As the hunt for the Boston bombing suspects took control of my television last week, I switched from one network to the next, captivated by every new development throughout Friday.
When I was paused on one particular channel, I found myself distracted by two distinct narratives coming from that network’s anchors. One anchor tried repeatedly to cover the facts and details of the manhunt, supplementing this with bits of information that might help the viewer better know what information to expect in the coming hours.
His partner, on the other hand, kept calling the viewer’s attention to the expressions of fear, anger, puzzlement or confusion on the faces of anyone who happened to be on screen. Since the station kept running loops of video from the marathon day bombing, this anchor kept retracing the emotions and only emotions from the day of the bombing and interweaving it with the emotions of the moments at hand for Bostonians.
To exacerbate the reporting, the two anchors kept interrupting each other with these competing narratives.
Any old news hand knows the reason for this. Viewer surveys have indicated some viewers - a growing number actually - watch TV for an emotional outlet, while others want information, the facts.
TV news producers encourage reporters to try to draw the emotion out of interviewees, and to try to put the emphasis in the report on the emotions involved, thus making the report somewhat more dramatic.
For those of us in PR, it is well understood that sooner or later in a TV interview, no matter what the subject matter, the reporter will ask the person being interviewed, “How do you feel?” All too often, that’s the only line of questioning, and as a result, the facts get lost.
A newspaper reporter I know often says, “That’s why you’ll always have newspapers. Sooner or later, people what to know what’s really going on.”
I’m not so sure. In the days following the Boston bombing, I’ve continued to follow the media coverage from every angle, from the crime story perspective, to a business story, a local story for Bostonians, to a world and political affairs story.
The one constant is a battle between the emotional play and critical thinking. And emotion seems to be winning. To be sure, the killing of three at the marathon and a police officer a few days later, the traumatic injury to hundreds, all due to the actions of two terrorists is inherently dramatic. But as facts start to come out, they seem to be forced through an emotional filter in the media that can easily distort the story.
As a consequence, in some corners, the killers are emerging as sympathetic figures, which can be hard to fathom when you consider what they did after considerable pre-meditation.
I had a journalism professor who addressed the conflict between emotion and critical thinking among journalists this way. To paraphrase: If you set out to write a story based on your own emotional attachments, you stand a good chance of writing fiction. But if you have courage and base your reporting on critical thinking, be careful for you may not like what you have to write but it will be true.