In the cool medium of television, Marshall McLuhan argued that the "viewer is the screen," but there continues to be a hot debate about viewer involvement in the visual performance of television anchors. News anchors face cameras, but reach viewers. They have the dilemma of needing to be professionally objective and personally dispassionate at the same time, despite their need to be sensitive in order to reach their audience. One suggestion is that sensitivity "should be right up there with the who, what, when, where, why and how" in reporting news.[1]

Television "speaks," even without words, through its visual and auditory signs: the scowl, smirk, or smile; the sigh, cringe or cry; the laugh, gaffe or guffaw; the groan, grin or glance; the frown, affront or flirt; the lip, linger or lull; the raised voice or raised eyebrows that blink (unlike the faceless writer's hot ink on newsprint's front page) hiding invisible faces. Truisms about the power of visual "emotional intelligence" and "intellectual eyes" haunt television anchor desks dealing with enigmatic aphorisms such as "perception is reality"; "a picture is worth a thousand words"; and "we cannot help but trust our eyes" because "seeing is believing."[2] Reporters are taught to "project emotion" because "an atmosphere, a mood, exists in every event" and they "can never remove emotion from their voices" since "viewers absorb much of what they hear and see through their emotions rather than through their intellect"; plus, they are reminded that "low levels of emotional content and high levels of intellectual content are less likely to attract and hold an audience (and) stories that contain poignant emotions are more likely to be absorbed and remembered."[3]

In the fast-paced delivery of rapidly shifting news topics, it is hard for telecasters to quickly separate the bad and sad, the good and great, the us and them, even in sports and weather, let alone in the rapid fire of news that "leads and bleeds" about crime, violence and accidents whose mantra seems to be "how many dead tells the story." Those mediated moods may vary whether describing rascals or rogues, saints or sinners, heroes or cowards, and bring anchors' empathy or cynicism, shame or sorrow for victims with anchor words like "How sad!" or "Our prayers." -often frowned upon by nervous news directors and station managers because they aren't "objective."

The medium and message are interwoven and often trapped between the technical and ethical vise of charged professional procedures and credible personal performance. They face an audience of subjective and passionate viewers skeptical of messengers who do not seem to care or feel for either victims in or viewers of the news. Newscasters are advised through traditional guidelines to "present the news with integrity and decency . . . to respect the dignity and intelligence of the audience as well as the subjects of the news."[4] They are also cautioned about extending "ethical boundaries" to include "humaneness";[5] and in transitions between stories they are advised to use the word "meanwhile" sparingly; and to avoid using "On a happy note" or "On a sad note."[6] (The emotional traumas of shooting violence photos which anchors describe in "voice overs" are not often discussed outside the newsrooms.[7])

Journalism texts and teachers do give specific advice on anchors' personal appearance, body language and habits. This includes hair styles, clothes, tattoos, body piercing, jewelry, cosmetics, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, courtesy, nervousness, breathing, sarcasm, "good eye contact," phrasing, enunciation, pronunciation, accents, posture, pitch, pace, tone of delivery and movements because "industry wants people with mainstream looks on the air" as "part of the broadcaster's professional package that earns the paycheck."[8] Personal appearance is linked to lighting, sound, script, film, writing, editing and directing. Feelings and emotion expressed by the news announcers are often seen as part of a story and a way for viewers to participate, to be involved and engaged since television "demands a creatively participant response" as the "audience participates in the inner life" of the televised figure.[9] This ritual process is especially evident in "crisis journalism" where "meaning making" matters-as much as information-and affirms community where the journalist serves as "psychologist, comforter and co-mourner."[10]

Mediated and mournful empathy and emotion abound in numerous historic and humanistic news stories illustrating these ethical enigmas and dilemmas where pictures and words compete. Before television, the live "eye-witness" radio voice and newsreel film of the 1937 explosion of the Zeppelin airship Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, was frantically reported by Herb Morrison who subjectively exclaimed "This is terrible.Oh my"; but his words failed him as he said "I can't talk.I can hardly breathe. I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because.I have lost my voice."[11]

Mediated emotion also flowed into and from television sets during the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy. Networks cancelled commercials and entertainment for their coverage and "Nothing could have been more calculated to stir emotions.."[12] Holding back tears, anchor Walter Cronkite announced Kennedy's death from his anchor desk; but six years later he also was (in this instance, joyously) "speechless" as words failed him as he tried to describe television views of the moon landing. During that period of social unrest, "prime time dramas" included pictures of "victims, filled body bags, grieving relatives, handcuffed suspects" in "pathos plainly aimed at viewers' emotions."[13] Visual images dominated coverage of the Vietnam War which became "the last writers' war" and "the first television war"[14] but, again, Cronkite's editorial empathy-and at one time stated opinion-was crucial to ending the military dilemma. In using television images in "the reporting of violence and extreme suffering, media consistently produce a taken-for-granted ground of referential, textual and interactional coherence which invokes ordinary social connectivity and emotional responses" arousing strong passions facing the assigned "dispassion of media."[15]

