Emotionalism & the News Media

The television studio of Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar

The rumours had been circulating for weeks: the announcement of a royal engagement was in the offing. Preparations went into high gear at the television news station to cover the announcement. We were all in a state of red-alert.

And then, with little more warning, the big day came.

At the morning editorial meeting it was one story to rule them all. Coverage would run all-day and include interviews with royal watchers, pundits, commentators, members of the excited public – anyone willing to speak.

Meanwhile, a massive fuel barge loaded with three million litres of diesel had become disabled in a bad storm off the Pacific coast of British Columbia, threatening an environmental disaster. That and other important stories had received scant mention, or had fallen under the radar in the early morning hours, because of the news of the upcoming nuptials.

“Would we run any other stories?” I asked a colleague.

“Not a chance. We’re going with wall-to-wall coverage. It’s a royal engagement!”

Hours into the show, the broadcast went live to reveal the happy couple stepping outdoors to face the paparazzi. The would-be bride nonchalantly raised her hand and flashed her diamond ring as the cameras simultaneously zoomed-in. A collection of high-pitched shrieks and sighs rose from several women in the newsroom. The lengthy on-air analysis which followed that moment was accompanied by a breaking news banner in red at the bottom of the screen that read:

“The One-of-a-Kind Royal Ring”

It was all very surreal – but also part of a larger and now familiar trend. When I considered our news coverage from the weeks, months and even years prior – whole daylong cycles of national news devoted to local murder trials, celebrity deaths, and the various scandals de jour – it was clear that the trend over time was to run with stories that were ever more sensational and emotionally loaded. The more I thought about it, the more I could see that society as a whole seemed to be in the grip of the same condition: a preoccupation with high emotion.

Our popular movies have become faster, more violent and peppered with terse dialogue spoken rapid-fire. Extreme division and polarization has hobbled our politics and negated the art of compromise. The tabloidization of even our most respected media organisations continues unabated: political and celebrity scandals have become de rigueur, eliciting disproportionally emotional responses from an entranced public. Social media has amplified our willingness and ability to share our opinions and oppose others – raising the emotional pitch even further.

Traditional Eastern psychology has long warned of the negative consequences of emotional overindulgence – and its distracting and blunting effects. The Sufi writer Idries Shah often wrote that people seek excitement, stimulation and emotion over truth – regardless of what they might otherwise claim. The idea that excessive emotion can interfere in our ability to observe subtleties, make nuanced discriminations and appreciate a wider reality was a major theme of his work.

“Emotion is a powerful consideration in human life,” he writes in Knowing How to Know. “It must be understood.”

It is not hard to appreciate the seductive power of emotionalism. Emotions serve the purpose of drawing and fixing our attention to important circumstances in the environment. They can be visceral and deeply stimulating – evidence that something important is happening – often eliciting a clear-cut reaction rooted in self-certainty. But high emotion, tied as it often is to various forms of self-preservation, causes us to think in the shortcut of absolutes. This black-and-white thinking turns our minds into obtuse instruments incapable of registering subtler shades of the truth.

Nothing seems to summon this very human proclivity to feel and react (as opposed to the more sober and measured effort to understand) as much as the news media. Though news serves an important function in keeping us informed and abreast of developments in the world, as well as being a check on political power, it can often come at a heavy price. It’s a common refrain that the majority of the stories covered in the news are negative. Bad news stories capture audiences because our minds evolved to perceive dramatic and threatening events in our environment. However, this incessant drumbeat of negative and pessimistic stories and images ripples out across society, setting a bleak emotional tempo for our lives.

As a freelance writer and journalist I periodically work at a national television news station where I am able to see how programming and story decisions are made. After the arrival of the Internet, the competition among more and more media for less and less advertising revenue has made news organisations desperate to attract the largest audiences possible. Though they have always sought to grab, hold and monetize our attention, most news companies have crossed a new threshold that have them going for the emotional jugular whenever possible.

The standard approach is to excite, anger, titillate, sadden and entertain audiences using the easiest and cheapest-to-produce stories. More virtuous, investigative, slower, truth-telling journalism – always hard to come by in the best of times – has become that much rarer.

Polemical debates and celebrity stories dominate the news cycle. If the two can be combined, all the better. Crime stories, mostly pertinent to local audiences, are now lifted from their narrower contexts and given national or international coverage. Because our brains are story-processing machines, news is often shaped and framed in a way most easy for us to consume: into archetypal tales in which a good person, suffering at the hands of a villain or exploiter, struggles to find justice. In addition to goading audiences to take sides in a conflict, this tactic also simplifies issues into easy to understand binary positions.

Though excellent and laudable work continues to be produced by some news organisations, they still tend to warp reality through exaggeration, simplification, and excessive repetition – often giving the impression that their stories define all of life and the world at any given moment. But of course the map is not the territory. Our world, in its great complexity and immensity, bears little resemblance to its news-born caricatures. And like the fish that has no idea it is in water because it is surrounded by it, whole newsrooms have become largely unconscious of what they are doing: sewing large scale anxiety throughout society.

