Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Slow Dancing

Sharon Wildwind

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on your television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters, but footage of a dramatic event, an event which has changed the life of the people involved. While you’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 you watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while you watched? Did a sports’ score or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was your set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that you 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—the cameras would have lingered for the full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would have been 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 floor windows and a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research recently published 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. If you’re interested in reading the original report on this research, go here. For a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim, go here. Both are 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 I know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings are, so to speak, at the top of the food chain when it comes to empathy. It’s important that we stay there.

I think that 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 is the question that if we become obtunded to feeling 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, 2009 April 16

Chester Campbell will be here on April 28th to discuss writing and his new book, The Surest Poison. I’ll be back May 5th.


Julia Buckley said...

Some great points here, Sharon! TV news really has gone in a weird direction--and whatever happened to reporters being objective?

Sheila Connolly said...

It's a chicken and egg thing, isn't it? Newscasters assume their viewers have short attention spans, so they cut their clips down to seconds--and then viewers come to expect that pacing.

In the last couple of years I've started watching the news on BBC America. I'm always astounded when the interviews and reports go on for MINUTES, not seconds. And the newscasters allow people to talk, without throwing in pictures of explosions and gore.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

AS a therapist as well as a mystery writer, I'm very much interested in the relationship of empathy to mysteries as well as to life and what kind of people we are. A little BSP: at next month's Malice, I'll be on a panel on tackling social issues in mystery fiction and offering "Tea & Empathy" (an hour with a shrink at Starbucks) as a live auction item. Personally, I maintain my empathetic edge by NOT starting my day flashing past all the pain in the daily news. And finally--"obtunded"??? Sharon, you continually amaze me. You should have bet me money you knew a word I'd never heard before. I'd have taken your bet and expected to win--and I'd have been wrong. ;)

Anonymous said...

Julia, what ever happened to reporters not only being objective, but being real reporters? Hank, if you're visiting, I don't mean you.

Shelia, I'm a big fan of BBC, too.

Liz, stumped you with obtunded? Woo. It means to have a decreased or blunted level of consciousness, which since I just finished my taxes (Canadian deadline is April 30), describes my mental state at this moment.