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Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion
Executive Summary

Special Presentation

"Pressing Our Buttons:
The Media and Emotion"

Garrick Utley's television news career began with NBC in 1963, when the first half-hour television evening news program debuted. In 1993, he joined ABC as Chief Foreign Correspondent in London; since 1997, he has been a contributor to CNN. He currently hosts "Exploring Your Brain," a public television series produced by WETA, Washington, D.C., in association with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

Why do certain news events appeal to our emotions, and what are the implications of that appeal for our society?

Those who produced commercials or soap operas or action films once had a sense that these were of a lesser social value because they played on the baser qualities of the mind. Those of us who consumed these products agreed, believing these products to be "mindless entertainment." Emotions come from the gut, or from the heart, but not from the mind. We considered emotions inferior to thoughts, even as we reluctantly acknowledged that they were more powerful.

Research now tells us, however, that emotions, like thought, come from the brain and thus are worthy of the same scientific consideration. Indeed, emotion can exist before cognition and be independent of thinking. Moreover, the intensity of the information flow from the amygdala to the cortex is greater than the flow in the other direction. That is, emotion can and will influence--and even overpower--thought and reason.

The legitimization of emotion is a fundamental shift. Although the study of emotion offers hope that we will eventually find causes and cures for many devastating illnesses, its legitimization poses a potential threat. The button pushers and those who want their buttons pushed increasingly will say, "There is nothing wrong with me; this is evolution, the way I am wired, the way the viewer is wired, the way our audience is wired." Before you know it, we will be making critical decisions based on emotion only and not on thought.

People frequently ask, "Why is there so much bad news on television? Why so much violence?" Research shows that channel-surfing viewers give a second or two to each channel before pushing the button again. The one image that will make most viewers stop is a gun.

We are witnessing a transition from playing the rational card to playing the emotional card. A movie like Titanic is not meant to appeal to the rational mind. Director James Cameron aimed at the 14-year-old girls who would see the movie four times, not just because of Leonardo DiCaprio but because they could follow a simplistic, emotional plot line.

When Princess Diana died, the defining moment for me was the day Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth came down to London to do a "walkabout" and mingle with the crowd. As a result of the emotional upheaval that Diana had created by courting the public through the press, a mob gathered and forced the monarch to meet them on their level.

On television and in the printed media, the increasing separation between broadcasting and journalism reflects the increasing power of emotion over thought or reason. Journalism traditionally occurred in the past tense. A reporter got the story, wrote the story, checked the facts, and presented it to the public via newspaper, radio, or television.

Broadcasting has moved us to present tense. Reporters can show you what is happening while it is happening though they may not be able to explain it.

Broadcasting is not journalism. It is neither good nor bad; it is simply a live broadcast: We are there. There is no intermediary--no reporter, no anchor person--between us and the event, just a powerful emotional connection.

Authority has lost control of the microphone and the loudspeaker. A Walter Cronkite used to be the symbol of authority. Multiple sources of information have eroded the radio or television anchor. The Internet gives everybody their own microphone and loudspeaker.

This is a reaction, if not a revolt, against what some call the "tyranny of reason." It reflects an anti-intellectual strain that has run through much of American history; now it manifests itself as a shift from structured discourse in news and information to natural discourse, born of the talk shows in the 1980s and coming to fruition in the 1992 Presidential election, a turning point. Until then, presidential elections in the television age were conducted on the nightly newscast. In 1992, Ross Perot was on Larry King; the candidates were on the morning shows; they were taking calls on the radio.

Years after the 1789 French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, a French monarchist, wrote, "For a long time, we did not understand the Revolution. For a long time, we thought it to be a mere event. We were wrong. It was an epoch, and woe to those generations present at the epochs of the world."

As we near the end of the twentieth century, I think we are present at another epoch. How do those of us who prize the rational power of the mind keep our bearings amid this cacophony? One way is to go out and engage it, for the greatest danger is to ignore what is happening.


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