People all over the world are informed of changing events and issues through the news, through journalism. The news comprises information about events, issues, and even people, that are perceived to be important. People receive news stories through journalism, which is defined by the American Press Institute as the activity of collecting, assessing, and presenting information to the general public (Dean, n.p.). Thus, journalists are burdened with the responsibility of telling the people about what is truly happening to the world around them—of telling the truth. However, while journalism has been peoples’ main access to news, critics, and audiences alike, have expressed skepticism toward journalism due to the practice of sensationalism. The general consensus is that sensationalism is unnecessary and has negative effects on everyone involved. This term paper aims to define sensationalism and explain why the media practices it, and finally, expound on its effects on its viewers and, therefore, on society. The paper argues that sensationalism harms the democratic functions of media in society by cultivating a fearful but misinformed public.
Definition of Sensationalism
Sensationalism is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “the act by newspapers, television, etc. of presenting information in a way that is shocking or exciting” (n.p.) A review of literature echoes the same summative definition of sensationalism. Various literature from the start of the 21st century to the present decade agree that sensationalism emphasizes or exaggerates emotionally charged content, with some media outlets going as far as stretching the facts and exploiting unusual stories, to the detriment of informative content for the sake of entertainment and commercial value.
Sloan and Parcell explain that sensationalist features in news stories focus on appealing to emotions such as “excitement, shock, fear, and astonishment” (qtd. in Frye, 2). Meanwhile, structures have replicated structures and themes typically found in entertainment programs. Thus, instead of objective, straight-forward content that focus on informing its audience, sensationalist news delivers “dramatic, fast-paced, superficial presentations and simplistic explanations that focus on personalities, personal relationships, physical appearances, and idiosyncrasies, all aimed at attracting the largest possible audience” (Wang and Cohen, p.129). Sensationalist features also include heavy use of pictorial and audiovisual material (Wang and Cohen, p. 129). As a result, newspapers and news outlets tend to focus more on entertainment topics and scandals than on current issues on politics, economics, and society.
Why The Media Veered Toward Sensationalism
One is inclined to think that the practice of sensationalism started in modern times, especially with the domination of capitalist systems. However, sensationalism has been around since ancient times, and according to Mitchell Stephens, it may have been around from the moment humans started telling stories (Rogers, n.p.). He attributes this to a few factors that have to do with the survival of the human race. The first explanation is natural selection that has wired humans to be alert to sensations pertaining to sex and violence (Rogers, n.p.). Stephens further explains that sensationalism is an effective way of “spreading information to less-literate audiences and strengthening the social fabric” (qtd. in Rogers, n.p.). Sensationalism has helped establish certain norms within societies, which pulled people together as a community.
As different media evolved along with technology, naturally, reasons for practicing sensationalism also evolved. In the 19th century, news became valued more like a commercial commodity (Rogers, n.p.). Businesses saw the profitable potential of newspapers due to their ability to inform and persuade the public. Thus, advertisers poured financial support, effectively replacing political parties as newspapers’ chief financial supporters (Rogers, n.p.). This shift di120d not necessarily spark the practice of sensationalism, but it did compound to the reasons companies favor the practice.
Since sensationalism naturally attracts a wider audience, newspapers have employed the practice to gain more readership, which leads to more sales as well as more advertisements. Thus, revenue is at the core of the reason media outlets practice sensationalism. Sensationalism, through the use of sensations, increases the entertainment value of news, which media outlets believe is key to higher viewership and higher ratings.
The Impact of Sensationalism
On an individual level, media outlets evidently aim to activate the sensations of the viewers to entertain them and/or simply keep their attention. While the effectiveness of sensationalism in maintaining the audience’s interest had been proven questionable by a number of studies (Wang and Cohen, 131), sensationalism’s effects on the psyche of the audience are undeniable. The overreporting and emphasis on shocking news stories have led to the audience’s exposure to violent and graphic scenes. This, in turn, results in a culture of fear and the desensitization of people to violence.
The media plays a major role in how the general public perceives current events because the latter is greatly influenced by how the media frames a story. The most sensational news stories tend to be presented in a frame of moral panic, which creates constructed fears on a large scale:
The culture of fear systematically misrecognizes social problems, producing a distorted and disproportionate response. A major consequence is hostility toward those defined as deviants. A secondary effect is to foster distrust of others, especially strangers. (Critcher, n.p.)
