Is Sensationalism in the News Media Bad?

Sensationalism Actually Serves a Purpose, Historian Finds

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Professional critics and news consumers alike have long criticized the news media for running sensational content. But is sensationalism in the news media really such a bad thing?

Sensationalism's Long History

Sensationalism is nothing new. In his book "A History of News," NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens writes that sensationalism has been around ever since early humans began telling stories, ones that invariably focused on sex and conflict.

"I have never found a time when there wasn't a form for the exchange of news that included sensationalism — and this goes back to anthropological accounts of preliterate societies, when news raced up and down the beach that a man had fallen into a rain barrel while trying to visit his lover," Stephens said in an email.

Fast forward thousands of years and you have the 19th-century circulation wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Both men, the media titans of their day, were accused of sensationalizing the news in order to sell more papers.

Whatever the time or setting, "sensationalism is unavoidable in news — because we humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence," Stephens said.

Sensationalism also serves a function by promoting the spread of information to less-literate audiences and strengthening the social fabric, Stephens said.

"While there is plenty of silliness in our various tales of wantonness and crime, they do manage to serve various important societal/cultural functions: in establishing or questioning, for example, norms and boundaries," Stephens said.

Criticism of sensationalism also has a long history. The Roman philosopher Cicero griped that the Acta Diurna —handwritten sheets that were the equivalent of ancient Rome's daily paper — neglected real news in favor of the latest gossip about gladiators, Stephens found.

A Golden Age of Journalism?

Today, media critics seem to imagine that things were better before the rise of 24/7 cable news and the internet. They point to icons like TV news pioneer Edward R. Murrow as exemplars of this supposed golden age of journalism.

But such an age never existed, Stephens writes at the Center for Media Literacy:

"The golden age of political coverage that journalism critics pine over — the era when reporters concentrated on the 'real' issues — turns out to have been as mythical as the golden age of politics."

Ironically even Murrow, venerated for challenging Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt, did his share of celebrity interviews in his long-running "Person to Person" series, which critics savaged as empty-headed chatter.

Is Real News Being Left Out?

Call it the scarcity argument. Like Cicero, critics of sensationalism have always claimed that when there is a finite amount of space available for news, the substantive stuff invariably gets shoved aside when more lurid fare comes along.

That argument might have had some currency back when the news universe was limited to newspapers, radio and the Big Three network newscasts.

But does it make sense in an age when it's possible to call up news from literally every corner of the globe, from newspapers, blogs and news sites too numerous to count?

Not really.

The Junk Food Factor

There's another point to be made about sensational news stories: We love them.

Sensational stories are the junk food of our news diet, the ice cream sundae that you eagerly gobble up. You know it's bad for you but it's delicious. And you can always have a salad tomorrow.

It's the same with news. Sometimes there's nothing better than poring over the sober pages of The New York Times, but other times it's a treat to peruse the Daily News or the New York Post.

And despite what high-minded critics might say, there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an interest in the sensational seems to be, if nothing else, an all-too-human quality.