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American Journalism Review
Showing Emotion  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   November 2001

Showing Emotion   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

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   » Anchoring the Nation

ABC's Peter Jennings was having difficulty getting the words out. He swallowed a few times. Blinked at lot. Avoided eye contact with the camera.

"We do not very often make recommendations for people's behavior from this chair," he said, "but as [ABC News correspondent] Lisa [Stark] was talking, I checked in with my children, and it--who were deeply stressed, as I think young people are across the United States. So, if you're a parent, you've got a kid"--he paused and got an awkward smile on his face--"in some other part of the country, call them up. Exchange observations."

It was a rare moment the evening of September 11 when Jennings struggled to fight back his emotions. He and CBS' Dan Rather, who broke down and cried during an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman," believe it's extremely important that an anchor not show emotion on the air.

"It's not my role to impose my emotional state on the audience," because viewers are dealing with their own feelings, Jennings says. When he was talking about his kids, "and even now as I tell you about it, I have an emotional reaction, which I didn't anticipate at the time," he says. "Those kinds of things you cannot help, but I think you have to be very, very careful."

"This is a unique situation," Rather says of coverage of the September 11 attacks. "I've never had as much difficulty as I did in this.... I'm not robotized; I'm not hypnotized. I try very hard not to let my emotions show. Sometimes it's unavoidable, and I didn't intend to do that that time with David [Letterman] and tried very hard not to have it happen."

Rather's appearance on that show, he says, put him in a different environment. His emotions "slipped up on me and a lot of what I was feeling came rushing through," he says.

Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, says those tears made Rather appear more human to viewers. "I think his stock went way up," he says. The incident "established a level of concern and humility."

Had Rather wept in the anchor chair, however, it would not have gone over well. "I think that would have been a totally different situation," Thompson says. "That would have been very alarming."

It's OK for anchors to express some emotion, say Walter Cronkite and Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," as long as it doesn't affect the task at hand. "I would worry about an individual who did not show some emotion at a time like this," Cronkite says. "I think obviously it should not be so excessive that it interferes with doing the job."

Says Slavin of Jennings: "You should see the struggle he sometimes goes through to keep his composure."

Because they are working so hard and focused on the news, anchors--and other journalists exposed to disturbing events--are able to insulate themselves from thinking about their personal reaction, at least for the most part. Plus, being calm and steady are part of the job.

"People are so on edge that you don't want to contribute to them going over the edge one way or another on a given subject," Jennings says. "I don't mean that in a purely psychological sense.... If somebody yawns, you yawn."

If somebody cries, you cry, too.

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