Writer's life

Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters talking about a crate of suddenly freed chickens escaping their pursuers , but footage of a dramatic event, an event which changed the life of the people involved. While we’re watching, count to eight slowly again.

A cut in television parlance is moving from one visual to another. How many cuts were there in the eight-second segment we watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while we watched? Did sports’ scores or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was our set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that we were essentially watching two programs at once?

Back in the day, when I got my news from the Huntley-Brinkley Report—I know this tells my age—cameras would lingered for a full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would be a voice-over talking about the hundred elderly residents evacuated from the burning nursing home in sub-zero weather, but the visual would have been the flames jutting out of the upper windows and, perhaps, a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research done about five years ago by the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California, slow news, like slow dancing and slow food, packs a more powerful wallop.

Research subjects took six to eight seconds to emotionally connect with and develop empathy for another human being in distress. The original report  and a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim were both fascinating.

If six to eight seconds of news coverage include lot of cuts and/or extraneous material, people watching don’t develop empathy. A hundred elderly people who have lost everything in a fire. Yawn. A mother who saw her toddler crushed by a cement truck. Wonder if I can find a rerun of Friends?

The ability to feel empathy is about as basic a human quality as we have. It’s not unique to our species, of course. We know that many animals, probably more than we think, feel, and express empathy. For all we know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings, who are most capable of turning empathy into helping. It’s vital that we keep that skill.

First, as human beings, and second, as writers, we have a responsibility to nurture empathy, in ourselves and in our children. Of only slightly less importance than empathy in our real lives is the question that if we become numb to experiencing empathy, how are we going to create and sustain empathetic characters?

Does this research mean that news programs will go back to the Huntley-Brinkley format? Of course not, but there is at least a simple starting point. The next time you encounter an emotionally-charged news item, close your eyes. Listen to it without the distracting visuals. Think about the people involved. Depending on your spiritual orientation, offer up a prayer or even just a thought for those people. Cultivate not just being in touch with current events, but being touched by events.

I, for one, would prefer not to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of quick-cuts visuals and flashing hockey scores.


Quote for the week:

If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.

~ Immordino-Yang, former teacher and researcher on learning and the brain

See you on Tuesday, July 8, for the first part of the six-part mini-series on techniques to improve our first drafts. We’re starting with how to use body language in place of adverbs.