If you follow politics or if you follow certain news outlets, then it’s very possible that you’ve heard the word “sensationalism” before. With a quick google search it’s easy to look up the definition of the word. However, it’s a little more difficult to understand the context in which it’s used. Basically sensationalism is a type of language and style of writing that is used to elicit emotion at the expense of accuracy. The downside to the expense of accuracy is the mass amounts of misinformation being fed to the public. In some cases this leads to anger or hatred towards certain groups of people and can be used as a political motive.
“Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are overhyped to present biased impressions on events, which may cause a manipulation to the truth of a story. Sensationalism may include reporting about generally insignificant matters and events that do not influence overall society and biased presentations of newsworthy topics in a trivial or tabloid manner contrary to the standards of professional journalism.” – Wiki
Sensationalism is done in many ways. If you go onto a news channel right now, you will almost certainly see it. What you’ll see is how many news channels will play to an “infotainment” style in-order to keep viewers hooked. They make everything flashy and brightly colored, they focus their language on certain keywords to appeal to emotions or they may use statistics that aren’t accurate in order to keep their viewers entertained. Another tactic for politicians or news outlets is to be loud and controversial in order to focus attention on themselves.
One goal of sensationalism (and is also a running joke in the movie Anchorman 2) is that news outlets use it in order to drive up viewership which increases their revenue. Due to this trend, this will lead to news outlets losing their journalistic objectivity in favor of increasing their profits. Eventually this may lead to a polarization and bias within media circles such as “Right-Wing News” and “Liberal News”. As a result to this bias, many media corporations can then become intertwined with politicians. The media corporations will write about their politician favorably and about their politicians’ opponents unfavorably. One example is the connection between Hillary Clinton and CNN.
CNN is owned by Time Warner. Time Warner is also one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest campaign contributors and has donated more than $500,000 to her campaign. While this may not mean they won’t be objective towards her, it’s still something to keep in mind. It’s always important to think about whether or not a politician or an information source will have a bias or not.
Sensationalism requires manipulating what people think. To do this, it uses their own psychology against them. It will use their political orientation, their racial prejudices, their biases or feelings against them. I’ve written another article on this subject: Does The Media Brainwash You?. In that article I explained several other psychological phenomenon such as groupthink and the false-consensus effect.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.
This is important to keep in mind.
A common narrative for right-wing news outlets or Republican politicians is the national security. They often blame the threat to their national security on ISIS and then propagate an on going bias of all Muslims. Remember: 99.999% of Muslims have nothing to do with ISIS. Anyway, the narrative that is created within the right-wing news roots itself in a social level. It creates an “Us vs. them” mentality even though there is no logical reason to do that. The right-wing media will often use Muslims (or many other groups) as a scapegoat. There have even been calls to ban all Muslims from the country with about 40% of GOP voters agreeing.
By appealing to their base of viewers’ sense of security, their emotions and their biases, the media increases their viewership but also propagates a completely inaccurate idea that the average Muslim person is dangerous. This type of sensationalism can also be seen in other examples such as the consistent reporting of liberals being seen as “lazy” or looking for “free-handouts” when that’s not the case at all. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that liberal news outlets are biased or use sensationalism a majority of the time as well. I’m only using right-wing news as an example.
The idea of sensationalism is a very important concept to keep in mind. Many media corporations, marketing firms, and politicians attempt to appeal to emotions rather than using facts. They do this for their own self-interests and because it’s generally easier to influence people with emotions rather than facts.
Remember, it’s always the best idea to get both sides of a story before forming an opinion on it. Sensationalism can be a dangerous concept if it propagates racist or prejudice ideas. The facts (not the cherry-picked facts) are an important step in forming an opinion. The next time you watch a politician speak or read a news article, you should think for yourself. Think about whether or not the words they use or what they are talking about is accurate or whether or not they are trying to elicit emotions and appeal to you emotionally in order to persuade you of their ideas.