Now more than ever, we are experiencing a range of emotions based on the media we encounter. Sometimes, these emotions lead us to take action—for better or for worse.

News coverage of the rapidly spreading global pandemic COVID-19 is stimulating a primal emotion: Fear. In this case, a healthy amount of fear can be useful—as long as it doesn’t spiral into panic—because it’s helping us change our behavior to limit the risk of transmission. Other emotions are being stoked as well: Compassion, for those who who are sick or who have lost loved ones, for those who are on the front lines of treatment, or for those who are suddenly out of work due to the crisis. There’s also anger at the conflicting messages and disinformation we’re seeing online, and a sense of pride in doing what has to be done to take care of ourselves, our families and our communities.

The fact that we often make decisions based on emotional responses to media messages is at odds with how we have come to think of decision-making in our society. Experts like Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture, say that in Western societies, most people believe emotions have no place in decision-making. Wahl-Jorgensen, who spoke at the recent Frank gathering—a conference hosted by the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications—writes in her latest book Emotions, Media and Politics:

“On the one hand, Western societies have historically taken a dim view of emotion . . . Media, as essential institutions of democratic societies, have been held to ideals of objectivity and impartiality, and emotional content denounced for its sensationalism. On the other hand, it is evident that political life—and the media content through which it is channelled—is shaped by emotion. The most successful politicians are those that tap into voters’ emotions. Citizens are motivated to participate in political life because they care. Similarly, the best journalism about the issues that concern us all engages audiences not just because it contains valuable information that allows citizens to make rational decisions, but also because it renders concrete and relatable the impact of these issues by compelling storytelling, often based on personal and emotional stories.”

We see this dichotomy at work within the impact space, where much of the work is built upon understanding data and metrics. Funders, understandably, want to see rational evidence that their investments are making positive change. Entire funding movements are based around the rigorous collection of dispassionate data that takes the emotion out of giving. As Jamil Zaki, a Stanford psychology professor notes: “Optimized philanthropy requires letting go of empathy for any one victim, and abstracting people’s suffering into calculable units that can be affected en masse and at a distance.”

After studying media impact for the past seven years, we know the need for cold, hard data is real. Funders need to know exactly what is changing on the ground in order to make reasoned funding decisions. But how people feel is extremely important—and difficult to disentangle from how they behave. Emotions are what prompt people to take the actions that inspire wider change.

It’s ok to be sad—but not too sad
Funders tend to see the same kinds of emotional messages from grantees: sadness about the state of a problem (picture the heartbreaking pictures of a polar bear alone on an iceberg) and happiness about the solution (polar bear back on land, reunited with others). These same practices extend to the work of nonprofit organizations trying to raise money from individuals.

Researchers have found justification for both the happy and sad approaches. But what compels action is not so simple: Research shows that extreme negative emotion can actually make people withdraw altogether, and that emotions such as guilt may inspire action in the short term and help drive awareness, but longer-term change requires stimulating positive emotions. (Public health experts should take note and plan messaging accordingly, should the current pandemic require long-term behavior change.) At the Frank gathering, we also heard from Dr. Jennifer Hudson of the University College London, whose research found that traditional pity-focused appeals made people feel less like they could make a difference, whereas more hopeful messages had the opposite effect.

So, people need to feel bad—but not too bad—about a problem, and good enough to want to take some action. But emotions go beyond feeling good or bad; there is an entire spectrum to consider. At the Frank convening, we learned about some key emotions that have the power to move people to action, including awe, fear, pride, anger, love and hope. Do all of these different emotions have a place in media impact? Here’s a deeper dive into just a few.

Exploring awe
At Frank, we heard from researchers about how inspirational media inspires people to think bigger than themselves through feelings such as awe. Awe is a self-transcendent emotion, one of those that move people to see a world that is bigger than themselves (including gratitude and empathy, among others). When people experience transcendent emotions, they are able to expand their perceptions of time and are less likely to focus on instant gratification and short-term rewards. These emotions can be especially powerful when it comes to promoting long-term change.

