• Last April, I wrote about a bad habit of many journalists to infer the emotional states of the people (hereafter “newsmakers”) they’re covering based on the newsmakers’ expressed emotions. The reporters syllogisms were as follows:

    Premise: Newsmaker appears to have/is expressing emotion X.
    Conclusion: Newsmaker has emotion X.

    I countered that this is a leap of logic wherein the reporters have assumed an infallible power of reading minds. The simple flaw in their logic is easily illuminated by noting the fact that humans sometimes misrepresent themselves. The only conclusion that could truly be drawn from the above premise is that “Newsmaker seems to have emotion X,” or better yet, “Newsmaker has expressed emotion X.” As with any other subjective conclusion, it should be up to the news audience to determine whether the newsmaker was sincere or not.

    I did not receive a lot of feedback on this commentary, and so I suspect that it seemed to some to be a petty correction. If someone is crying, then surely we can assume they’re upset about something. I wouldn’t disagree in our everyday lives. If we see a friend expressing great emotion, I think it would be reasonable to assume (unless we suspect from experience that they have a habit of utilizing such alleged emotion for an advantage) that they are sincere, and so worthy of an expression of compassion. However, when reporters treat those in the news as though they are incapable of artifice, they are undermining their claims to journalistic objectivity. Consider the following two very recent examples, with which I intend to reinvigorate my argument against this crime against journalism:

    (1) In the United States, President Obama will soon be nominating a new high-powered person to take on the role of Secretary of State to replace the outgoing Hilary Clinton. Most indications are that his first choice is US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, while his second choice would be Senator (and former Democratic Presidential candidate) John Kerry. There are many politics enveloping each choice, one of which is that, if John Kerry were approved, he would have to give up his Senate seat, which would give a recently-defeated Republican candidate an excellent chance of taking his spot. This would be good for the Republicans. Therefore, when the Republicans express grave concern about Susan Rice’s candidacy, they may (at least in part) be playing politics. Nevertheless, I heard the following on MSN-BC:

    REPORTER: The Republicans are very upset by the possibility of Susan Rice’s appointment.

    This reporting statement gives credence to the notion that the Republicans have sincere reservations about Ambassador Rice. Maybe they do, but by framing this statement as an objective assessment of emotion, the broadcaster has told the audience that they have every reason to trust the political party’s “concern.” I doubt that the reporter was trying to influence us in that way (since it is, after all, a Democrat-leaning network); instead, they were most likely once again under the influence of lazy journalism. In lieu of taking the time to describe exactly what they could objectively see and hear, they rounded off from their nearest perception (that the politicians sounded upset) to fact (that the politicians were upset).

    This is why I argue that, even in cases where it seems patently obvious that an emotion is sincere (such as with apparently grieving people) reporters should be obsessive about never saying more than they can legitimately claim to know. Instead of referring to someone as “sad,” they should describe what they actually witness, perhaps that “the person’s voice faltered,” and then we the audience will draw our own conclusions.

    (2) In Canada recently, a man was arrested at the border for allegedly trying to smuggle kids (who weren’t his own) into the US. His stated justification was religious, and so the radio station said, “X man believes Y religious precept.” Such a statement presumes that the man is not a religious con artist. Hopefully, we the audience might still suspect the insincerity of the man’s religious claims, but we have to consciously see past the broadcaster’s credence-giving statement. None of us knows what any other person believes: we only know what each other says. But, by couching religious claims as “beliefs,” broadcasters imply their sincerity, and so fallaciously create the impression that all devout religious representatives are equally devout religious believers. This is a serious leap of shorthand. Religious spokespeople already have extreme power in our world; they don’t need the extra benefit of being treated as though they always say exactly what they truly believe.

    In short, it is not the job of journalists to tell us who to trust; all we need is facts.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 8:45 AM

  • 2 Responses

    • Tom Durrie Says:

      Very sensible, indeed. I do point out, however, that “facts” are as subject to interpretation as are emotions.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Well put, TomD. Stripped down, even supposed facts are impossible to ever know with certainty. However, when it comes to such “facts,” journalists are at least expected to verify them via more than one independent source. And, if a journalist is shown to get a fact wrong, they are expected to provide a public retraction. In the case of claims of emotions, on the other hand, there are no such checks and balances. The journalistic community has no system of checking their emotional assessments, and there is no corrective measure ever applied in the inevitable cases where they seem clearly to have guessed wrong about the inner worlds of newsmakers. Thus, since there is neither a means by which to assess the veracity of journalistic claims to mind-reading, nor a system by which to admit wrongful emotional assessments, I think it’s best that reporters stick to the “facts” that can and will be scrutinized.

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