Journalists Can Embrace Emotions and Remain Neutral

    by Roland Legrand
    May 8, 2009
    Flickr picture by "Mexicanwave":http://www.flickr.com/photos/mexicanwave/2404978535/, "Creative Commons License":http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en

    Very recently I did something weird. Normally, when moderating our online community at Mediafin, I first read the news articles before I read the comments left by community members. Feeling a bit bored, I reversed this. I started by reading the comments and tried to figure out what the articles were about. It was a weird (but rather subversive) sensation finding that it was more fun reading the site like this.


    Why did I like reading the comments rather than the articles? I was asking myself that question, when I saw tweets flashing by, quoting the social media thinker Clay Shirky at the Nonprofit Technology Conference. It seems Shirky was saying that emotions are becoming more important in these times of rapid Internet communications (e.g. the fast growing popularity of micro-blogging). When things speed up, we are good at feeling fast but not thinking fast.

    You are not giving up on being neutral here, but you show your passion for the subject, and you invite the community to take part in this passion."

    One might think this is a bad thing. Emotions seem to be at odds with reason, and combined with the power of media they can lead to hysteria. I don’t know exactly what Shirky has to say about this, but I do remember that philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued in her book Upheavals of Thought that emotions can make valuable contributions to the moral life.



    Clay Shirky

    “Emotions” don’t have to mean knee-jerk, populist reactions by an uninformed mob expressing itself anonymously on forums. Emotions can refer just as well to people engaging in conversations where they do more than just argue facts — they express why they are interested in a topic, what they fear, and what they hope for.

    News reports, on the contrary, are written in a disembodied style. The author seems to be absent, so that their voice does not get in the way of “what is really going on.” Of course, the audience at large knows that the author isn’t really absent just because they try to keep their own thoughts out of a story.


    A journalist’s thoughts and opinion always, in some way, affect the story. At the very least, she makes choices by what she deems relevant enough to include and what format — such as a news report, an analysis, or a commentary — she decides a story should take. Other crucial choices have to do with titles, captions and illustrations.

    But yet, the journalist often prefers to hide herself. The intentions are pure enough: journalists really want to communicate the facts and only the facts, without imposing their ideas, convictions and emotions. In fact, emotions are completely banned.

    My take on this is highly tentative, but I am eager to know your thoughts on this matter. I think that by eschewing emotions and references to themselves, journalists cut themselves out of the conversation. Often this means that what they write is rather boring, especially when compared to the reactions of the community.

    I guess that explains why I liked reading the comments rather than the articles. It might also explain why the community members often hold discussions only amongst themselves, without implicating the apparently-absent journalist.

    Formulated positively, I think that journalists should not refrain from expressing themselves in their articles (I am focusing here on text news reports) when they can do so without endangering their neutral stance.

    The re-appearance of the journalist

    I see three ways to acknowledge emotions and the presence of the journalist in the conversation (without sacrificing the ethics of news reporting):

    > Referring to emotions. I think that at least some titles on a home page should refer to emotions. Instead of writing “Stocks gain after better than expected forecasts,” one could write “Investors hope for recovery.” Instead of saying “GM shares tank after negotiations collapse” one could say “GM tanks, investors fear bankruptcy.” It would acknowledge that markets, politics, sports and so many other things are driven by emotions. I don’t think there is anything wrong with referring to those emotions. Talking about different emotions on your news home page simply makes it a more human home page.

    > Talking to the community. It isn’t necessary for a journalist to hide from the community; she can speak to readers without betraying her principles. For instance, writing about rumors stating that Chrysler goes for Chapter 11, one could announce that the newsroom will cover president Barack Obama’s press conference about this issue, and invite the community to watch the videostream, while providing the link. Or one may simply remind the community members of a background story which you deem particularly relevant (maybe pointing out why it is relevant). These are very simple and straightforward interventions, but very often journalists refrain from doing even this much. They prefer putting a link to the videostream without actually saying anything to the community.

    I think we can learn a lot from blogging here. Bloggers would almost certainly say they look forward to learning more about the issues at hand, while providing the link to the videostream. You are not giving up on being neutral here, but you show your passion for the subject, and you invite the community to take part in this passion.

    > Another “technique” common in blogging is asking the community for an opinion. What does the reader expect will happen in the Chrysler case? Would a bankruptcy be a bad thing? Ask the reader! The writer of the story invites the reader to share what she or he thinks (or feels!).

