As a scholar of media and politics, I have long been struck by an apparent contradiction in our understanding of political life: On the one hand, Western societies have historically taken a dim view of emotion, and its impact on political life. We have tended to see emotionality as the enemy of rational citizenship and informed debate. Media, as essential institutions of democratic societies, have been held to ideals of objectivity and impartiality, and emotional content denounced for its sensationalism.
On the other hand, it is evident that political life – and the media content through which it is channelled – is shaped by emotion. The most successful politicians are those that tap into voters’ emotions. Citizens are motivated to participate in political life because they care. Similarly, the best journalism about the issues that concern us all engages audiences not just because it contains valuable information that allows citizens to make rational decisions, but also because it renders concrete and relatable the impact of these issues by compelling storytelling, often based on personal and emotional stories.
I’m not the only observer to have taken note of this tension between ideals of rationality shaping visions of political life, and the emotionality underpinning lived experience. If anything, the role of emotion is increasingly prominent in the context of transformations in the political landscape and in the tenor of our shared conversations. First, with respect to political cultures, there is clear evidence to support claims of a rise in forms of populism that rely heavily on emotional appeals to disenchanted citizens. Beyond the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, recent years have seen the election of populist leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
In parallel with these developments in the political arena, we have seen the perceived rise of an emotional culture; one where emotion is granted a central place in contexts ranging from the workplace, to education and media. It is now widely considered essential not just to be in touch with and aware of our emotions, but also to be willing to discuss them openly with others.
As a result, emotion could be seen as an epistemological elephant in the room – the massive unspoken presence that hovers over everything but that we have for so long refused to see, talk about and engage with.
Against that backdrop, my book seeks to render the elephant visible by pointing to a variety of ways in which we can locate emotion in mediated politics. It starts from the vantage point of taking emotions seriously. This means that we have to understand the institutionalized and systematic ways in which emotions are constructed and circulate through forms of mediated discourse as pivots of public life. They are part and parcel of production practices and routines, mediated texts and audience experience and participation. This should be reflected in the way we think about the relationship between media practices and political life. The book therefore sees emotional expression as a key building block of mediated politics. It develops a new research agenda on this basis, drawing on a series of original studies of how emotions are constructed and circulate through mediated public life. Each of these studies sheds light on different aspects of the relationship between emotions, media and politics, though they share a common set of conceptual preoccupations.
By examining specific cases, ranging from the role of emotion in award-winning journalistic storytelling to the anger of Donald Trump, the emotional communities created by fans of political figures, and the introduction of Facebook emoji reactions, this book seeks to develop new conceptual and methodological tools that render visible emotions and their consequences for mediated public life. On the basis of these studies, the book highlights the need for a radical reconceptualization of theories of politics and media, grounded in lived experience which is often far messier and more emotional than our lofty ideals might imply.
Karin Wahl-Jorgensen is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communications at Cardiff University. Her new book, Emotions, Media and Politics, is now available from Polity.