TV newscasts relying on emotional triggers


Awful, isn't it? Heartbreaking, don't you think? Incredible, wouldn't you say?

Positively supercalifragi-listicexpialidocious, right?

Newscasters decree we not merely hear news or see news, but feel news. Monitoring multiple newscasts on single nights recently reveals how our locals wield a thesaurus-worthy arsenal of loaded words and phrases to spare us the strain of deciding ourselves how to feel after we've been fed the facts:

"Scary," "strange," "sad," "amazing," "disturbing," "sick," "punk" -- KVBC-TV, Channel 3

Relax, they have our reactions covered. Just a friendly service called ... infantilizing the audience. Treating us like clueless tots they guide toward set emotional responses.

Do they fear we'll find them cold without hot-button adjectives? Once upon a news time, before media erupted into a cacophony of competing voices, stories were delivered with little emotional adornment, respecting our intelligence by leaving us to our own conclusions. Anchors and reporters now insist we be led by the heart through the headlines, their words dripping pathos, passion and overcooked angst.

"Wicked," "devastated," "unbelievable," "fantastic," "disturbing," "sad," "alarming," "remarkable," "heartbreak" -- KLAS-TV, Channel 8

Quotes from average folks are fine, but no longer the baseline standard through which to tell stories. Remember the "Broadcast News" moment when interviewer William Hurt forced a fake tear, enraging producer Holly Hunter? That was 22 years ago. Today, she'd probably pass him a plate of raw onions or order him to yank out a nose hair to unleash the waterworks. There's no crying in newscasting -- not here, anyway. Just extraneous news crew nattering.

"Fantastic," "outrageous," "dramatic," "odd," "great," "crazy," "miracle" -- KVVU-TV, Channel 5

TV news always favored the visceral over the cerebral, the gut over the brain. But it's exacerbated by an online age awash in personal (often undisciplined) journalism and blogs inflamed by overheated rhetoric. Broadcasters jolt our emotional nerve endings to revive our flagging attention. In an entertainment-addled culture, news-as-theater needs more than fab footage. It needs narratives on steroids.

"Tragic" (five times -- Arizona tour bus crash), "unfortunate," "sad," "grim," "dramatic," "terrible," "amazing," "dire," "graphic," "vicious" -- KTNV-TV, Channel 13

Such tactics reduce us to proverbial Pavlovian dogs, responding on cue to their emotional triggers, rather than engaging our critical faculties. Our intellectual passivity makes their perspective our perspective by default.

Maybe the fire wasn't really catastrophic, the accident not truly horrific, the puppy not especially adorable, the robbery not all that devastating.

Maybe we shouldn't be as shocked, appalled, amused and fearful as their words suggest we be.

Maybe we should stop following with our hearts and start leading with our brains.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

 

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