    These are normal, simple questions we all ask in a normal life context, but when writing news stories, they suddenly seem inappropriate. Is this because of the pervasive influence of news wire articles? Because of some deep philosophical convictions that a story should be a spotless mirror or window showing the reality as it is by removing all trace of the author? If we have those convictions, I think we should investigate them critically.

    I am sure there are many more ways to report the news while actually speaking to your community (but without abandoning a neutral position). I’d like to ask you whether you think abandoning the disembodied style of news reporting would endanger the neutrality of the reporter. Or what other ways do you think journalists can engage in the conversation? Just let me know your take on these matters in the comments below.

    Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

    Tagged: comments community conversation participation reporting

    8 responses to “Journalists Can Embrace Emotions and Remain Neutral”

    1. Alan M. says:

      Thanks for a thought-provoking post. But when the journalist “reappears” in your article, she (a) refers to *other* people’s emotions [“investors hope…”], (b) talk to the community by inviting them to watch a videostream and read an article, and (c) ask readers their opinions. All fine & good, but where do journos begin “embracing emotions”? … You need to give a specific example where a journalist wrote a particular story about, say, a new policy to tax the rich–and then expressed her own emotions about the policy (eg “Stick it to ’em!” or “Rich people are the risk takers who make us ALL richer…” or some such). I’d be interested in how and why you think such a story might work.

    2. Alan, good question. What a journalist could do is explain why she tackles a particular issue – what her personal motivation is.
      In that motivation there often will be passions and value judgments.
      The story could very well end with a reconsideration of those value judgments and emotions – did researching and writing the story change the initial value judgment, did the emotions become more intense or more nuanced?
      The reporting itself does not have to become any less honest and neutral, and adding the personal aspects makes the reporting process more transparent.

    3. Lola says:

      I have to say I don’t agree. There’s a difference between an op-ed/commentary piece and news… and I don’t want to read news which has someone’s emotions/thoughts in it – because then it’s not fact, it’s opinion. And I’m speaking as someone who writes op-eds for national and international publications.

      It already bothers me to see reporters adding colourful adjectives into a factual piece of news which automatically changes one’s perceptions about the story. I actually think it can be quite dangerous because every single person has a bias and I’d hate for that bias to become what’s deemed as fact. There is already enough bias in the news as it is.

      Now, I have no problem with hearing what a writer’s motivation was if it comes to a commentary piece, but I don’t want to hear it in a news piece.

    4. Tracy Mangold says:

      I politely disagree with this article. As a journalist, it is my job to give the facts of the story, NOT my opinion unless I am writing an opinion piece.

      To suggest that the only way a piece can be interesting is IF the writer includes their own commentary is ludicrous. This suggests the writer is not good at their job to begin with and I resent that assumption.

      There is FAR too much personal commentary in the news today. I don’t like it, I don’t want it, I won’t do it. It used to be that you could not tell what a reporter or writer thought because they did such a great job at remaining neutral. Somewhere along the way, this has changed and this change is NOT for the better.

      Leave the opinions to those who write the opinion columns and let’s get back to news – real news reporting and writing. Just the facts please…

    5. Iris says:

      I guess the author is saying, “You don’t have to be boring to be journalistic.” And I agree with that.

    6. @Iris yes, that is what I am saying, but also, engage in a conversation instead of hiding behind “only the facts”. There is no such thing as “only the facts”. There was a selection of what to cover and what not, how to cover it, which format etc.
      These decisions also involve emotions, and even though I realize there are some dangers here, I think it would be interesting to acknowledge this in a conversation with the reader.

    7. Tx Roland for triggering my thoughts on this and the following came out (not being a journalist) :

      I prefer emotions over rationale as I think the heart is feeding the brains.
      I prefer opinion over facts, and on Facebook, I prefer to read comments over status too :-)

      And when I read the citizen feedback on licensing columnist Bernard Dewulf @demorgen, it seems many people have the same preferences : their is a manco on personal opinion articles in todays newspapers. Yes I want the facts (like a status update) but I do like the comments of the newspaper on each ‘fact’. I want and the facts and teh comments : I want a newspaper with “balls”.

    8. cube3 says:

      there is no “singularity” to being a THUNKER rather than a thinker, and shirky and the metapundits do no service to humanity as they toss out virgin metahype to an eager press and mass that wants either jesus or technology to save them with no real efforts on their part.:)

      mirror media.
      a totalitarians dream.

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