OMG! Journalism gets emotional
Is it a race to the bottom or just giving people what they want?
The clickity-clicks speak for themselves: first-person accounts of alcoholism, mental health issues and serious physical illness attract eyeballs the way a 2,000 word think piece on a geo-political matter rarely do.
If ever I were to give up on life entirely and become a journalism lecturer, I’d have my degree class done and dusted within 10 seconds: Journalism is turning emotional and you have to self-expose.
A leading journalism teacher in the US, Professor Susan Shapiro, talks about how her “signature assignment” for students is to write an article confessing their most humiliating secret.
As Shapiro wrote in the New York Times, she does this so they have a chance of selling their work in today’s marketplace. She practices what she preaches. “In December my husband stopped screwing me” was the opening line of one of her articles. “You have to grab the reader by the throat immediately,” Shapiro explains.
You could accuse the professor of cynically promoting the confessional piece as a meretricious attention-grabber just as much as you could salute her honest insight into the nature of journalism today.
The clickity-clicks speak for themselves: first-person accounts of alcoholism, mental health issues and serious physical illness attract eyeballs the way 2,000 word think pieces on geo-political issues rarely do.
This matters because there is now more journalism than ever before - it is always there, always on. Between old and new media and the bells and whistles of multi-platform and interactive, participatory streams, we are moving away, however tremulously, from the prescriptive model of journalism to meeting readers halfway.
Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism from the prelapsarian age of 1964 that the medium is not only the message but also informs how the message is perceived has an enduring truth.
Journalism is now scrolled through on smartphones, somewhere in between one of the Kardashians, pictures of sunsets and people saying “Yay!” on social media. And journalism is cutting its cloth accordingly - more OMG! content.
Media soothsayer Charlie Beckett has been screaming about this for years. Whether through his talks or his books, he has been noting that as media competition becomes more intense, “tugging at the heartstrings is a tried and tested way to get attention”.
He has also done the science bit: unearthing clear evidence that using emotional cues in copy helps to not just get attention but prolong the engagement. Conversational language works better; the “Curiosity Gap” is vital (“What happened after I told husband I was leaving him?”) and that content is much more readily shared when it has a first-person voice.
This Beckett readily maps out: event - affective narrative - emotional audience response - emotion driven sharing.
Bizarrely, neurology matters here. In politics, as Beckett points out, “we now know that people respond to emotion, not ideas or facts - we talk about “optics” instead of “facts”. Understanding how people relate to the news on a personal level is vital to anyone trying to get them to connect to their journalism. Increasingly, this is an emotional response”.
An author I know who writes unbelievably boring books that are nevertheless loved by the literary establishment told me recently that a leading UK newspaper would only interview him about his new book if he talked about his long-running and somewhat picaresque battle with alcoholism. The only advice I had was that if he upped the ante and told the paper about his secret affair with a famous TV presenter he would get the front cover.
The founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, has talked about how people are much more likely to share “personal confession” and “uplifting” news stories from the site than those dealing with “crises, tragedies and disasters”.
Now that the distribution and consumption models of journalism have irrevocably changed (just as how the MP3 file revolutionised and then destroyed the music industry), news stories can be as Tinder profiles - swipe left for disinterest, swipe right for I wanna know more.
And if we know the formula, is this a race to the bottom and dumbing down, or is it more about media organisations providing the sort of content that is successful enough so that the people providing it can be paid a living wage.
This is not inimical to operating without fear or favour, telling people things they don’t want to hear and remaining critical, objective and independent. Both can be enjoyed as part of a healthy and balanced journalistic diet.