Should TV news presenters lack emotion?

By Sophie Hamilton

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

Traditionally, news outlets were committed to the strict principle of impartiality. The presenters were often expected to report from a neutral perspective, emphasising the ‘hard facts’ and fairly representing stories. But now, news reporting is increasingly allowing journalists to have more freedom on screen, showing emotion and letting their opinions shape their broadcasting. 

Arguably, the ultimate purpose of news is to objectively tell stories. Reporters dictating a neutral narrative will best achieve accuracy and reliability – the two foundational elements of good journalism. Hence, impartiality sounds like it should be the default mode in newscasting.

Yet it may be naive to think that this is a universal solution. It can be advantageous to use emotion as a means to communicate news as emotional cues are proven to help gain attention and prolong engagement – people generally connect to emotion more than facts. GB News in the UK, Fox News in the USA, and countless YouTube channels and podcasts use opinion-led formats, with many media scholars noting that the way in which we expect news to be delivered is changing. Media and Communication Studies professor, Mervi Pantti, explains: “recent events such as 9/11 have been seen to accelerate a trend towards embracing emotion as a legitimate part of the journalistic culture”.

Image: Pexels

Veteran Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow exemplifies this style of emotional newscasting, stating; “I’ve always been emotional, and I think it’s a good thing”. Snow famously reports in a way that actively involves himself in a story, saying that if being numb makes you a good journalist, he is not one, “I don’t see how you find out anything if you don’t get so far into it that you end up sympathising with, or loathing, whatever it is you’re looking at”.

One of Snow’s most famous broadcasts was a heartfelt monologue in which he recounted the horrors he saw in Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital where doctors struggled to treat children wounded in Israeli attacks. In the report, Snow displayed raw empathy as a plea to take action, and thousands of viewers praised his moral stance and honest reporting style. In the case of a tragedy or truly disturbing event like this, arguably an emotional reaction is valid and would not undermine one’s journalistic integrity.

Yet many criticised Snow’s report for being a “one-sided piece of propaganda” which made a political statement and crossed a line. Critic Charlie Beckett argued: “I feel very uncomfortable with the way that people on social media approve of this piece of journalism simply because it reflects their point of view and disparage reporting that challenges them”. 

Image: Flickr

Plus, the desire for a regulated standard of impartial news reporting is still shared by the majority. This was also the general consensus of an investigation among members of The Boar, with 61% of participants agreeing with the statement: ‘it is important for TV news reporters to remain stoic and impartial whilst presenting’.

An anonymous Warwick student explained their disappointment with the failures of many modern news outlets which wrongly allow their political responses to filter into their news coverage. “If you watched CNN during the Trump presidency, there was so much anger over everything that it really damaged the brand. It was hard to see them as an impartial source of news when so many of their reporters clearly hated the President, and let this guide their coverage”.

So what is the answer? The classic model of objective journalism is undoubtedly reinventing itself in the increasingly personalised and emotional era of news media. More viewers are realising how difficult a task it is for journalists - professionals but humans - to suppress their natural feelings by constantly adopting an unnatural presenting style which is totally devoid of emotion. The job of the journalist is to witness, analyse, and clearly inform, but news is also intimate: maybe authenticity is more appropriate?

I think the answer lies in a healthy balance because as Charlie Beckett says, “it’s impossible to make cast-iron rules about this sort of thing. Journalism is a craft, not a science.” For instance, we could have authoritative ‘gold standard’ news outlets, such as the BBC, which strive for strictly neutral reporting and only allow less emotionally detached styles in exceptional circumstances (with appropriate signposting signalling that it was outside of normal coverage). Other news programmes could then allow for a more relaxed approach where subtle chat-show features are used. Including emotion in news is a slippery slope – it must be done carefully in order to avoid sensationalism and enhance news reporting. If done right, I think it could be made compatible with the virtues of accuracy, reliability, and professionalism.

Image: Unsplash