From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies" --Aristotle, Poetics [...].
Sensationalism is a manner of being extremely controversial, loud, or attention-grabbing. It is especially applied to the emphasis of the unusual or atypical. It is also a form of theatre.
The term is commonly used in reference to the media. Critics of media bias of all political stripes often charge the media with engaging in sensationalism in their reporting and conduct. That is, the notion that media outlets often choose to report heavily on stories with shock value or attention-grabbing names or events, rather than reporting on more pressing issues to the general public.
In the extreme case, the media would report the news if it makes a good story, without much regard for the factual accuracy. Thus, a press release including ridiculous and false pseudoscientific claims issued by a controversial group is guaranteed a lot of media coverage.
Such stories are often perceived (rightfully, or mistakenly) as partisan or biased due to the sensational nature in which they are reported. A media piece may report on a political figure in a biased way or present one side of an issue while deriding another, or neutrally, it may simply include sensational aspects such as zealots, doomsayers and/or junk science. Complex subjects and affairs are often subject to sensationalism. Exciting and emotionally charged aspects can be drawn out without providing elements such as pertinent background, investigative, or contextual information needed for the viewer to form his or her opinion on the subject.
Mainstream media is sometimes duped into reprinting stories from comedy sites as facts without any factual checks. One widely reported example involved The Onion's story on Harry Potter causing an increased interest in Satanism. The media is also occasionally taken in by mistakes, such as a story about deep sea creatures brought by the Asian tsunami.
One presumed goal of sensational reporting is increased (or sustained) viewership or readership which can be sold to advertisers, the result being a lesser focus on proper journalism and a greater focus on the "juicy" aspects of a story that pull in a larger share of audience.
In A History of News, author Mitchell Stephens (professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University) notes sensationalism can be found in the Ancient Roman Acta Diurna (official notices and announcements which were presented daily on public message boards, the perceived content of which spread with enthusiasm in illiterate societies). Sensationalism was used in books of the 16th and 17th century, to teach moral lessons. According to Stevens, sensationalism brought the news to a new audience when it became aimed at the lower class, who had less of a need to accurately understand politics and the economy. Through sensationalism, he claims, the audience was further educated and encouraged to take more interest in the news.
- Agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt
- Betteridge's Law of Headlines
- CNN effect
- Culture of fear
- Dumbing down
- Exploitation film
- Junk food news
- Loaded words
- Mean world syndrome
- Media bias in the United States
- Media circus
- Moral panic
- Profit motive
- Propaganda model, in mass media
- Pulp magazine
- Spin, an interpretation of an event designed to sway public opinion
- Succès de scandale
- Tabloid journalism
- Trial by media
- Weather wars
- Yellow journalism