Emotion is a powerful component of storytelling, wield it carefully.
Engaging, clear and genuinely human storytelling is a hallmark of NPR journalism. But our audience’s perceptions of what we report can be influenced not only by the information we present but also by how we present it. Be cautious of nuances of voice, inflection, sound, visuals and other elements that can transform a straightforward news report into something that feels skewed. Personal observations, such as a display of grief or dismay in the wake of a tragedy, can sometimes be appropriate, but they must always be authentic and must not diminish our credibility.
After an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Margaret Low Smith sent a note to NPR correspondent Rob Gifford to tell him how much she appreciated how he covered the earthquake’s aftermath. In his response, as Margaret Low Smith says, “Rob perfectly captures what distinguishes our reporting”:
“It’s hard not to write emotively when you are seeing what we are seeing,” Rob writes. “The difficult part is to channel the emotion so it is not mawkish or shallow, but deep and powerful and raw.”
In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel offer two helpful rules of thumb to help assess whether a display of emotion in a story is crossing the line:
- First, “it should come at those moments when any other reaction would seem forced – when emotion is the only organic response.” (See, for example, the case study on Jason Beaubien’s report from Haiti.)
- Second, it “should disappear between the moment of discovery of a problem and the subsequent search for information meant to put the event into a broader and deeper context. Once journalists have reacted in a human way to what they have seen, they must compose themselves to search for answers, and that requires all of their skepticism, professionalism, and intellectual independence.”
October 23, 2011