More than words alone: incorporating broadcasters' nonverbal communication into the stages of crisis coverage theory--evidence from September 11th.

Author:Coleman, Renita

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. This study examines whether network news is affected by journalists' nonverbal displays, and whether such displays follow a pattern that can be used to explain and predict future displays. Nonverbal behaviors are important in the viewers' formation of impressions. Positive expressions have been linked to judgments of higher credibility (Burgoon et al., 1990) and have been shown to convey that the sender is trustworthy, or reliable, having integrity and good character, whereas negative expressions convey the opposite (Boone & Buck, 2003). This study is important for broadcasters seeking to be seen as credible news conveyors. September 11th is not the only circumstance where this knowledge is useful; terrorist acts are becoming more frequent (e.g., Oklahoma City, Waco, the Madrid train bombings, and Russian school massacre). Broadcasters also may be overcome with emotion covering news such as school shootings, hostage standoffs, hurricanes, tornados, the aftermath of car crashes, and out-of-control fires; even trials that feature graphic images and emotional testimony from victims' relatives can move reporters to emotional displays (Himmelstein & Faithorn, 2002). September 11th is unique, yet it resembles any dramatic event filled with uncertainty as it unfolds. The space shuttle tragedies, the tsunami in Indonesia, and the Kennedy assassination come to mind. The lessons learned from 9/11, as extreme as it was, can be generalized to numerous other circumstances in which reporters find themselves, from wars to gruesome car accidents. Future research should examine if the patterns of broadcasters' nonverbal expressions on 9/11 apply to other situations; 9/11 simply provides us with an extreme situation, and therefore, we have the ability to maximize comparisons. If reporters do exhibit emotional nonverbal expressions of a particular valence, they can surely be expected to do so under the circumstances of 9/11.

Graber's (2002) three-stage model of crisis coverage is important to this study as it describes and explains how journalists operate when reporting extraordinary events, allowing prediction of journalists' operation in future events. One element it does not address is journalists' nonverbal behaviors and emotional expressions. This study examines whether the nonverbal component of communication also follows the crisis model. If it does, this study will make a contribution by expanding the theory to explicate the role of nonverbal communication in crisis coverage. Graber's theory says that, during the first stage of a crisis, journalists are focused on describing what happened. The media are the major source of information during the first stage, even for public officials. "Media reports serve to coordinate public activities and to calm the audience" (Graber, 2002, p. 142); nonverbal communication, with its superior ability to communicate emotion, is germane to this duty to calm. During this stage, there is pressure to speculate about the cause of the disaster, which may lead to reporters injecting their own prejudices (Graber, 2002); bias of this type may be subconsciously conveyed by nonverbal means, not just spoken reports. In the second stage, journalists turn toward making sense out of the situation, correcting past errors, and putting things into perspective (Graber, 2002). Besides seeking information, audiences turn to the media for interpretation (Graber, 2002). We posit that journalists' nonverbal communication has the potential to influence audiences' interpretations. In the third stage, the media prepare audiences to cope with the aftereffects and also attempt to sustain morale (Graber, 2002). Graber describes how media information can relieve uncertainty, can reassure people that their grief and fears are shared, and can calm people (Graber, 2002). Again, the role of sustaining morale, relieving, reassuring, and calming are all emotional components that nonverbal behavior is adept at influencing. The examples Graber gives include not showing gruesome pictures and avoiding inflammatory language; the role of journalists' nonverbal behavior--facial expressions, gestures, and posture--is never mentioned. Graber does give an example of how nonverbal communication hurt efforts in the Exxon oil spill in Alaska in 1989; in this instance, however, it is the lack of appropriate emotional display by a public relations person. We argue that this model of crisis coverage implies the importance of nonverbal communication but does not explicate it well, especially as it relates to journalists. The theory is rife with discussion of the relationship of emotion and the media in crisis coverage, yet the primary way that emotion is conveyed--nonverbally--is never made explicit. From Graber's description of the media's role in the three stages of crisis, different nonverbal behaviors would be expected during different stages of the event. To test this assumption, this study divided the first 24 hours of coverage of 9/11 into three equal time frames in order to examine journalists' nonverbal behaviors within this theoretical framework.

Even without benefit of well-explicated theories, studies of nonverbal communication have generated a wealth of empirical evidence. It has been shown that much subtle and implicit information is conveyed through nonverbal channels in a few seconds or even a fraction of a second (Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers, & Archer, 1979), and people are quite accurate in decoding these brief instances of nonverbal communication (Burns & Beier, 1973; Izard, 1977). Of all the nonverbal cues, facial expressions carry the most information (Mehrabian, 1968). They are rich sources of direct and inferred information because they readily reveal mental states (Ekman, 1983). It is well established that specific nonverbal behaviors accompany certain feelings...

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