When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, television networks rushed to objectively cover the incident live, but networks' morning shows were particularly cautious about using references to the song "Oh what a beautiful morning" from the popular Broadway musical Oklahoma!. (TV anchors, as "town criers," can combine objective surveillance with subjective sensitivity.[16]) In live reporting of the terrorist destruction of the New York World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, ABC anchor Peter Jennings had "difficulty getting his words out. He swallowed a few times. Blinked a lot. Avoided eye contact with the camera" and "struggled to fight back his emotions." He told viewers "We do not very often make recommendations for people's behavior from this chair," but he "checked in with his children" and advised other parents to do the same. He later admitted that "It's not my role to impose my emotional state on the audience," and "I think you have to be very, very careful" and not encourage a viewer toward action.[17]

CBS anchor Dan Rather, later that night, wept about the attacks when he (and Jennings) appeared on the David Letterman Show, where Rather also confessed that his emotions "slipped up on me" although "I try not to let my emotions show" because, he said, it's extremely important that an anchor not show such feelings on the air.[18] Cronkite later conceded that some anchor emotion is OK, but "it should not be so excessive that it interferes with doing the job." However, he said, "I would worry about an individual who did not show some emotion at a time like this."[19] Television also "wore its heart on its sleeve" on NBC's Meet the Press on September 4, 2005 during severe press criticism of government response to Hurricane Katrina. The "reporters exposed passion in reporting," which moderator Tim Russert called "objective reality," not ideology or disloyalty.[20]

This enigmatic and "ethics minefield" is unresolved because "as the Internet develops, television continues to provide a dynamic testing ground for journalism ethics with lessons applicable to other real-time media whether they be broadcast, cable or on-line."[21] The ethical dilemmas could evolve into a "pragmatic objectivity" wherein the reporter is passionate and caring, but blends objectivity with sensitive impulses so as to avoid a reckless journalism based only on passion alone.[22] This might also combine pathos, ethos and logos with emphasis on empathy more than on mere pity or sympathy.[23] Advice to television also includes the use of "intimate vocal energy"to "infect your listeners and viewers with the value and urgency of what you have to say" but to "utilize empathy without forcing it upon the audience."[24]



1. Bob Arya, Thirty Seconds to Air, Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. 1997, pp. 157-158.

2. Julianne H. Newton, "Photojournalism Ethics: A 21st Century Primal Dance of Behavior, Technology and Ideology" in Lee Wilkins & Clifford G. Christians (Eds.), The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics, New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 84-100.

3. Roy Gibson, Radio and Television Reporting, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1991, pp. 242-243.

4. See the Code of Ethics of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).

5. Robert Hadley, "Television News Ethics: A Survey of Television News Directors," Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 4:2, 1989, pp. 249-264.

6. Victoria McCullough Carroll, Writing News for Television, Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1997, p. 243.

7. Garry Bryant, "Ten-Fifty P. I.: Emotion and the Photographer's Role," Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 2:2, 1987, pp. 32-39.

8. Teresa Keller & Stephen A. Hawkins, Television News-A Handbook for Writing, Reporting, Shooting and Editing, Scottsdale, AZ: Hathaway Holcomb Publishers, 2002, pp. 287-318.

9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, pp. 276, 293.

10. Kristine Riegert, "The Importance of Ritual in Crisis Journalism," Journalism Practice, 1:2 (2007, May), pp. 143-158.

11. Although this description was broadcast repeatedly in days to come, it was not a "live" report. Morrison was part of a Chicago-based team originally tasked to make an audio recording that described the airship mooring and pick up associated sound for reference by the NBC drama department in Chicago. It was not aired until the crew had driven back to Chicago the next morning.

12. Paul T. David, "The TV Image," The Nation, 197:20, December 14, 1963, p. 413.

13. Walter Goodman, "Review/Television; Race Relations and Violence's Aftermath," The New York Times, August 22, 1990, Opinion, p. 1.

14. Richard Bernstein, "Critic's Notebook; In Vietnam the Pen Was as Mighty as the Napalm," The New York Times, December 1, 1998, Opinion, p. 2.

15. Paul Frosh, "The Dispassion of Media: Television, Violence and Everyday Emotions." Paper presented to International Communication Association, 2007.

16. Gene Burd, "Bombs and Babies in the Oklahoma Heartland: News of Who, What and Why" (1996); and "Communication Culture Adapts to Media Technology: Town Criers, Newsboys, Radio Commentators and TV Anchors" (1988). Papers presented to annual conventions of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

17. Lori Robertson, "Showing Emotion," American Journalism Review, November 2001, 23:9, pp. 45-47.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Michele Greppi, "TV News Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeves," Television Week, 24:37, November 12, 2005, pp. 3-4.

21. Philip Seib, Going Live-Getting the News Right in a Real-Time In-Line World, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 156-157.

22. Stephen J. Ward, "Truth and Objectivity," in Lee Wilkins & Clifford G. Christians (eds.), The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics, New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 71-83.

23. Teresa Keller & Stephen Hawkins, op. cit.

24. Roy Gibson, op. cit.


 Gene Burd teaches journalism at the University of Texas in Austin and was a newspaper journalist at the KANSAS CITY STAR, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL and suburban weeklies in Los Angeles and Chicago. He also founded the Urban Communication Foundation. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..