In the US alone, this culture of fear has been used throughout history many times and is the root cause of numerous pervasive societal issues. The war on drugs, which established institutional racism against Blacks and Latinos, is the reason the aforementioned demographics are disproportionately jailed. The September 11 Attacks, a gruesome tragedy no less, became the poster child, so to speak, against terrorism that grossly targeted Arabs. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic, another deadly crisis, has sparked anti-Asian hate crime. These events are, by no means, real crises and tragedies, but sensational reporting antagonized a culture of fear toward foreigners or perceived “others” especially among Caucasian Americans.
News reports tend to gravitate toward rare stories that would capture people’s attention. These are often crimes related to violence and sex. A result of this is the desensitization of people to violence (Rabitte, 41). The desensitization process increases the level of shock or violence needed to make the viewers become emotionally aroused (Rabitte, 41). The process, therefore, further feeds the “need” for more sensationalized news, and vice versa.
Increased reliance on sensationalism leads to the media prioritizing crime news and, as discussed in earlier sections of this essay, focuses on emotive audiovisual content rather than on informative or analytical content. As Wang and Cohen noted in their Taiwan-based study, the media’s focus on scandal and entertainment resulted in “[devoting] less attention to politics, economics, and society” (129). People, then, only become aware of scandalous events rather than of issues that truly matter. Without ample, verified information about events and issues that truly matter to a country, people become misinformed.
Similar to desensitization, audiences who are constantly exposed to sensationalist features become more comfortable with their format—heavy audiovisual, little commentary—meanwhile, making them averse to text- or analysis-heavy news reporting. As a result, unsuspecting audiences become vulnerable to fake news. Fake news has become another societal problem that finds its roots in sensationalism. Its prevalence is attributable to the availability of social media where videos of sensational news topics are spread outside of the context of journalism.
With the culture of fear, desensitization, and misinformation, sensationalism has diminished the credibility of journalism. Although sensationalism originally serves a positive purpose of attracting a wider audience’s attention to spread information, it has become a monster with its own mind. In addition to the aforementioned issues, the awareness of sensationalism has also sparked skepticism or distrust toward the media in general. This includes media outlets that do not solely rely on sensationalism and could potentially be informative. Without trust, journalism’s role in keeping people informed so they can make well-informed (as opposed to manipulated) choices during elections becomes a tall order. Meanwhile, lies spread like wildfire thanks to the improper use of sensationalist features.
Journalists all over the world bear the responsibility of gathering information about relevant topics, verifying information, and reporting these to the public. With the goal of informing the public, tactics, such as sensationalism were developed to attract the audience’s attention. However, as journalism was infiltrated by commercialization and other personal or political agenda, sensationalism became the dominating style of most media outlets, thereby limiting the breadth and depth of news reporting. While profits may have increased, sensationalism has proved to be detrimental to its audience and society at large, as this custom term paper has explained in detail. Audiences have become desensitized to violence and have been living in a culture of fear and misinformation. These effects of sensationalism have an impact on democracy as well, in that the general public is easily manipulated despite their distrust of strangers, and so end up making electoral decisions that have adverse effects on their communities and the future.
Critcher, Chas. “Moral Panics.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 29 March 2017, https://oxfordre.com/criminology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264079-e-155.
Dean, Walter. “The Elements of Journalism.” American Press Institute, https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/.
Frye, William B. “A Qualitative Analysis of Sensationalism in Media.” Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports, 2005, https://researchrepository.wvu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4222&context=etd.
Rabitte, Eimear. “Feeding Fear?: An Examination of the Representation of Crime News in Contemporary Irish Print Media.” Dublin Institute of Technology, September 2012, https://arrow.tudublin.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=aaschssldis.
“Sensationalism.” Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/sensationalism.
Wang, Tai-Li, and Akiba Cohen. “Factors Affecting Viewers’ Perceptions of Sensationalism in Television News: A Survey Study in Taiwan.” Issues & Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 2009, pp.125-157. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228648990_Factors_Affecting_Viewers%27_Perceptions_of_Sensationalism_in_Television_News_A_Survey_Study_in_Taiwan