We need to recognize these dynamics and their influence on our individual and collective emotional states.

So, how do we avoid having our emotions manipulated without tuning-out of media completely – or cutting ourselves off from the world?

A two-pronged approach might be taken. The first is to be parse and nimble in our consumption of information, an approach which could include:

1. Choosing news sources that are more likely to look at the bigger picture, and less likely to harp on the petty and trivial.

2. Periodically attaching and detaching our attention from the news instead of incessantly monitoring or binging on it.

3. Trying to see any story from as many different perspectives as possible, as opposed to just the one or two sides that tend to actually be represented.

4. Questioning the accuracy, relevance and importance of any given story – even those from the most reputable news organisations.

5. Combining, contextualizing and hedging any news with our own personal observations and experiences – and those of informed contacts. Sometimes our experiences, and those of people we know, will provide exceptions to, or will contradict, what the news is telling us.

6. Discovering other “news” in the world that we’re not hearing about in the mainstream – including, and especially, developments that are positive.

The second approach is to find ever-more satisfaction in our own lives – in our work, hobbies and projects. When we are healthily engaged in undertakings that are genuinely satisfying and stretching, we are less prone to pettiness and seeking stimulus from elsewhere – including from sensational news stories that are fundamentally not relevant to our lives.

Polemical, fear-inducing and/or sensational news media stories are the “bread and games” of our age. The more we can free our thoughts and emotions from the loops of neuroses they might induce, the more capacity we might have for seeing and appreciating the less thrilling, yet more holistic, weaves of nuance about our world that might more accurately depict it.

The Great Attention Heist

Tim Wu's book, The Attention MerchantsThe L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.

To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.

Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.

“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”

The Skeletons of Sion

A view of the city of Sion in the Valais region of Switzerland
Last fall I visited the Valais region of Switzerland near the border of Italy to work on a magazine assignment about Swiss Wine. In the city of Sion, after one of many wine-tasting sessions and a light lunch of raclette, my local guide and I (both a bit tipsy) hiked down the mountainside towards our next destination in the centre of town. Along one of the main thoroughfares we came across a huge workers’ tent pitched atop a former parking lot. When I asked about the tent, my guide said it was the site of an archaeological dig and suggested we go look inside.

The archeological site of Don Bosco, Sion, SwitzerlandWe discovered there a team of archaeologists digging up an Iron Age necropolis containing numerous graves. Flamur Dalloshi, the lead archaeologist from Albania, told us the burial ground dates from prehistoric times. But the skeletons of interest, he added, were from circa 1,000 B.C.

A three thousand year-old skeleton excavated at the archeological site of Don Bosco, Sion, SwitzerlandSeveral months earlier Dalloshi became a minor celebrity after unearthing the remains of a male warrior that was laid to rest with his weapons, a razor, pottery vessels and bronze jewellery. Most of the skeletons, he told us, belonged to women and children of the elite ruling class, leading him and his team to believe that the society may have been matriarchal.

He invited us to take a closer look a the remains still being excavated. If you look closely at this skeleton on the left, you can see bits of clothing and jewellery just behind the back of the skull – and to the left of the mid-section (a belt).

When I asked him what was the most surprising thing he’d discovered, he replied that in some graves his team had found pottery with hoses running into them extending upwards to the surface. It was so that the living could provide the dead with water in their eternal repose.


A view of the old mining town of Stewart, British Columbia, CanadaWhile on an assignment in Northern British Columbia, I was introduced to a group of people working for a mining company prospecting for gold. Like most big city people, I know very little about mining beyond the occasional bad press those corporations garner when they cut corners and cause damage to the environment.

The geologists and technicians took me on a tour of their small warehouse, showing me their collection of ‘core samples’ – cylinders of rock that have been cut with a diamond drill and then and extracted from below the ground.

The samples are taken to find concentrations of gold in a given location. If enough of the metal turns up in the cores to justify the high cost of extracting it, a mining operation ensues. The below photo shows a core sample with trace amounts of gold, tiny flecks, in the rock on the top left edge of the core.

A core sample of rock showing flecks of gold, taken from a mining exploration company, British Columbia, Canada.

The mining company employees were nonchalant about their work, which they described as very regular and even mundane; not unlike how archaeologists sometimes demystify their undertakings to laypeople. But like archaeologists, I could discern the slightest sense of repressed excitement hanging in the air.

When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture and considered all of the physical, organizational and emotional effort going into finding and extracting a metal with little intrinsic worth beyond its human-endowed monetary value, the operation seemed a bit surreal.

As I was leaving, I asked a senior manager of the company what the next step was if, and when, they found enough gold to justify mining it. He told me that they would likely sell the claim to another company that would do the actual mining.

When I inquired as to what other locations they planned to prospect after hypothetically selling this location off, the man looked at me with a bit of surprise.

“Well, none,” he said, taken aback as if the answer were obvious. “The point of doing all this is that we hope to never have to work again.”

