The link between journalism and sensationalism is nothing new, but it's something all professional freelance writers must be aware of as they're getting articles ready for publication.
Understanding Journalism and Sensationalism
To understand the controversy surrounding sensationalism in journalism, you must first have a clear grasp of what these two terms mean.
Whether freelance writers or staff contributors, journalists follow a strict code of ethics. Journalism requires that content be created with several key principles in mind:
- Objective and unbiased reporting
- Factual accuracy
- Distribution of useful knowledge
- Service of the public good
- Fulfills a genuine need to know
- Avoids slander or libel
Journalists help people understand complex issues, motivate them to become more involved in their communities, and give them a broader perspective on worldwide events.
Sensationalism is content that is:
- Attention grabbing
- Failing to explain the broader issues behind the story while focusing on superficial details
- Published to attract readers, regardless of whether the information is accurate or informative
Some examples of sensational stories you might find in the media include stories about the private sexual exploits of famous actors and actresses or repeated coverage of crimes that are unique in their level of gore and violence. Articles that use junk science to back up dubious claims such as "a woman over the age of 40 who gets pregnant is doomed to give birth to a special needs child" can also be considered sensational.
Accusations of sensationalism seem to come up most often in the field of broadcast journalism, but print journalists can be involved in this as well.
History of Sensationalism in the Media
While the general public often criticizes modern mainstream media for promoting sensational content, journalism and sensationalism have been linked for many years. Yellow journalism, the practice of trying to promote biased opinion as objective fact, often involved sensationalism. Newspapers would run minor news stories with huge, overly dramatic headlines and the lavish use of attention-getting pictures or drawings. Stories would often be misleading and feature pseudo-science or quotes from faked interviews. In the 1890s, The New York World run by Joseph Pulitzer and The New York Journal run by William Randolph Hearst were known for yellow journalism, yet routinely outsold competitors who published purely objective content.
What does the Public Want?
Today, the debate surrounding journalism and sensationalism is complex because publications are under more pressure than ever to increase their circulation in order to attract profitable advertisers. A publication that has no readers won't stay in business for very long. Because it appeals to crass and slightly voyeuristic tendencies, sensational content attracts readers quickly. All you need to do to illustrate this principle is to visit a newsstand and count the number of people reading celebrity gossip magazines versus those who are reviewing the latest issue of Time or Newsweek.
For a freelance writer, the real danger occurs when a story starts off to be journalism and begins to veer into sensational territory. For example, a writer working on a story about the current economic recession could include statistics about the unemployment rate, interviews with officials in local economic development offices, and information about which major businesses have laid off workers in the last year. Anecdotes could also be used to support key points in the story, although this is where writers must be careful not to be overly sensational.
Anecdotes should represent the common experience, not what is most shocking. Choosing to profile a single mother lost her job at Wal-Mart and has five children with four different men is not responsible journalism if your statistics indicate that most of the people affected by the poor economy in your area are middle-aged men who work in the construction or manufacturing industries.