Why allowing emotion in journalism could be 'crucial' in Ukraine war

Comment: Why allowing emotion in journalism could be 'crucial' in Ukraine war

Journalists in Ukraine

Dr Caitlin Knight, lecturer of criminology at the University of Roehampton, discusses the challenges and value of allowing journalists to share their emotions when reporting from a warzone like Ukraine.

Journalists have exposed the suffering of civilians at the hands of Russian forces since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. International news teams have reported from key cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Donbas, and Odesa to provide first-hand accounts of the violence, death and destruction that play out daily.

This causes a profound challenge. The traditional expectation of journalism is that it is objective, impartial and unemotional. But journalists face a significant tension when reporting on war and conflict: they are expected to report objective facts whilst simultaneously managing emotionally challenging situations. 

There is a widespread view that professionalism and emotion do not mix. BBC’s chief international correspondent in Ukraine Lyse Doucet recently stated: “Nobody wants to see my emotion, it doesn’t matter… There’s enough emotion in war already without adding more.”

In my own research, I have shown how journalists managed their emotions, or performed “emotional labour”, when reporting on genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s. Emotion was there, but it was compartmentalised so that journalists could do their job.   

As one journalist told me: “I realised very quickly that it’s just enormous, like an ocean of emotion that could swallow you easily, if you poured your heart out to every grieving [person]. So I, and most of my colleagues, had to detach myself. The only way the job can be done.” 

[Read more: Journalists respond to double-standards criticism over Ukraine coverage]

But managing emotion in this way can also have negative consequences. It encourages what I call “emotional silencing.” This silencing occurs within the journalism industry. For instance, one journalist told me that it was not immediately realised “[t]hat journalists needed counselling after witnessing this kind of experience. That they didn’t emerge from it immune or with their emotions intact.” 

This silencing also occurs amongst journalists themselves. As one journalist recalled of reporting in the 1990s: “Counselling? That’s for wusses. And that was very much the mood.”  This shows the expectation and pressure to be “professional”, to remain a detached observer and the stigma attached to engaging with emotions.  

There have been shifts in emotion in journalism since the 1990s though. News is on a 24-hour cycle and exists across more platforms, especially through social media. Audiences can connect with journalists on a personal level now as journalists tweet their harrowing journeys around Ukraine.  

But there is a historical reluctance to engage with journalists’ emotions. An expectation that they should just get on with it. That it is their job. As a journalist told me in reference to reporting during genocide: “[O]f course there was an emotional toll. As there should be. Sort of whining on about the emotional damage . . . And boo hoo, you covered a fucking genocide, what do you expect?” 

[Read more: Ukrainecast presenter Victoria Derbyshire says ‘it’s our job to handle it’]

Journalists such as Fergal Keane and Jeremy Bowen have publicly discussed their emotional struggles reporting from conflict zones.  A recently aired documentary even chronicled Keane’s battle with PTSD as a result of reporting in Rwanda and other conflicts.    

Both Keane and Bowen have also recently reported from Ukraine, a conflict which presents its own emotional challenges for journalists. In his documentary about PTSD Fergal Keane discusses the internal struggle with being pulled there as a journalist but also needing to consider his own mental health. 

Putin has been accused of war crimes in Ukraine, even of genocide by President Biden.  The conflict in Ukraine provides a space to further interrogate how we view emotion in journalism. Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs recently accused Western reporting  of being “very emotional” and thus biased in its reporting of the conflict in Ukraine. 

In this situation should journalism strive to be objective, impartial, and unemotional? After all, emotion is part of journalism. Emotion is in survivor testimony. It is in our response to photographs of civilians executed by Russian troops in Bucha.

[‘I have become emotional’: Telegraph’s Danielle Sheridan on witnessing Bucha’s mass graves]

Emotion is also in a journalist’s judgement, their feeling, their instinct. It is part of the human element of reporting and can form part of a journalist’s professional arsenal. Emotion and professionalism do not need to be mutually exclusive.

As I found in my research, journalists did not seek to “balance” both sides in the cases of genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica as this would have misrepresented the situation. As one journalist explained: “I was brought up with the idea of balance in reporting but if one sought to balance what was taking place… you were by default not portraying what was happening accurately.”   

Disregarding or detaching from emotions then does not provide the whole story. Emotion in journalism is important to convey the lived reality of the situation. It gives voice to victims and survivors, but it also acknowledges how these narratives are shaped. This is all crucial for reporting in Ukraine.

As one journalist told me about reporting on genocide: “[I]n these extreme conditions of extreme crimes, I think these traditional values… go out the window because it’s a human reaction to things like that. And we’re not expected to be dispassionate when faced with such outrageous acts against humanity.”  

But there are still limits to this that must be met within the confines of professionalism. As another journalist explained: “I’m full of impulses and opinions and prejudices the same as anyone else. But do I try and keep common sense around all of that? Yes I do. Does that preclude me from making judgement or covering stories? No it doesn’t. And nor should it.”  

Emotion is part of our shared humanity. Journalism includes and discusses the emotional aspects of human life and in doing so, shapes the world around us. Emotion will be part of our shared understanding of what happens in Ukraine.

But on top of this, journalists also need support and acknowledgement of their own emotional experience. The more we understand these experiences the more we allow journalism to adapt and change with us. 

Picture: Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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