Moose Factory

On the Moos River, Moose Factory, Ontario, CanadaRead about my traipse up the remote Moose and North French rivers with cohorts Jean-Pierre Chabot and Mike Naponse during a visit to Moose Factory. This feature appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Explore magazine.

Hiking the Bruce Trail

One of the unintended consequences of spending a lot of time working and travelling in a place like British Columbia – a region of mind-blowing physical terrain – is that one becomes de-sensitized to attractive, but less dramatic landscapes in other places.

The unavoidable reality is that our minds are constantly comparing. The west coast of Canada with its big mountains and vast rainforests, elevated in my mind to a sort of gold standard of nature, has acted as a spoiler for other worthwhile spots. Time outdoors in Ontario and Quebec has sometimes fallen flat.

We’re all familiar with the situation in which bold and sensational things can sometimes drive out the fine: a powerful experience makes such an impact that everything subsequent seems to pale in comparison. It is one of the larger pitfalls of travel. Some people spend years, and sometimes their entire lives, trying to recapture a dramatic period spent, or experience had, while travelling or living abroad.

I decided to ditch that addictive, defeatist thinking and to get out to appreciate the wilder areas near where I live in southern Ontario, without feeling the need to place them on some experiential scale of the epic.

This spring and summer I hiked a few short sections of the 900 kilometre long Bruce Trail Conservancy – something I’d never done before. I was hugely surprised. Those daylong rambles were among the nicest and most interesting I’ve done.

I’ve attached here a few Instagram shots of some views along parts of the trail.

A view of Lake Huron on the Bruce Trail, northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, CanadaA forest on the Bruce Trail, Ontario Canada.A view of limestone rock on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada

‘Making the Desert Bloom’

Author David Rains Wallace, in The Wilder Shore, a book about California’s landscapes, demonstrates the silliness and inaccuracy of certain clichés:

“‘Making the desert bloom’ is as great a misnomer as the ‘Bureau of Reclamation.’ The desert blooms without civilized help when ample rains bring out its considerable diversity and abundance of native wildflowers. It is not the desert that blooms in the cotton and melon fields of the Imperial Valley or the Gardens of Palm Springs. The desert no longer exists in such places; it has been replaced.”

The Waterworks of Merv

The ancient city of Merv in modern day Turkmenistan.One of the largest, most advanced, and today least known cities in antiquity was the oasis centre of Merv, located in Central Asia, on the Silk Road, near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, Merv was the largest urban area in the world in 1200 A.D., with a population of more than half a million people.

Merv’s magnificence, unfortunately, must be left to the imagination as it was pulverized by the armies of Genghis Khan; its entire population put to the sword. Only a few dusty, sun-baked remains still stand.

Of its many reported qualities – including its colossal wealth and architecture – it is the city’s hydraulic system and waterworks that perhaps give the best indication of its astounding degree of advancement.

Because Merv was located on a desert plain, water was extraordinarily scarce. The inhabitants managed to divert and channel any and all water sources, near and far, into the city and surrounding countryside via a series of dams, catch-basins, canals, pipes and underground tunnels with access shafts – all built with complex changes of gradients. Even the morning dew was collected and used.

The entire system was an engineering marvel. Not just in terms of its construction, but also its maintenance.

To appreciate how complex and expansive the operation was, consider that Merv’s waterworks staff numbered 12,000 to maintain and repair the hydraulic system. Among them were 300 divers!

It may very well be that the need to cooperate on water issues helped to unite and gel Central Asian society, creating a kind of harmony of purpose that allowed them to succeed at so many other endeavours.

Like its neighbouring cities of Balkh, Bokhara and Samarkand, Merv was a node of high learning whose residents included savants and geniuses. It was also part of the wider Islamic renaissance that reached from China to Spain, and whose contributions, we now know, made possible much of the knowledge and advancements we enjoy in the West today.

Review: Is Travel Writing Dead?

is travel writing dead?This is a question that’s bantered about a lot these days.

It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?

The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.

The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.

Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.


“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”

– Pico Iyer

“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”

– Alexis Wright

“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”

– Ian Jack

“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”

– Samanth Subramanian

“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”

– Colin Thubron

“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”

– Hoa Nguyen

“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”

– Rana Dasgupta

Going in Circles

A yellow fidget spinner turning in cirlcesIn 2009, researcher Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany conducted a series of experiments using volunteers wearing GPS tracking devices who were told to walk in a straight line over long distances in wilderness environments.

The tests determined that people who are lost in the wilderness and think they are walking in a straight line, and have no physical landmarks to rely upon, tend to travel in squiggly, circular trajectories. In other words, they walk in circles.

Later experiments led Souman to conclude that most people, when lost without navigational cues (thus lacking a deeper contextual perspective), will not travel more than 100 metres beyond their embarkation point – regardless of how long they walk.

That’s a sobering thought. An equally sobering question is whether that same tendency may be at work where trajectories in our own lives are concerned.