Dr. Katherine Dale, assistant professor at the University of Florida, explained the power of awe at Frank: “Research says that experiencing awe can make us more willing to help other people. It can make us less impatient. It can make us more satisfied with our own lives. It can even, by bringing us into the present, make us experience time differently.” Dale is a lead researcher with the Media to Inspire project, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, which is the first research project to “systematically examine inspirational media and its unique role in promoting self-transcendent emotions.”

Other research has shown that priming people to recall awe-inspiring experiences can promote altruistic behavior, and researchers are starting to understand the way that media can play a role in promoting awe. Dale noted that the Media to Inspire project has found that “we can experience awe, hope, and admiration as a result of media exposure,” which is welcome news for media makers and funders seeking to promote change.

Exploring empathy
Experiencing connection with others can be extremely powerful for motivating change, but the jury is mixed on how well media can inspire empathy. For example, many new VR projects are attempting to promote empathy by literally putting people in others’ shoes, but at Frank, Lauren Parater from UNHCR’s Innovation Service warned that these types of projects can actually make for a “dangerous delusion” that someone wearing a VR headset actually can understand the full context of what life is like, for example, for a refugee. Some researchers caution against over-relying on feelings of empathy to change behavior, especially since people tend to have a harder time empathizing with others who they perceive as different from themselves.

How we experience empathy is also changing in our hyper-mediated environment, where we are less likely to encounter people’s emotional cues. But this doesn’t mean empathy isn’t important. As with other emotions, empathy needs to be appropriately harnessed. As Chelsea Fuller from Blackbird, a strategic communications firm serving racial and social justice organizations, reminded us at Frank, we can’t assume that shared experiences and shared values in storytelling will automatically engender empathy.

Exploring anger
Anger “is the spark that lights the flame,” said Mark Dessauer of Spitfire Strategies at Frank. “It moves individuals, it moves masses. Anger can change someone’s life and move it in a different direction. It can also change an election.”

Anger can be extremely mobilizing when it comes to social change, especially through political action. Anger, according to Wahl-Jorgensen, is an “essential for communicators to harness sparingly and responsibly, given its potential to both unite and divide.” Dr. Davin Phoenix, assistant professor in political science at UC Irvine, has led research that reveals how anger is not equal across the population; it is tempered through people’s lived experiences and racial identities. Phoenix’s research shows that (contrary to media portrayals) “black Americans register significantly less anger than their white counterparts.” In addition, “anger (in contrast to pride) has a weaker mobilizing effect on their political participation.” Media impact researchers must take these kinds of differences into account when evaluating a media project’s emotional effects.

What does this mean for funders?
Funders should consider the complex role emotions play in decision-making processes and impact evaluation. Some promising research is experimenting with new ways of looking at how media interplays with emotion and behavior change. For example, see this research tool from Heidi Boisvert’s futurePerfect Lab, which captures biometric data—facial coding, sweat response, muscle contraction, etc.—and correlates it with more traditional social science data collection methods to understand how media stimulate empathetic engagement and ultimately, attitude and behavior change.

Innovative efforts like this demonstrate how measuring media impact is not linear or binary. It’s not data or emotion. Emotions are complicated, powerful, and deeply embedded in everything we do.

About the Author
Katie Donnelly

Katie Donnelly

Research Consultant

Katie is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders and associate director for media strategy and production firm Dot Connector Studio. She formerly served as associate research director at American University’s Center for Social Media (now the Center for Media and Social Impact), and as senior research associate at the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab. Katie has led impact evaluations for many media organizations including PBS, Working Films, and the National Association for Latino Independent Producers. She has conducted extensive impact research, particularly on the power of documentary film, and has written about the power of media to make change for numerous academic and journalistic publications. Katie has created many educational toolkits that use media to dig into social issues, including curricula addressing youth and gender, substance abuse, and gender-based violence.