Essential Emotion

Last week, Harriet Rubin penned a curious opinion piece in USA Today. In it, she chides the news networks for showing emotion in their coverage of Hurricane Katrina/Rita.

As she writes:

"Media have congratulated themselves mightily these past few weeks for their naked coverage. But while it has often been brave and insightful, it has also been dangerous and irresponsible."

I have an enormous amount of respect for Rubin, but I strongly disagree with her on this issue. First, I find it an oddly inconsistent position for a person who advocated the use of emotion as an essential persuasive skill, as she writes in her bestselling book Princessa: Machiavelli for Women:

"To intensify feelings, let everything seek deep inside you. Don’t protect yourself from the pain you feel or see around you. Or from your desires. Provoke the same in others, both supporters and opponents. You need to feel the importance, the excitement, the plausibility of your mission." (pg. 75.)

Second, to the substance of her argument.

I understand the need for objectivity in journalism –it’s enormously important. But I think we need to get real about what objectivity is. In my view, the most objective reporting comes when a journalist , as completely as possible, understands his or her own emotional stance on an issue, so that said journalist can most effectively correct for the bias that every human being inevitably brings to any important subject. The most dangerous subjectivity is that which the journalist is unaware of.

To suppress an emotional reaction in the face of a tragedy would not be objective. It would just be weird. And to suggest that reporters should become something other than human –Vulcan-like, if you’re a Trekkie, or like an automaton–us not only counterproductive, but is downright impossible. Sure, there was a certain amount of on-camera grandstanding for the camera in the days after Katrina and Rita. But I know that I’m much more comfortable with a journalist (or a person) whose emotions that I can see and judge for myself.

Let’s not forget one of the key characteristics of a sociopath: the lack of empathy or pity, in the face of another’s suffering. The emulation of sociopathic behavior can’t possibly lead to good journalism. In any event, to advocate that journalists act as something other than full human beings with both emotions and a job to do is, itself, dangerous and irresponsible.


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