Why emotional reaction should help decide the news stories you write

Did you read the story about the woman who gained hearing for the first time in 40 years thanks medical advances at a hospital in Birmingham?

It’s a story which was made or the more memorable because it came with video, provided by the patient’s family, and broadcast first on the website of the Birmingham Mail:

It was posted on YouTube by the Mail on Thursday and at time of writing (Saturday, two days later), it had clocked up over two million streams, plus hundreds of thousands on the Birmingham Mail’s own player.  It’s been picked up globally, shared

So, apart from showing off at a story on one of the website’s I work with doing so well, why am I writing about it?

Here’s why: The reason this story worked so well is because it triggered an emotional response. It’s one thing to read a story about a medical miracle, which is surely what it is for the lady concerned, it’s quite another to witness it.  And when you have an emotional response to something, you’re more likely to talk about it and share it.

And when half the traffic to that article on the Mail site came from social  media – and the vast majority of that from Facebook – factoring in emotional reaction to a story becomes very important.

It goes right to the heart of the age-old question of what makes a great news story. Everyone will have a different view on this.  You could argue a great news story is one which sells newspapers or ships page views. Maybe it’s one which gets followed up extensively by other media. Maybe it’s one into which hours, or days, of blood, sweat and tears have been invested. Maybe it’s one which just gets everyone around the conference table nodding and going ‘great story.’

But what if you determined news stories as great on the grounds of the emotional reaction to them? I don’t mean setting out to provoke a response – setting out to provoke a response from readers on a regular basis always strikes me as very dangerous – but stories which just in their telling make people stop in their tracks and think.

For me, a story likely to trigger an emotional reaction in a reader should surely count as a ‘good news story’ now. A murder in your area? That probably shocks you and will make you share the breaking news with your friends. A football player linked with your football club who’d really like to see in your colours? Why wouldn’t you share it with your friends? Both examples show that bread and butter news can provoke an emotional response, as does the story about the Middlesbrough man, a pair of bolt cutters and his missing organ. 

But if you treat potential emotional response as a key thing to aim for – without over-egging it – it becomes easier to see how you make your news more shareable, and therefore more read, and therefore more valuable to a reader.

 

On one hand, it’s about treatment of stories we already know are ‘good’ stories. Take, for example, the Manchester Evening News’s decision to produce a mocked-up front page of a missing student over Christmas to help with the search for him. For that to be shared, their had to be an emotional response – in that case, it was a desire to help find the missing teenager. Or their David Moyes excuse generator – it was shareable because it tapped into a emotional reaction in a far more effective way than any piece of traditional content ever could.

If you look at today’s Manchester United victory over Aston Villa – for an Aston Villa point of view – I suspect this is probably the most shared piece of content on social media:

villashare

It’s brilliant. And does what thousands of words couldn’t  – it taps into an emotion, in this case frustration, which I imagine all Villa fans share at the moment.

So on one hand, thinking about the emotional impact of a story leads to different ways of telling the story. On the other hand, I think it also changes what we think  of as news, for the better.

I talked about what makes a ‘good news story’ earlier in this post. Thinking about the emotional impact of an article actually takes you away from just doing news – and that to me is a good thing. Far too often, the only time people see a journalist from their local newspaper/website is when something bad has happened on their street.

That changes if we seek out stories which trigger an emotional response. Spending more time on the lollipop lady who has clocked up 50 years on patrol and shares her stories with you, or a foster mother explaining why she keeps on adopting. Or a group who spend their Sundays picking up litter to make the community nicer, and why they do it. They are the sort of stories many newsrooms may argue they don’t have the time to work on these days, but in a digital newsroom where emotional reaction equals a bigger audience, does that change? I think so.

Time-served reporters will rightly point out that what I’m saying is nothing that new. Newspapers have long been judged on the strength of their letters pages. Ones packed with charity appeals are deemed to be out of touch with their audience, those packed with contributions seen as successful. There is a parallel, but it is also different. A letter to the editor – or more likely and email these days – is a commitment to getting your view across, whereas as sharing on social is often the sharing of your emotion to a story.

There’s a balance to be had here – trying to force an emotion by spinning a story or over-playing it will have the opposite effect, as any editor who has tried to over-hype a mediocre crime story to hold up the front page will tell you. But as success – judged as brand awareness and size of audience – online simply has to involve engagement, then asking what people’s emotional reaction to a story will be has the potential to change the way we work in a big way.

 

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