An earthquake in the world of emotion

How the mainstream media’s emotional journalism leaves us all more ignorant about the world.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics World

What did you feel when you saw that photo of Mesut Hançer holding the hand of his dead daughter in the rubble in Turkey? You can’t have missed it. It went viral. It lit up Instagram and TikTok. It appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the globe. It was analysed by Buzzfeed. ‘A defining image of tragedy’, Buzzfeed called it. Notice the absence of the word ‘this’ before tragedy. This wasn’t just the defining image of the Turkish calamity but of tragedy in general. It has become a commodity of horror. An emblem of human suffering. ‘My god… this picture is so utterly heartbreaking’, said Piers Morgan. Why did you share it then?

My feeling upon seeing it – both the first time and the hundredth time – is that I should not be looking at this. This is not a moment in a man’s life I should be party to. I felt like an intruder into unimaginable suffering. A grief tourist. So, should the photographer – Adem Altan of Agence France-Presse – not have taken the photo? Should he have elevated a man’s right to experience raw grief in privacy and with dignity above the right of people around the world to see this one stark image of the suffering in quake-hit Turkey? That’s the dilemma. There is no easy answer. Perhaps the problem is less that the photo exists, less that it was taken in the first place, and more what its viral spread tells us about how the media – and, by extension, the rest of us – engage with the world today.

Something about the media coverage of the earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria on 6 February has made me uncomfortable. It feels ghoulish, emotionally manipulative. Do we really need to see more footage of mothers howling over their dead children? Do BBC journalists really have to do their live broadcasts in front of mounds of rubble that contain scores of dead bodies? One BBC correspondent paused his live broadcast when the rescue teams behind him asked for quiet so that they might hear cries for help from the collapsed building they were working on. The BBC flagged this up as proof of the sensitivity of its reporters, but I couldn’t help wondering why the reporter was in that place at that time, yapping, when all ears were primed for the whimpers of the injured. Go somewhere else?

For a week now, we’ve all watched live news reports from in front of what are effectively the impromptu graves of hundreds of people. CNN has invited us to look at ‘grieving families [bury]ing the victims’ of this ‘powerful earthquake’. We see two men and four women in a state of extreme distress at a makeshift gravestone on which someone’s name, a member of their family, one presumes, is scrawled in what looks like charcoal. Is this necessary? Was permission sought from those grieving people to publish this image of the worst moment in their lives? At times there has been a distinctly voyeuristic feel to the coverage of Turkey’s suffering. We have ‘other heart-wrenching photographs’ to show you, says one newspaper, including one of a ‘grieving father carrying his child’s body’. Want your heart wrenched? Then click. Feel all the feelings.

Of course there have been many instances in modern times of journalists capturing horror on camera. One thinks of the image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl snapped running naked and severely burnt following a Napalm attack by the South Vietnam Air Force. Or the 1936 image of the ‘migrant mother’ – Florence Owens Thompson – looking distressed and hungry with her two children during America’s Great Depression. (Thompson later said she had felt exploited and misrepresented by that photo.) And the last thing we should want to do is limit what journalists can cover in natural disasters or wars. But it seems to me that, today, emotion is all there is in journalism. We’re invited to experience world events at the visceral level alone. The aim of 21st-century journalism is less to expand understanding than to incite feeling; less to improve our knowledge of the exterior world of things and events than to encourage us to stay and to wallow in the interior world of our own emotions.

We live in an era of emotional journalism. As one expert describes it, reporters increasingly use ‘emotion as a tool’. Emotion has become ‘a much more important dynamic in how news is produced and consumed’, he says. It’s been a long time coming. Think back to those emotionally exploitative images from the Ethiopian Famine of the mid-1980s showing weak, emaciated children being stared at by vultures. Or the ‘journalism of attachment’ that was feverishly embraced during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, when hacks openly took sides in a terrible conflict and often allowed their coverage to be clouded by their emotional loyalties. Who now can recall the complex causes of Ethiopia’s famine? Or the bloody, complicated dynamics of the collapse of Yugoslavia? Not many of us, I would wager. We remember the black kids with distended stomachs, though. And the exhausted-looking men behind barbed wire in Bosnia. We recall our feelings towards these historic events, not the facts of them.

This is a consequence of the limiting dynamics of emotional journalism. A journalism more devoted to making us feel than encouraging us to know will inevitably render the world mysterious, a thing to be emoted over rather than comprehended. What will we recall from the Turkey / Syria earthquake in a few years’ time? The death toll, possibly. That image of Mesut Hançer, definitely. Though we might forget his name, and the name of his daughter. We’re already fuzzy on that, in fact. For days we were told his daughter’s name was Irmak, but it seems it was actually Irmakleyla. Does it matter? We felt the feelings, we tweeted our pain, that was enough. Thirty years ago, cultural critic Patricia Holland wrote about how we increasingly welcome ‘sorrowful’ images from disasters, because while they move us they also ‘arouse pleasurable emotions of tenderness, which in themselves confirm adult power’. This power relation between the emoting media and the commodified pain of people ‘over there’ has intensified a hundredfold in the era of social media, when we don’t only get to feel ‘tender’ emotions but also to share them, to advertise to the world our emotional literacy through our response to depictions of tragedy. ‘My god… this picture is so utterly heartbreaking.’

The rise and rise of emotional journalism speaks to the death of objectivity. And, more importantly, to the death, or at least the sidelining, of the objective, reasoned observer. Objective journalism – with its aspiration to provide a ‘balanced, fact-based… fair summary’ of world events – was an expression of trust in the media consumer, leaving us to decide for ourselves how to feel and relate to the facts of the world. Emotional journalism, in stark contrast, infantilises the media consumer, by myopically instructing him on how to feel about the world. Journalists become puppeteers of emotion. They become celebrities, too. They become the story. ‘My eyes were full of tears’, says the headline to a Guardian interview with Adem Altan after he took that photo of Mesut Hançer. One also thinks of Fergal Keane’s sorrowful tales about suffering from PTSD as a result of his war reporting, or Jon Snow proudly saying ‘I’ve always been emotional’. ‘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’, says Snow. And so the feelings of observers come to take precedence over the lives of those being observed.

Sympathise or loathe – that part of Snow’s comment is so striking. For when journalism becomes emotional manipulation, it can incite both pity and hate; both concern and contempt. The puppeteers of emotion will not content themselves with kindling ‘tender’ emotions. They will come to see themselves as the masters of hate as well as love. The media response to the human disaster in Turkey and Syria confirms how thoroughly we are locked into the emotional world. The problem with this kind of journalism, Adam Curtis once told me, is that it leads to ‘a feeling of being trapped in our heads and our emotions and [to] a feeling of disconnection from a more political, physical world’.

That’s it. The journalism of emotion is talked up as a method for making us ‘feel the pain’ of other people, but in truth it imprisons us in the narcissistic interior of sad and satisfying emotions. Solidarity requires knowledge of the world, empathy based on reality, and a willingness to go beyond the self into a genuine connection with others. The journalism of emotion does the opposite of all of that: it implores us to weep imperiously in order to demonstrate to our contemporaries our ‘correct’ feelings towards a distant, commodified humanity. Mesut Hançer is a human being. So was his daughter. We should refuse to reduce them to props in our own moral psychodramas.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today