Spreading exaggerated and misleading news to gain attention has become a dangerous trend in today’s media landscape. Especially in recent years, news outlets have been constantly under pressure to deliver the most eye-catching stories. Unfortunately, this often leads to focusing on the most shocking or unusual aspects of a story rather than reporting the facts.
So, exactly what is sensationalism and how can we detect it?
This article will answer that question.
What Is Sensationalism in the Media?
Before jumping right into the article, it is crucial to define sensationalism. In mass media, the term sensationalism refers to reporting news in an unrealistic way to provoke public interest, often at the expense of accuracy. This can take the form of exaggerating certain aspects of a story or presenting it in a way that is intended to shock readers or viewers.
Of course, not all sensationalist stories are created equal. In some cases, a bit of drama can actually help convey the gravity of a situation.
What Is the Purpose of Sensationalism?
Whether you are reading a tabloid at the grocery store or watching a “ripped from the headlines” episode of your favorite crime drama, it is hard to escape sensationalism. But what is the purpose of this type of news reporting?
First of all, it sells. People are naturally drawn to shocking stories, and publishers know that this content will generate eyeballs and clicks. Second, it creates a sense of fear and anxiety in people. By sensationalizing current events, the media can make people feel like they need to remain informed to stay safe. Finally, it can be used as a tool for political gain. By demonizing certain groups or individuals, the media can create biases.
History of Sensationalism
Sensationalism is nothing new. In fact, it has been around for centuries. One of the earliest sensationalism examples can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries books that taught moral lessons. At that time, sensationalism was aimed at a new audience — the lower classes. These readers were thought to have less of a need to understand politics and financial issues.
When thinking about the most influential type of sensationalist journalism in history, yellow journalism comes right to mind. Yellow journalism is a style of news reporting that highlights sensationalist language over factual information. William Randolph Hearst and his rival Joseph Pulitzer are often considered the founders of yellow journalism.
Factual News vs. Sensationalism: How to Tell the Difference
While factual journalism always reports the news in a responsible and accurate way, that is not the case for sensationalism. For instance, if a story is filled with words or phrases designed to provoke an emotional reaction, it is more likely that the publisher is more interested in generating excitement than in conveying accurate information.
Factual news always relies on authentic sources to deliver its message. On the other hand, sensationalist media often cites anonymous sources or unverified information in its articles. Keep in mind that providing misleading or fake news can have dangerous outcomes.
Examples of Sensationalism
Because of its increased influence in society, there are many examples of sensationalism out there. In recent years, the coverage of the 2016 US Presidential Election has produced some of the most sensationalized headlines in recent memory.
Throughout the election cycle, many news outlets focused on the candidates’ most controversial and polarizing aspects rather than delving into their policies or qualifications.
Crime is another favorite topic for sensationalist journalists. In many cases, the media will focus on the most violent and gruesome details of a crime instead of providing a comprehensive overview of the situation.
How to Avoid Sensationalism
Given the ubiquity of sensationalism, it can be difficult to avoid. But there are a few things you can do to reduce your exposure to this type of content.
Choose Reliable Sources
The best way not to fall into a sensationalist publisher’s trap is to consume news from trustworthy sources. Make sure to do your research and only read or watch the news from outlets that have a reputation for accuracy and fairness.
Be Careful of Social Media
Social media is a breeding ground for sensationalism. Due to how social media platforms are designed, emotionally charged and unauthentic content is often given preferential treatment. In order not to fall for fake news, take everything you see on social media with a grain of salt.
Clickbait is usually designed to lure people in with sensationalized headlines, only to disappoint them with an uninteresting or uninformative article. Nowadays, many social media influencers and YouTube creators use clickbaiting as a strategy to gain more visits.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to avoid sensationalism is to think critically about the news you consume. Whenever you read or watch the news, take a step back and ask yourself if the story is realistic enough.
What Is Sensationalism? Our Takeaway
Although sensationalism has been around for centuries, it has recently taken on a new form with the advent of social media. We are constantly bombarded with images and stories designed to shock and grab our attention.
While this may work in the short term, it can have severe consequences for both individuals and society as a whole. It is important to be aware of the dangers of sensationalism and learn how to distinguish fact from fiction. Only then can we make informed decisions about what we consume both online and off.