It’s one of my favourite scenes in HBO’s critically praised fictional foray into the world of news. “I don’t want to feel sorry for anybody, I want the facts” says the hard bitten News Ed. MacKenzie in The Newsroom.That eloquently sums up journalism’s code of honour: “facts not emotion”.
From the onset of television news in the 1950s, practitioners have struggled with this duopoly in which emotion is viewed as the manipulative enemy of journalism, getting in the way of evidenced-based stories.
TV Journalism’s dourness and any portrayal of emotion meant when the BBC first took to the air presenters were not allowed to be seen in case they revealed a tell of how they felt, and then as now alongside reporters their demeanor retains a stoicism. Grace Wyndham Goldie, one of the BBC’s television pioneers writing in her own memoirs about fashioning television journalism talks of her dislike for cinema, as well as documentary under John Grierson. Grierson was the father of documentary whose film like Drifters (1929) and Nightmail (1936) were cinema-documentary laden with emotions.
Emotion is the doorstopper for the mythical notion of impartiality. Mess with emotion and you’re on the wrong side towards the excesses of Fox TV. I say mythical too because impartiality at best is an aspired to state-of-mind, which requires dissection for self reflection rather than merely the poker face of broadcasters proclaiming theirs is premium impartiality at its best. Discuss at Journalism 101.
The arrest on emotion affects the way a news film is made today: linear predictability; more wide and conventional shots; less close ups which Gilles Deleuze the film scholar refers to as the “Affective-image”. Reporters hailing you; minimal, if ever, use of dynamic lenses to tell stories; and as Wyndham Goldie was crafting journalism she preferred a team of skilled individuals, so each person’s opinions or even emotions would be held in check by others.
To show how television eschews emotions I conducted an experiment between a network broadcaster and lone award winning videojournalist’s work covering the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake. The broadcaster in the video suppresses the emotional quotient of the film by their edit. The videojournalist uses it to draw the viewer into the film. Subjectively it doesn’t feel excessively overused. When I have showed both films to students, overwhelmingly they choose one — the videojournalists. A month later and their recall on the film is still fresh compared to the other.
Near the Syrian border, I worked with a group of young people, not influenced by the patterning of television news, who wanted to show what it feels like in to live in Syria. We explained our findings at the International Festival of Journalism. Some of the people I worked with are friends of the Emmy award-winning filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, she points out to me. The director’s own multiple award-winning film For Sama speaks for itself.
Television news’ stance on emotion is a non sequitur. Film scholar David Bordwell notes that a film’s content by dint of what’s in the frame is in and of itself emotional. There’s no such thing as zero emotions, otherwise you’re not human, but he distinguishes between inside the frame and actions by the filmmaker that would lead to “feelingful” qualities. Abbas Kiarostami Five (2003) which features a rock and waves lapping a beach may come across as dreary and boring, but it’s emotion personified. When then if the camera were made to move in a slow push?
You are indeed an emotion power plant. Merely pointing a camera and capturing scenes in a frame can evoke strong emotions as Michael Buerk proved with his now landmark 1984 film from Ethiopia’s famine. But it was not by accident that the script adopted a (poetic) meter at the beginning and the voice-over registered a perceptive sadness.
Wyndham Goldie may, just may, have been right then; conditions were different, and TV experts knew very little about moving images on the screen, so the weight and history of her arguments and legacy continue. But it’s untenable today.
What with understanding television’s language (WS/MS/CU) emerged from cinema and anyway you argue it a shot and what it connotes can similarly arouse the viewer in context, whether it’s on the small or big screen. A hand cutaway is not free of meaning. And that the Internet and filmmaking created by millions zeros in on cinematic language rather than television’s postulates.
Journalism’s construct and its strained relationship with emotions splits audiences. Those who might feel manipulated by the reality they observe and particularly younger viewers who feel the news is too dry and the storytelling process follows a predictable formula.
Surely, journalism film covering child migrants in detention centres can embrace a different approach to storytelling that yields “feelingful”qualities and rams home the centres’ appalling conditions. That can be as simple as framing. Or do we need to wait for Ava DuVernay and Netflix for such a production?
Surely too, the US winning the World Cup for the 4th time deserves more to it that we’re conventionally served to capture their magnificence, or is this the preserve of Nike only? A feel good feeling — all true too than facts, facts, facts.
