Much has been made of the surge of emotion among journalists who covered the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and to a lesser degree Hurricane Rita. Jean Meserve of CNN broke down. Anderson Cooper, also of CNN, got mad. Shepard Smith of Fox was outraged.
Many have lauded the news media’s newfound passion, and some have even wondered whether it might be a welcome sign of a new aggressiveness on their part.
But the praise has by no means been unanimous. “A 100-year journalistic commitment to a dispassionate report of facts seems to be in jeopardy,” one well-known Washington journalism educator wrote us. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was moved to ask Anderson Cooper one night: “Is this an argument or an interview?”
The issue cuts to the heart of what it means to be a journalist at a time when the matter is more in doubt than ever. In a profession that pledges itself to suppress self-interest to ensure its credibility, are emotionalism and outrage ever appropriate? And if so, when do they go too far?
Emotional responses to breaking events have become increasingly common with the new technology that allows instant visual reports from any place on Earth: the World Trade Center, Fallujah, tsunami-stricken villages, a bloody schoolhouse in the Russian town of Beslan, and towns and cities ravaged by Katrina. The pictures provide the stimulus. Anchors, sometimes armed with little more information than viewers have, offer the response.
It would be difficult to argue that emotion from journalists on the scene witnessing such human suffering is always out of place. Journalists are in essence our surrogate observers. It would have been odd, even distressing to most, if reporters had reacted like journalistic robots to the devastation in the Gulf Coast — further proof, press bashers would be quick to suggest, that the media have lost their humanity.
Rejecting that kind of emotional isolationism helped spawn movements such as civic journalism over a decade ago. The goal was to “reconnect” with citizens and present news in terms that made it more relevant to them. Bonding with audiences is also one of the forces that fueled the rise of the new partisan media.
Genuine human emotion drives journalism to higher levels of inquiry and gives journalists spine. Yet clearly there are risks to it. It can quickly descend into manipulative gimmickry, with journalists as professional emoters who cover events to express their outrage. Paddy Chayefsky explored this in the movie “Network,” in which anchorman Howard Beale announces that he’s fed up and isn’t going to take it anymore. The angry everyman is an old cliche in the news game, one that is alive and well in talk radio, on cable TV and on new Internet venues.
One problem is that this kind of emotional formulation of the news can distort coverage. You search for stories that play that tune, and avoid those that do not. The emotionalism becomes the news, the brand, the gimmick. Information is deemed too cerebral and insufficiently visual.
The first sensible rule here would seem to be that emotion ought to come at those moments when any other reaction would seem forced or out of place — when it’s the only organic response. When anchorman Walter Cronkite wiped his eyes after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or showed the sense of awe he felt over the space shots a few years later, it struck Americans as appropriate — as did the concern of anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather after Sept. 11, 2001. Katrina qualifies. The emotion wasn’t a journalistic device. It was simply what it was — a human reaction, difficult to control.
The second rule should be that once journalists have reacted in a human way to what they’ve seen, they must compose themselves to sort out responsibility for how and why things happened. The search for answers requires all their skepticism, professionalism and intellectual independence.
In a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina, we will continue to mourn what America has lost, and emotion will at times be part of the story. But we are now beginning to identify and learn from the mistakes, and the public will be called on to support or oppose decisions that will be made in its name.
Vested interests, political and otherwise, will supply the outrage and fingerpointing ad nauseam. That is the time when citizens most need journalists to have their wits about them, to apply serious critical, independent thought to questions that will cut through the spin and provide people the information they need to make up their own minds.
Human emotion is at the heart of what makes something news. But if journalists try to manufacture it or use it to bring attention to themselves, they’re into something there is already enough of: reality entertainment.
Tom Rosenstiel is the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Bill Kovach is the chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.