Sensationalism in Media

Illustration by Rachel Kogut

Sensationalism is a tactic used in an attempt to gain an audience’s attention. Media outlets resort to the use of shocking words, exaggeration and sometimes blatant lies.

Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, described some of the ways sensationalism is used.

"Amplifying language, trying to use very big words that are exacerbating," Dagnes said. "Something that invokes ... a whole lot of emotion."

This has been a topic of controversial debate for some time now and raises questions of whether the drive for sensationalism conflicts with a journalist’s duty for fair and honest reporting.

Sensationalism Tactics

Sensationalism is used by journalists to attract readers to their articles. David Berube — a communications professor focusing on science and technology from  North Carolina State University — provided some insight on sensationalism and the tactics used with it.

“It goes everywhere from the teaser, which is an old trick ... it is done in print and broadcast media, all the way to outright lies,” Berube said.

One of the biggest uses of sensationalism is headlines. When you are looking at a magazine or website and see those big bolded words, they attract your attention. News and media outlets know that headlines attract readers, so they use this to their advantage. Often times headlines feature an over-exaggerated display of events. With the right wording, the most mundane thing can be blown out of proportion.

Fear-mongering is the act of intentionally playing with the fears of others to arouse fear or anger — another sensationalist tactic. Media outlets will prey on the fears of others in order for them to notice their content.

“Once you get someone's attention, then you know you can weave your way through a very convoluted and probably implausible argument and make it appear more reasonable,” Berube said.

“Once you get someone's attention, then you know you can weave your way through a very convoluted and probably implausible argument and make it appear more reasonable."

Sensationalism also raises concerns in the ethical conflicts it has with a journalist's code of honor. The over-exaggerated nature conflicts with a journalist’s duty to be honest and fair.

As a journalist, it is their duty to deliver facts to the public and not be deceptive with their stories. Sensationalism violates a lot of ethical guidelines in favor of these tactics.

This becomes even more of a concern when journalists act without all the facts. An article published on The Single talked about instances where cases like this can cause serious problems.

It brought up the "Covington Catholic Boys" incident, where students were doxxed and harassed because CNN falsely accused them of harassing Indigenous protesters in Washington D.C. They based this information on one video without doing any further information. The truth only came out when other news outlets found false information in the story.

Instances like this are sensationalist, from misleading headlines to spreading harmful information. There are personal repercussions these types of articles have on people’s lives.

Sensationalism in Politics

Sensationalism has deep roots in politics and is a common tactic used by politicians and news outlets to push their agenda. This can be seen in the earliest days of our country’s politics.

“When John Quincy Adams was running against Jackson in the election, it was just nasty as hell,” Berube said. “It was just full of exaggeration and sensationalism.”

Sensationalism and the media have a direct impact on politics.

"Media actors will start using exaggerated words, and then politicians will pick up on them," Dagnes said.

"Media actors will start using exaggerated words, and then politicians will pick up on them."

An example of this would be when Trump picked up on the nickname "Crooked Hillary" to describe his opponent in the 2016 election.

CBS News did an article during the election last year, talking about how Trump used fear and anxiety to motivate voters. Trump would say things like, “No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”

These exaggerations and lies are what shaped the political climate from 2016 all the way through 2020. This raises concerns on whether sensationalism will become even more prominent in politics.

“I think it's getting worse,” Berube said. “But I think it was really bad in other terms of history, so I just think it's because we're cycling through one of those really awful periods.”

Sensationalism is Conflicting

The thing about sensationalism is that it actually works, according to psychology studies on the topic of “clickbait.” The term has been popularized to define content that is intentionally made to attract views, and lure people into clicking a link. This type of content is a perfect example of sensationalism in the digital age.

The article wrote about the psychological aspect of clickbait and how people are drawn to it. The promise of something compelling activates a particular dopamine pathway. Once released, it creates an itch that is scratched by obtaining the information that was promised.

“I think the reason the journalist turns to sensationalism is that we readership is so attracted to the dramatic and sensational,” Berube said. “The Greeks discovered years ago people love drama and so it becomes the tool that they can use."

People are naturally attracted to the bold and daring; therefore, journalists feel the need to appeal to this. The companies that these journalists work for also take note of this and exploit readership.

While readers may get annoyed when they open a sensationalized article, only to find that the contents lack any of the substance promised by the headline, this ultimately does not affect the people who make these. The article will still get interaction, which leads to receiving more ad revenue since it is popular.

"All journalistic outlets are money-making endeavors," Dagnes said. "[Media outlets] have to pay their journalists, photographers and website developers."

The people writing the headlines know that if the article doesn't get any viewership, the people involved are financially hurt. This motivates them to go with a sensational headline.

Sensationalism will not be going anywhere — it is too engraved in our society. It will always have a complex relationship between the people consuming the content and the people producing it. Our best approach is to be cautious of this content and try to see through the lies that are being presented to us.