Emotions and the media in the time of the coronavirus pandemic

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture, has been analysing and commenting on media coverage of the coronavirus. She is currently co-editing a special issue of Digital Journalism on “Covering corona: News in times of the pandemic crisis.” For our Blog, she provided insight into her research.

I have been carrying out research on the relationship between emotions and media for the past decade. As a journalism scholar, my research in the area started from the hunch that emotions are, in fact, essential to news storytelling. But the vital role of emotions has historically been obscured by an allegiance to the ideal of objectivity. This has meant that emotionality has tended to be viewed as the polar opposite and an enemy of objectivity, and therefore suspect and best avoided.

In my earliest research on this topic, I looked at how emotion is incorporated into story-telling in award-winning journalism. I decided to study winners of the Pulitzer Prize, as exemplars of the best of journalism in the United States, the country most closely associated with the ideal of objectivity. My research found extensive evidence of what I referred to as a strategic ideal of emotionality – a set of institutionalised practices that embed emotion into journalistic storytelling, and exists peacefully alongside the strategic ritual of objectivity.

While several scholars went before me and carried out seminal work in tracing the place of emotion and affect in journalism (see for example Pantti, 2010; Peters, 2011), my work could be seen as part of a broader emotional turn in journalism studies, linked to a broader affective turn across humanities and social sciences disciplines. This is now a well-established and mature area of research which continues to grow and enrich our knowledge, as evidenced by the contribution of the Affective Societies project.

As a result of my continued fascination with questions around the role of emotion in mediated public life, I have carried out a number of studies of how emotions circulate across contexts of news production, texts and audiences, published in the book, Emotions, Media and Politics (Polity Press, 2019), among other places. It is, therefore, not surprising that I have come to view major events through the lens of emotion.

Indeed, by the time the first stories came out about a new and mysterious disease outbreak in Wuhan, China in January 2019, I was struck by the emotional tone of coverage of this outbreak. In the earliest phase of the coronavirus pandemic – when it seemed a distant grim drama unfolding in Asia – it seemed that much of the media coverage in Western media was dominated by fear. In an early small-scale study of news about the coronavirus, published in The Conversation on February 14, 2020, I found that much of the coverage resorted to frightening and sensationalist speculation, in the absence of known facts about the disease.

In the piece, I argued:

Media coverage is vital to our shared conversations and plays a key role in regulating our emotions, including fear.

While fear is an emotion that we frequently experience as individuals, it can also be a shared and social emotion, one which circulates through groups and communities and shapes our reactions to ongoing events. Like other emotions, fear is contagious and can spread swiftly.

Several months on, I continue to monitor the role of emotions in coverage of what is now a global pandemic which is affecting the lives of people around the world in dramatic ways, informed by this approach. For news audiences in the West, the pandemic is no longer an abstract and distant set of events, but rather a rare example of a devastating crisis that has hit home everywhere at the same time, within infinite global and local implications. And I continue to believe that emotions are not only essential to this coverage, but also play a key role in shaping public responses, perceptions and behaviours.

Speaking personally – though many colleagues have had similar reactions – I find the current crisis to be one of such overwhelming impact that, for the moment, it is difficult to continue research that does not speak to or acknowledge the current context. This is, indeed, an emotional reaction but also a rational one.

This is particularly the case because the coronavirus pandemic should be understood as more than just a discrete news story that can be analysed as a single event. Rather, it is a crisis of such magnitude that it is likely to change fundamental aspects of our lives in the longer term, ranging from the ways in which we interact with others, to the ways we shop, learn, relax, and share information. The world emerging after the end of the pandemic – and the media organisations that seek to make sense of it – will be dramatically different. Fundamentally, I suspect that future research in social sciences and humanities will be not about the pandemic itself, but about the world that arises from it. As societies respond to these changes, insights into questions of emotion and affect from across social sciences and humanities field are more urgent than ever.