Labrador Retrievers and Stranded Polar Bears

Emotion, Facebook, and Advocacy Journalism

Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed recently, a photo caught my attention. Amidst the frat party posts and Donald Trump rants, hidden in between the Wreck Beach sunsets and Buzzfeed videos, the most beautiful Labrador puppy I’d ever seen sat staring at me, a cheeky smile on her tiny adorable face.

I was drawn immediately to the photo. I stopped what I was doing to gasp loudly and automatically clicked on the link attached to the puppy, an article advocating the need for a greater number of therapy dogs in services for victims of sexual assault.

Xena the therapy dog and her goofy grin

It’s a common theme seen throughout journalism and, particularly, advocacy journalism — the use of pictures to provoke an instant emotion, grab your attention, and convince you of the validity of a claim.

Photographs first began appearing in newspapers in the mid 19th century, during the Crimean War. Roger Fenton, arguably the world’s first photojournalist, used the medium of photography to present to his readers an emotional knowledge of the effects of war on the troops, alongside the factual reportings in the paper’s articles.

Roger Fenton’s “Injured Zouave,” Crimea, 1855

Readers were shocked into a new level of understanding of the war. Once they’d born witness to such scenes, they could no longer ignore the reality of what they were reading. Written reporting took on a new dimension, its impact fuelled and shaped by the emotions elicited by accompanying photos.

Photojournalism was embraced widely, becoming an integral part of readers’ daily news experience.

Now, in the age of Facebook, this form of attention-grabbing, emotion-eliciting journalism is more important, and successful, than ever.

In 2015, 63% of Facebook users reported getting news from the social media site, up from 47% in 2013. The platform is becoming many people’s major daily interaction with journalistic content. The dilemma faced by journalists as a result of such a move is that they now must also become advertisers, competing to have their article clicked on, their voice heard in a sea of voices.

Today the news consumer holds the power. We scroll through content endlessly.

Don’t like something?
Keep scrolling. Don’t click. Ignore it.

We need to be hooked before we read something. With shorter attention spans and greater competition grabbing at these attention spans, the journalists need to sell their work to us.

It’s the tremendous power of a photo to cut through this apathy and confusion, to present to us a clear moment and feeling by which we may centre ourselves. Pictures reach to a deeper level of emotional understanding than mere logic and facts, a level of emotional understanding which is almost instantaneous. Pictures reach to what is very vulnerable and very human within us, and they do it quickly.

It’s the task of advocate journalists to channel the jolt of emotive experience felt by readers upon bearing witness to a particular photo in a particular direction. Advocacy journalism uses this form of journalism heavily, channeling what is emotive and convincing about a given photograph, using it to provoke their desired response, present their given perspective, and convince their audience of a truth.

How many photos have we all seen of polar bears stranded on melting ice caps, a warning that we must change our ways and address the realities of climate change, a call to action?

A polar bear and cub cling to each other as they struggle to stay afloat in the icy waters of the Arctic

A recent example of the power of photography to aid advocacy journalism comes in the form of the gut-wrenching photo that emerged in 2015, depicting the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi. Aylan drowned alongside his family after the sinking of the boat by which they were traveling to Greece, in a quest for asylum.

Aylan Kurdi smiling in a playground

The photograph was shared extensively on social media, and elicited an enormous outpouring of international grief and support. It was promoted to a large degree by advocate journalists with an aim to “humanize the refugee crisis” and dispel racist rhetoric surrounding the surge of Syrian asylum seekers attempting passage to Europe.

As Quartz reports, the photo “spawned a number of hashtags — including #refugeeswelcome,” used by citizens to pressure their governments into responding with greater urgency and compassion to the refugee crisis. Ultimately, this resulted in a “number of countries and newspapers… softening their attitudes towards taking in refugees in response to the public outcry.”

In this fast-paced world of newsfeeds and hashtags, where more information lies ready at the touch of a keyboard than ever before, where reporting is everywhere and we swim constantly in a sea of statistics, it’s human emotion which grounds us.

And the power of this human emotion is not lost on the world’s advocate journalists.

I mean, come on. We all love Labrador puppies.