Gesture Happy

In the age of the 24-hour media cycle, and with competition between cable news stations at an all-time high, ratings are of paramount importance. It seems like every other day cell-phone footage is being televised proving that a public official, or a competing news pundit was caught lying. With live streaming services such as Twitch and YouTube gaining popularity, more and more raw footage of protests, important events, and off-the-cuff moments of prominence are being captured in a more honest way by bystanders. But is this footage being presented honestly by the news?

The cable news services which once struggled to fill their timeslots with interesting content are now able to filter through the aforementioned footage to find supporting excerpts to build on their reported narrative. Both sides of the American political spectrum have called out opposing media organisations for this bias, notably Tucker Carlson on Fox and Don Lemon from CNN, whose shows consistently scrutinize the other’s coverage.  Recently, however, a new trend has risen to support the often-conflicting narratives conveyed by these media organisations.

Both sides of the political spectrum are employing body language experts to support their dominant narrative. What a person has said no longer matters, how they say it is far more important. How accurate are these body language experts in reading a person and what exactly makes someone a body language expert? Taken on face value, these experts provide an alternative perspective, but is their reading of a person legitimate or simply more diatribe in support of an obvious bias.

How has Body Language been used by the news?

Body language experts have been readily employed in the past by tabloid newspapers to conflate stories from out of context paparazzi photos. A notable example of this use would be Princess Diana and her personal life. Once divorced from Prince Charles, any public moment the royals had spent prior to their separation underwent body language analysis to look for hidden signs of marital trouble, and still today any newly surfaced footage undergoes this scrutiny from the tabloids. After the royal separation, Princess Diana’s every move was analysed and dissected by the media including but not reserved to her body language. Princess Diana was a public figure and some level of scrutiny should have been expected, but the way in which her privacy was commoditized was a horrible example of humanity’s fascination with the cult of celebrity, and ended horribly in Paris with her death.

More recently, the analysis of body language has been used by the 24-hour cable news stations of America to embellish stories. A notable example of this would be the press coverage of the horrible events that took place in Charlottesville, involving a clash between White Nationalists and the Far-Left Antifa group. These groups, who couldn’t be further apart politically, had organized counter protests over plans to remove statues of former confederate leaders in commemoration of the United States civil war. The protestors clashed violently, which culminated with a white-nationalist driving his car through a crowd of counter protesters murdering an innocent person and injuring many others. As America was shocked by the disgusting violence demonstrated by proud racists, The President of the United States, Donald Trump, made a series of comments at press conferences and a scripted speech addressing the incident of violence directly. The erratic and disjointed comments made by the POTUS, embellished with his trademarked gestured flair, contrasted highly with the well scripted and restrained way he spoke during his direct address regarding Charlottesville.

This difference in mannerisms encouraged political commentators and news pundits to analyse his speech and body language looking for discrepancies or signs of falsehoods from the man who coined the term “fake news”. To cover the President’s comments, news stations brought on board a range of body-language experts who came to vastly different conclusions about the POTUS and his comments. One remarked on President Trump’s anger towards the White Nationalists as he flared his nostrils like a raging bull. A different expert on another station claimed his excessive use of gestures showed frustration and disappointment towards white-nationalists; implying sympathy to them and their cause. Consumers show a level of brand loyalty when it comes to news coverage, but what happens when all stations pedal their own brand of fake news, using experts of questionable credentials to trump up unsubstantiated claims?

What makes someone an expert on body language?

Body language analysis is anything but a refined science, in fact there is much disagreement amongst those who study and analyse it. Body language can fall under the umbrella of psychological analysis as it often involves involuntary thoughts, but that is not to say it is universal amongst all human beings. In fact, there are many subtle differences in body language that exist between different cultures as well as many more pronounced differences. Tone of voice, greetings, facial expressions and posture can mean different things to many different people around the world. Also, as noted previously, the tabloids and television news stations aren’t concerned with you or your neighbour’s body language but that of celebrities or politicians. These public figures often undergo some form of training to prepare themselves for the unscrupulous eye of the public. Politicians are especially aware of how they carry themselves, often having teams of advisors dictating their every public move. So, if body language is so scripted, how can different news sources come to such drastically different conclusions?

How truthful is news coverage that uses body language?

Conformation bias is the concept that people may interpret information in a way that supports their preconceived ideas on a topic. This bias is evident in the news coverage of President Trump’s reaction to the horrific tragedy at Charlottesville. Fox news saw his reaction as positive and reaffirmed their stance as the media wing of the republican party. CNN saw his comments as supportive of white-nationalism and labelled the president a bigot.  Journalism, the Fourth Estate, should be an unbiased beacon of integrity to hold government and politicians accountable for their actions and policy. But what we have seen in this most recent coverage is evident of a bias in coverage and the blurring between the media and its news coverage with the agenda of political parties. By using body language and self-proclaimed experts of questionable credibility to support the prescribed political narrative of each dominant party in the United States, these news sources erode their own credibility and amount to nothing more than propaganda wings of these parties. This use of body language to support biased coverage isn’t the problem but a symptom of a political system that is rotten to the core, and at best should be taken with a grain of salt.

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