The email came with anger and accusations. We had just signed off the late news and I was packing up, exhausted and ready for bed. The lead story that night was about an unsolved murder, one of our “embed” stories that spent 8 minutes exploring one topic. We highlighted a day in the life of a grieving mother, seeking justice for her son. He was a student athlete caught in the crossfire of a deadly shooting. It was a raw look at what justice denied does to loved ones. I set the stage for the story with the respect it deserved.
The post-newscast email that arrived was poorly constructed but the point was clear: How dare I attempt to describe this woman’s pain from my podium of privilege? How dare our journalists think they could do the story justice from their cozy positions? We were all obviously of questionable intellect and ill equipped to bring any understanding to this topic. How could we put the emotion on display without a deeper dive into the facts and statistics that bring true clarity to the problem of unsolved murders and innocents killed as gangs war over segments of the city?
I have to admit, this email pushed my temperature up. I wanted to hit reply and qualify my “victim credentials” to this person. No one in life is without a few scars and I wanted to lay mine out there as my bonafides on pain and suffering. I wanted to link other stories, show the legislation that followed the exposure of an issue, the assistance we’ve drawn in the light of many of our stories. I didn’t send that email. Instead, I ran an internal analytics on her deeper message : She found the story long on emotion, short on facts. The message also did not conform to her filter bubble or highlight the facts as she believed them. When you stripped away the insults, that was her message and it goes to a deeper crisis in journalism: Fake news is skewing the public’s perception of real news as journalism is still recovering from the bloodletting of 2007-2010. As a result, Pathos, Ethos and Logos are out of balance in much of what is appearing on social media timelines.
Let me back up for a quick refresher:
“Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are modes of persuasion used to convince audiences. They are also referred to as the three artistic proofs (Aristotle coined the terms), and are all represented by Greek words. Ethos or the ethical appeal, means to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character.” Pathos refers to stirring passion in the audience and Logos is appealing to logic. While used to describe persuasive writing and speech, good journalism should have elements of each. The “proofs” should be information leaving the viewer/reader to decide what is persuasive.
The recession that started in 2007 eliminated 20% of newspaper journalists and 10% of broadcast journalists. Entire photojournalism departments were slashed, journalism support (art, graphics) were consolidated and the MMJ (Multi-Media Journalist) model was born (where the broadcast journalist performs all functions of the job by shooting and editing their own stories in addition to the data collection, interviewing and writing). When you see a story on a newscast these days, the reporter doing the live shot or voicing the story has most likely spent the last 8 hours doing the job of what used to be 2 or 3 people. Companies cut to the bone to survive the recession-driven loss in advertising dollars. The rise of “citizen journalism” and mobile media forced journalists into unprecedented multi-tasking. The marrow was scooped out of many traditional newsrooms through additional culling of editors, assignment staff, support staff…anyone who couldn’t directly shoot, edit and produce content.
I’ve spent a portion of my career living through that, studying it, and writing a thesis on the changing responsibilities of broadcast journalists. It is an industry still quickly evolving and that evolution is not all bad or all good. Newsrooms are more automated, more digital, more social network focused and a lot leaner. They are also more in touch with viewers/readers and getting that instant feedback that traditionally came only with overnight ratings or subscriber numbers. Advocacy journalism is more accepted. Journalism is not only informing but helping people understand their world and have real time conversations with the journalists and each other.
However, in the vacuum of the “great journalism purge” has come a dangerous side effect: the rise of “fake” news. We’ve heard a lot about this lately as Google and Facebook try to purge fake stories from their customer timelines. The articles clog feeds and get passed along. They are meant to confirm filter bubbles, be humorous commentary or to spread half truths and they all share the quality of an emotional headline meant to push your buttons. Pathos is never more on display than in a fake news story.
Pathos is the easiest card in the content creator’s deck. Emotion draws us in, drama makes us lean forward. If you can incorporate even a portion of Joseph Campbells “heroes journey” into a story, it will get the clicks. “To translate knowledge and information into experience: that seems to be the function of literature and art” (Joseph Campbell).
Emotion is a viable story telling tool because it helps us relate and stories told with emotion lock themselves into our brains when statistics don’t stick. Emotion is a tool of both real and fake journalism. Neurobiological studies prove that emotion enhances the recollective experience more than it does memory accuracy. You remember how it made you feel more than the actual information it conveyed. Journalists, writers, content creators go to great pains to source the information for the reader but purveyors of “fake news” don’t care about accurate memories as long as the clicks are clickin’. This is the problem. Its hard to see through our filter bubbles and discern when emotion is being used as a legitimate tool to bring light to an issue or when purveyors of fake news just slapped you with their Pathos hand.
As a child I used to stand in line at the grocery store with my mother and see the tabloids sitting above the gum display, screaming headlines like, “Aliens Kidnap the President”, “Half Human, Half Fish Found in Florida”, “Abraham Lincoln Was a Woman!” I would watch people pluck these “news papers” as they passed or read them in line and, even at 12 or 13 years old, my reaction was to recoil. I knew I didn’t want to read anything that could deposit fake information in my brain that I would somehow regurgitate in conversation at a later date and sound like an idiot, “I read somewhere that Abraham Lincoln was a woman”. While tabloids still exist, the tabloid, fake news content exists on line, on websites that are difficult to discern from real news outlets sometimes. Social media has also helped spread fake news because all posts look the same whether they come from the Wall Street Journal or the Onion. The result is often emails to our newsroom with accusatory subject lines, “What kind of journalists are you? Why aren’t YOU covering the …..”
Melissa Zimdars, associate professor of communications at Merrimack College recently created a list of fake news sites for her intro to communication class. You can see it here:
Professor Zimdars is getting praise but also criticism for the list in that it includes: Breitbart (conservative) and The Blaze (conservative) but leaves off Daily Kos (liberal). Filter bubbles sometimes prevent people on opposing political sides from agreeing on what is fake vs. what is credible news! Zimdars says she was less concerned about partisan news (which has been around since the early days of our country) and more concerned with news that straddles the information/opinion/emotion line. That emotion is key because its what makes for a great clickbait headline.
This combination of journalists being culled from the industry, the rise of fake news content creators using emotion and misinformation to clickbait you into reading, absorbing and (most importantly!) sharing have combined to create a situation where filter bubbles are fed but intellect is starved. Pathos bubbles to the top as Logos and Ethos sink. As a news consumer you have a right to demand your journalists use more than emotion to tell a story but there is also more responsibility on the part of the consumer.
I check labels at grocery stores because I don’t want to ingest garbage. A few checks on a story that intrigues you should be enough to tell you if you want to ingest, let alone share the information: Does the headline match the article? Does the story attack a generic enemy? Are you asked to believe one huge unproven fact? Are you offered a view of the other side of the issue? Does the author offer any additional sources to turn to? With increased access and engagement with journalists also comes increased responsibility to add another layer of self-vetting. Pathos is a legitimate and necessary tool to draw viewers. Real journalists use pathos. However, if ethos and logos are missing, be suspicious.