More Than Words Alone: Incorporating Broadcasters' Nonverbal Communication into the Stages of Crisis Coverage Theory-Evidence from September 11th

By Coleman, Renita; Wu, H. Denis | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, March 2006 | Go to article overview

More Than Words Alone: Incorporating Broadcasters' Nonverbal Communication into the Stages of Crisis Coverage Theory-Evidence from September 11th


Coleman, Renita, Wu, H. Denis, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Ethical norms in broadcasting require journalists to present the news in a neutral manner regardless of the journalists' personal beliefs, attitudes, or emotions (Cohen, 1987). Whether covering politicians on the campaign trail, routine city council meetings, dangerous breaking news, or emotional events, broadcast journalists are expected to appear calm, detached, and unemotional. Political coverage has been a natural focus of such research, which also has tended to target almost exclusively the verbal part of communication, even when television, a primarily visual medium, is examined. This study extends the inquiry of nonverbal communication to broadcast journalists' coverage of news outside the traditional campaign arena, specifically the breaking news of a crisis--September 11, 2001. It analyzes the nonverbal behavior of broadcasters from four networks covering 9/11 in an effort to expand Graber's (2002) theory of the stages of crisis to include not just what reporters communicate with their words and pictures but also with their nonverbal communication. Because facial expressions provide information about people's affective states (Burgoon, Birk, & Pfau, 1990), such expressions from broadcasters may communicate important information to audiences, which may vary with the stage of crisis coverage. Journalists' projections of anger, fear, or stress may induce the same emotions in viewers (Englis, 1994), and if the public perceives that journalists show bias in their reporting, then media credibility suffers (American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1999). The central research question is whether broadcasters showed significant positive and negative nonverbal behavior. This study explores how successful professionally trained broadcasters were in controlling their nonverbal communication during what was the most traumatic and emotional event in recent memory, whether broadcasters' nonverbal expressions follow the pattern of behavior outlined in Graber's theory, and if the valence of their expressions was more likely to convey calm or fear. The nonverbal communication of broadcasters is particularly important because of the potential for these journalists to affect a large audience (Nacos, 2003) and the effects that nonverbal communication can have on viewers (Englis, 1994).

Studies have examined viewers' emotions surrounding 9/11 (Kanihan & Gale, 2003), but not journalists' emotions, even though professional journalists acknowledge they also experience the full range of human emotions to such events (Minarcin, 2003) and that they must try to hide them from the public (Casey, 2003). This study does not intend to criticize the journalists who covered this unfolding disaster, often at great personal risk. We acknowledge they did an exceptional job under unprecedented pressures, but we also realize that journalists are human and nonverbal displays can be difficult to control, even for trained professionals. Even though journalists may not intend to convey nonverbal messages, they can still have consequences for viewers. A look at the communication of implicit messages via visual channels in coverage of 9/11 can be instructive in understanding audiences' reactions. Placing it in the theoretical framework of Graber's (2002) stages of crisis can help explain these behaviors and predict them and their consequences in future crises.

Literature Review

The study of nonverbal behavior has long been atheoretical (Burgoon et al., 1990), yet the field has grown steadily (Babad, 1999). To overcome this theoretical deficit, Burgoon and colleagues linked nonverbal communication to credibility and persuasion, beginning the process of erecting a larger theoretical framework to account for the effects of nonverbal cues. Others have linked emotional expressivity to trustworthiness (Boone & Buck, 2003), another related concept that also is important to journalists. This research continues the process by examining nonverbal communication as it relates to credibility and trustworthiness in a different setring--that of news rather than persuasive communication. …

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