• I’ve been criticized, in my non-blogging life, for ranting at journalists who attribute particular emotions to people they cover. Consider the following fictional coverage of Jane Newsmaker’s comments on Joe Bad-guy’s criminal sentencing:

    JANE NEWSMAKER (yelling): I’m disgusted that Joe Bad-guy didn’t get more time in jail.

    JOHN REPORTER: Newsmaker was angry that Bad-guy didn’t get more time in jail.

    SETH: What?! How does Reporter know whether Newsmaker was genuinely angry or not?

    SETH CRITIC: Well, Newsmaker looks pretty angry.

    SETH: Yes, but it’s perfectly conceivable that Newsmaker’s not actually emotionally involved in the case, but is presenting so for a political purpose.

    SETH CRITIC: No, from a reporter’s perspective, it’s reasonable to describe an angry-looking person as angry.

    I have been baffled more than once to find that smart people are not always convinced by my perfectly logical rant on this point, so I was delighted to hear from CBC radio, yesterday, proof in an example. As you probably know, there is speculation (based on an apparently leaked draft of a report by Canadian Auditor General, Sheila Fraser) that the Conservative government of Canada have been up to some inappropriate financial dealings:

    MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The Conservatives have been spraying money around like drunken sailors in Tony Clement’s riding…

    CBC COMMENTATOR: Ignatieff was clearly shocked [by the controversy].

    Shocked?! I have no idea whether or not the leader of the Canadian Liberal party is indeed startled by the controversial happenings in Tony Clement’s Huntsville riding, but I can see plenty of reason why it would benefit him to be perceived as shocked. After all, to be seen as a leader with integrity is a highly coveted position in this political campaign and so, if one politician is caught in a controversy, it looks good on their rivals to be so above the alleged misconduct that they are dismayed by it.

    In support of that very point, the possible Conservative villain Clement, himself, accused his critics of using the controversy to score unearned political points. He claims that the final report by the Auditor General will exonerate him, but he says because his rivals know that Sheila Fraser won’t reveal those details until after the election, his enemies are merely feigning rage about what she’ll eventually say.

    I hope Clement is wrong about the Liberals’ intentions, but his counter-criticism is now part of this political dispute. For the CBC reporter to state outrightly that Ignatieff “was shocked” is to take a position on the debate. It is to suggest that, in fact, Ignatieff is speaking from the heart on this issue. I’m not saying that he’s not, but a reporter should not make a claim in any direction on what is motivating any political leader. Leave the opinion-making to editorialists (and bloggers, of course :)).

    I doubt the CBC journalist made this inappropriate psychological claim with any intention to bias his audience. Instead, I think he is merely guilty of lazy journalism probably as a result of the common trend amongst reporters to describe their subjects with the emotions they perceive in them. It is simple and effective to characterize someone who is yelling as “angry,” since it seems so clear that they are piping mad. And what’s the harm, some would argue? In many cases, such attributing of emotion to newsmakers appears innocuous. For instance, when a widower responds to his wife’s death, it seems so right to note that he is grieving.

    Nevertheless, the fact is reporters never know with certainty what any newsmaker is thinking and in turn they do not know whether or not a person may be presenting an emotion (that they don’t actually have) for a political purpose. For instance:

    WIDOWER: I loved my wife dearly. I will spend the rest of my life trying to track down her killer.

    REPORTER: The football star was devastated by his wife’s death.

    And the possible truth of the matter: the widower was the killer. Once this fact is suspected, the lazy reporter will have a lot of explaining to do: “What made you so sure the athlete was devastated? Did you really just take his word for it?” To avoid such an embarrassing fate, my suggestion is simply that reporters stick to the facts:

    CORRECTED REPORTER: The teary-eyed football star vowed to find his wife’s killer.

    In this case, if it turns out that the widower is the killer, the reporter would no longer need to recant his testimony because everything he said was true (there was indeed tears in the famous athlete’s eyes and he did promise to find the killer). All that journalists need to do is make a habit of always reporting only what they can verify about their newsmakers and they’ll never have to worry about accidentally making outrageously false claims.

    Portal to my update on this rant.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 11:32 PM

  • 4 Responses

    • TomM Says:

      Nice point- I agree wholeheartedly. A personal favourite is a town reported in shock or grieving for the loss of one of its own. Why not say ‘friends and close relatives are in shock’. It seems that the attribution of emotion sells papers or ad time etc.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Yes, that’s a brilliant example! And I nearheartedly agree with your correction (although, I would change it to “friends and close relatives appear to be or [expressed] shock.”

    • Natalie Says:

      I am reminded of the issue of intention. In the field of musicology, something similar to lazy journalism happens when a scholar tries to read composer intent into a piece of music, ie. “Mozart was feeling sad about the death of his mother, so he wrote his symphony in a minor key.” Recently, this trend has been severely criticized on the basis that we can never know for certain what a composer really INTENDED by a piece, we can only interpret what he/she actually DID in a piece, in addition to the fact that the best intentions alone do not guarantee a work’s artistic merit.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Natalie. I’m SethBlogs and I approve this comparison. Even if Mozart himself had stated that he wrote a particular symphony for his mother, it’s possible that he actually meant it as a secret love letter to his publicist. By announcing that the piece goes with a particular emotion in Mozart’s life, the musicologist finalizes a discussion that could easily have more detail to it than meets initial interpretation. Why not simply state, “Mozart composed this piece shortly after his mother’s death, and so the minor key in which it’s written may reflect his grief”? Gets the very plausible point across without treating unverifiable assumptions as facts.

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