithms that drive to extremes can distort and are often not transparent. They are easy to manipulate.
The commercialisation or commodification of emotions can dehumanise or dilute their positive value.
But here are some thoughts about how it can be used positively.
The Value of emotions to journalism audiences
The big challenge for mainstream news is not to get back its power, it is to be more valued.The goal should not be to protect journalism as it is or was, but to change it to deal with a changing world.
Putting the user at centre of distributed journalism is not just a technical exercise — it does shift power to the audience.
But before we create our journalism we need to think about what audiences value.
This means recognising a broader, more diverse public agenda — often aligned along emotional lines.
It means recognising the diverse identities of the public — even the varying emotional elements of any one individual over time — for example, over a day: the kind of news we want in the morning may be different to that in the evening. Data tell us what consumers do, emotions help us understand why.
Your subscription model might be working well in the short-term but is it turning your journalism into a gentleman’s club? (Literally: subscribers skew heavily towards the white male middle class)
And finally, this emotional connectivity — for example through personalisation brings a responsibility to consider the mental health of the news experience — how do we make people feel about our journalism? Is it ‘time well spent’?
The Real Uses Of News To The Public
The six uses of news: a schema used when Dimitry Shishkin was at the BBC for encouraging their newsrooms to refashion their formulation of news to better reflect audiences user needs or desires and the reality of their news consumption rather than the assumptions of journalists.
Update me (facts/event) — was 70% of output but only 7% of consumption
Users wanted news to do other things for them which are all part of being informed but often in an emotional dynamic or fulfilling an emotional need:
- Give me some perspective
- Educate Me
- Keep me on trend
- Divert me
- Inspire Me
These are valid needs but they are emotionally informed. The newsroom production processes need to reflect that.
The value of emotions to journalists
In a post-industrial journalism age emotions through personalisation, empathetic story-telling, understanding audiences sentiment and identity helps produce attention, engagement and a sustainable relationship with the consumer.
Trust can be built through credibility signals — it’s not good enough to fact-check — you have to understand the emotional relationship of people to information or argument and build that relationship over time. To build credibility you have to understand the causes of mistrust — a mistrust often based on valid emotional responses to news media failures.
Emotions means changing boundaries for journalism labour and newsroom organisation. This is partly about constant R&D, but not just for products but also for a better understanding and relationship with the user as people not just data. Don’t just change the job titles, we must change what we do and how we do it.
That means changing the skill set and the composition of the newsroom to promote emotionally resonant design to build connections with the user through emotional literacy, as well as expertise.
It means fostering greater staffing and editorial diversity including greater creativity.
It means an attitudinal shift that might allow for greater subjectivity and emotional openness from journalists. But allowing for subjectivity doesn’t just mean parading the journalist’s world-view or feelings. It must be done transparently. Show your workings and reflect on your own inevitable biases. Newsrooms must also learn to listen humbly — for example through clever comment moderation.
Newsrooms should use all kinds of data about audiences to understand how they relate to their work but they should think like an ethnographer not just like a marketeer. The New York Times did this recently by researching how people used voice devices and created a typology of usage. It reminds me of my time as a local newspaper journalist watching people in pubs and on buses and how they consumed my newspaper. I thought they would avidly read my political exclusives but instead I saw how they combed through the classified adverts or sought photos of their children after a school concert.
The value of emotions to journalism quality
In an age of misinformation it is important to think again about the claims made for ‘quality’ in journalism.
Values such as accuracy, judgement and objectivity remain core values. I am not suggesting we abandon them in favour of a subjective, emotion-ridden relativism or a purely profit-driven data drive. But in the competition to get the public to pay attention — and pay for — journalism that is expert, ethical and for the ‘good’ of individuals and society, we have to be emotionally engaged.
Journalists should stop thinking about quality as a hierarchy and think of it as Shakespeare does when referring to ‘mercy’ in the Merchant of Venice: quality is the nature of something, in the bard’s case — it’s ethical and emotional nature. Sadly for journalism, quality does not ‘droppeth from the heavens’, it must be strained for.
