Every time my mom and her sister see each other, Rush Limbaugh’s name is mentioned at least once. The man has divided our dinner table and occasionally our family, as we talk about everything from the “welfare state,” the personal politics of war and what various tax plans would do to the economy. Everyone is impassioned and the discussions are actually very intensive, detailed, and rooted in both fact as well as emotion. For this reason, I found the “Outrage Industry” article by Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj to miss the point. When it comes to politics, the personal is political, as the saying goes — which means politics is inherently emotional. That’s not a bad thing.
Sobieraj and Berry argue media is becoming increasingly “outraged” — a consequence not of political partisanship, but something of media’s own doing. Their argument is that due to the deregulation of media and technological advances, media has capitalized on anger and emotion rather than hard facts, to the detriment of democracy. But there are plenty of gaps in their argument, such as that Berry and Sobieraj generalize political media and ignore media’s role as a public forum of ideas. They allow a few major TV stations stand for thousands of TV, radio, newspapers, and other publications as evidence of outraged journalists. But the real problem with their work is that Berry and Sobieraj assume outrage in journalism is a bad thing.
The authors say that outrage is emotional, misinformation and something that uses dramatic tactics to provoke, using of a monologue by Lawrence O’Donnell about police violence in America. But using emotion is a way journalists try to “emotionally engage,” audiences, which contributes to the “emotional public sphere,” according to a British study that reviewed British media between 2008-08.
As politics has become less class-based and ideological, the importance of the ‘emotional public sphere’ has grown: there is more space for the personality and personal presence of politicians, and more need for ‘emotional governance’ – a deliberate and informed attention to the emotional dynamics of the public.
The British authors argue that as people use personal stories to discern between homogenous candidates and confusing political issues, emotional engagement has become important for media to provide in their stories. This trend can be seen in U.S. media as well. It’s easy to write about police violence in the United States, using studies and interviews with experts, but it might not make anyone care. Using personal, emotional quotes can garner better readership. For example, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote about his son, a student at Yale University, being racially profiled by police. He was, in all senses of the word, outraged, wondering if his son could have been shot in light of the recent national tragedies involving black men and police. The column received 1,194 comments and Yale administrators even made public statements afterwards. Clearly, journalism or punditry that uses emotion resonates with the public sphere.
Emotion is at the very base of every argument. Aristotle once argued that there are three layers to persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Pathos, when using emotion to argue, is exactly what pundits and columnists are doing when they turn to personal anecdotes. But no argument is complete without the use of logos and ethos as well, or logical and ethical arguments. More often than not, as was the case with Blow and O’Donnell, these journalists are using all three by citing facts and personal stories or appeals. This should be seen as a step forward for journalism engagement, not backwards.