There must be a way of portraying the sentiment and character of the UK’s Prime Minister beyond its nominal 1.40 seconds of screen filler to chuckle at. There is, but that field of expertise has been cornered by political experts, fictional filmmakers, advertisers and behaviour psychologists. Journalism, meanwhile mopes forlornly in the corner through self inflicted propositions. There may be no country after Halloween day and the best thus far the media is managing is a verbal wade through factual treacle.
And no, if you’re asking I’m not anti-facts. I’m a scientist by training with an Applied Chemistry background in which cold hard readings was all that was needed to determine purity of a molecule, before going on to work as a journalist for outlets like Newsnight, Channel 4 News and ABC News.
Whilst journalism remains reluctant to discuss or seek ways to address why, for instance, young people turn of the news, the news is being gamed by the very PR and spin doctors who understand intrinsically how video and humans work. Emotions!
Which brings me to this proposition, that instead of making news, produce stories and by that I mean take a leaf out of cinema. Robert Drew did this in the 1960s, before, the industry once they’d taken his techniques and gear, spat him out. He says this in his own way on this video.
We are where we are now because of talented executive who consciously took the view to construct television journalism into the way it is, and since then generation have held firm that its methods are inviolable. That in spite of how society has changed and disciplines such as philosophy, literature and art that seek reality have changed their thinking to address society.
The thought of the ground breaking physicist’s Sir Isaac Newton’s way of seeing the world through his laws of mechanics, comes to mind. Working through observed facts Newton postulated theories in Principia which for 200 years framed science. Time flowed linearly, was absolute and was marked off from space which was empty, void and inert. Without going further into the science, it would have been inconceivable to anyone that they could diss Newton. Einstein upended Newton’s law by showing that space and time are relative and connected, portrayed in any number of science fiction films as the space-time continuum.
Just like space and time, emotions and evidence looked inviolably separate. They’re not and an argument for emotions does not diminish evidence. My research shows there are award winning news filmmakers who openly express the use of emotions counterbalanced by evidence, leading to what I call an emotions-evidence continuum. They are aware of the emotions in the film and the need for facts too. “What do your bosses say?”, I asked one BBC Award-winning videojournalist. “Oh they’re fine, so long as the facts are there, he replied. There is a responsibility they burden, and are aware of.
Today, courtesy of quantum thinking and figures like Einstein we now acknowledge space and time to be continuous, inextricably co-existing with one another. Emotions is the elephant in the room. Once it’s made apparent, how do you tame it? How do you control yourself not getting sucked into an emotional vortex. Experience? Philosophy? Transparency? Evidence informs, but stories with emotion inspires, goes one saying.
My point I’m labouring is that the Newsroom’s MacKenzie could today have said. “I like that I feel for sorry for the man and that there are facts”. It’s high time, television learned to accept the emotions-evidence continuum and that a generation being taught journalism learn to confront and understand how to deal with emotions, rather than fight shy of it.
To do so comes with a warning note. Emotions are not fixed. They are in the eye of the beholder and new research gives us clues why we need to confront it now and understand its complexities in an A.I. machine world where tech companies are seeking to engineer broad stroke emotional capture devices.
In her book How Emotions are Made, Dr Lisa Barrett, writes how emotions are not innate, not universal and are categorising concepts. We adopt emotional cues from our upbringing. Exemplary filmmakers, and the ones I have researched frame their notion of emotions through an understanding of their audience, an intuition that seeks general expressions from viewers at particular points.
Understanding the complexities of emotions-evidence continuum is the way to reclaim and design think the viewer’s interest in storytelling. That’s the way to relinquish news making of formulas in which behavioural psychologists and spin masters game editors and the viewers. That’s the way of getting to grips of a beyond modernism world where different story forms exists. Yet, there are no absolutes as Newton would have found out. You feeling me?
Author Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a leading Cinema Journalist and knight Batten Award Innovator in Journalism. He’s worked for some of the top news brands e.g. BBC, ABC News and Channel 4. He initially studied Applied Chemistry. He was name checked as one of the 61 influential Ghanaians in the UK on the Stormzy cover of Ghana Abroad. He is one of the leading writers in journalism on @medium (Medium Staff ). More on him here.