It should not just be about an elite. The cult of the long-form, for example, is still worshipping at the shrine of a particularly self-indulgent form of emotional narrative aimed at a high-minded niche. ‘Good’ journalism in popular form is probably more needed now than elite media which we have in abundance.
Authenticity is as important as authority: we want accuracy but unless it is grounded in experience it is just data.
Curation that works with emotion can help people find what is best. Personalisation should not just be about helping people find what they consumed before. In the context of the idea of an informed public and democracy, the classic idea of objectivity can get in the way of a more generative model that seeks to engage not just educate.
It is vital to make journalism more relevant — to connect it to people’s lives. But one of the satisfactions people get from journalism is to be told things they did not know, don’t agree with, that is beyond their usual lives, or that simply provokes instinctive, emotional responses: such as curiosity — it’s not logical but it’s a basic human response. Sometimes it is good to ask the Marie Kondo Question: does it spark joy? Did you have fun making the content? Then why not share that joy? Inspiration and excitement is contagious. Experimentation helps transparency and connectivity and by sharing the labour you share the risk and build confidence.
Universities and other bodies that claim to provide public service are increasingly seeking to measure and understand their Impact — the effect on people and their communities. Journalism should start to do the same, so that it can make the case for its value. This is about the emotional capital that journalism can help build as well as the economic, political or social benefits.
This may well mean thinking of different formats: conversational bots and trying to learn from other forms of expression such as drama or comedy that have particular emotional power.
AI, machine learning and automation: the next frontier?
And now it could all be about to change again. This year I am conducting a one year study of how AI/ML/automation is being deployed in newsrooms around the world and asking what editorial and ethical challenges and opportunities that poses.
It seems to me that this could be as major a technological shift as we’ve seen in the last two decades. The opportunity for freeing up journalists from routine work, the ability to story-gather, to understand audiences, to create more personalised relationships and to connect people to information or debate seems to offer huge potential benefits. Perhaps AI can even help correct some human journalistic biases?
But we must recognise the paradigm shift. AI plus voice, for example, is going to change the relationship between user, technology, journalism and source in profound ways. This is beyond mobile, beyond the screen, beyond the idea of an article. And emotions will be at the centre of it.
Yet of course AI and machine learning might just be an excuse to slash labour costs and automate the relationship with the consumer with algorithms riddled with bias and bad priorities or goals. We must seek to adapt this new set of technologies in the same way that I have suggested we adapt traditional journalism.
Time For A Change
This is a personal, emotional topic for me. I went into journalism for emotional reasons: I wanted to change the world and I found it a very exciting job that allowed me to interact with people and issues in a personal as well as professional way.
I was brought up as a traditional reporter who started his life on a newspaper chasing ‘stories’, before going into the BBC as part of John Birt’s famous ‘mission to explain’. I ended up in the temple of rational, critical thinking, the LSE.
What drove my interest in emotions was observing how classic objective journalism was now operating in the increasingly emotional context of emotion in the online, social media era. Journalism is fighting for survival, for attention and for relevance in a complex, often frightening world that needs journalism more than ever. A creative, innovative, ethical approach using emotions as an organising principle offers a way of addressing if not solving some of the threats to the practice that I still love and value.
Journalists have to go with this flow of postmodern human nature. They need to be more expert but they also need to be more ’empathetic’. They need to understand the ‘other’ lives better. That means getting out of the office physically and digitally, but it also means leaving the herd. Back in the 70s and 80s Birt was right to see that TV journalism needed to restructure itself. Not just organisationally but culturally. 40 years on and journalism is going through a profound disruption again in the face of technological transformations.
Emotions challenges journalistic epistemologies and that’s a good thing — they deserve to be constantly questioned. But the reinvention must be more than technical. The news media must rediscover its interest in understanding the human. And for all those reasons, emotions must be recognised as vital principle for the organisation of journalism today and in the future.
This article was based on a lecture given by Professor Charlie Beckett at Northwestern University in April 2019.
You can can access the slides here.