The History of Sensationalism: Industry Issues Blog #2

What is Sensationalism?

According to Wikipedia, sensationalism is an editorial bias in media/news. An editorial bias means dramatizing the story to increase viewership or readership depending on the medium. Sensationalistic reporting can be compared to tabloids. The typical tactic in sensationalism is appealing to three main emotions: fear, drama, and anger.

Sensationalism is a Problem

I think sensationalism is a problem in the media today, stories that aren’t “news” and being dramatized and made into “news”. When I had to watch KSDK for the local newscast analysis, they sensationalized/dramatized many stories that I taught shouldn’t have been dramatized.

sensationalism cartoon


(cartoon about sensationalism from Google Images)

Blowing Up Stories

An article from the Nieman Reports, Murder Trials and Media Sensationalism by Steve Oney examines the beginnings of sensationalism.  Today’s media blow up stories like the Zimmerman trial and even a decade ago with the Scott Peterson and O.J. Simpson trials, and make them racial, over dramatic, and taint the jury pool. The way journalists report on stories today started back in 1913.

Sensationalism in 1913

In 1913, a 13 year old Atlanta factory worker named Mary Phagan was found murdered. She was found in the basement of the National Pencil Company. Leo M. Frank was the superintendent of the National Pencil Company.

leo frank

(Leo Frank from Google Images)

Atlanta Constitution

A reporter from the Atlanta Constitution (newspaper) went with police officers to the murder scene. In the morning the Atlanta Constitution had the story.

Atlanta Journal

There was another newspaper on the scene, the Atlanta Journal. The Atlanta Journal got ahold of one of two notes that were discovered with the girl’s body. These notes were published on the first page.

The Atlanta Georgian

Yet another newspaper got in on the action, The The Atlanta Georgian (the weakest newspaper of the three). The Georgian was owned and published by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst himself said we (The Atlanta Georgian) played the case hard. They did this by over fluffing stories (embellishing the stories without any truth behind the embellishment). They started speculating about the killer and about Leo Frank himself. They also started speculating that Frank and the victim were having a sexual relationship. They basically accused Frank and tainted the jury pool. This story propelled The Atlanta Georgian to become the top newspaper in the area.

Jon Stewart’s Take

Another article I found on, Jon Stewart Blasts Sensationalism in the News Media, but is it Really So Bad? Sensationalism Actually Serves a Purpose, Historian Finds by Tony Rogers. Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show” host think sensationalism is a really problem in today’s society, as do I. Stewart is a comedian. He talks about current events in a satirical way. Stewart said, “The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does.”

(Jon Stewart about Sensationalism)

Stephens’ Research

This article talked about sensationalism’s history as did the previous article. NYU Journalism Professor Mitchell Stephens, author of “A History of News”, said sensationalism has been around since storytelling began. He also noted that it usually focused on sex and conflict (similar to today). Stephens said sensationalism also occurred in preliterate societies (gossiping).

mitchell stephens

(Mitchell Stephen’s twitter picture from Google Images)

Circulation Situation

Stephens also mentions the sensationalism in the 19th century (newspaper) circulation quarrel between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (does he sound familiar?). Both of these guys were accused of sensationalism in order to out sell the other.

Ancient Rome

Stephens even cites that the Roman philosopher Cicero complained that the “Acta Diurna” (the ancient equivalent to Rome’s daily newspaper) was a tabloid used to gossip about gladiators.

So…Sensationalism is Good?

Stephens said sensationalism is unavoidable and necessary. It’s unavoidable because it is pre-programmed into us as humans. It’s necessary because it spreads information in a social, easily digestible way.

Nah…It’s Still Bad

Stephens compares sensationalism in news as junk food. We hate to admit it but we love it. I agree…kinda. I love to hear the Miley stories, but come on not in a CNN broadcast. There is a place for Miley and there is a separate place for hard news.

Heed the Warning

Future journalists should take the history of sensationalism to mind. This is something that shouldn’t be in the news, however it is. It always has been and always will be.

This week I learned….

This week I learned sometimes people aren’t going to cooperate. Sometimes they will give you the run around and then finally help you. And sometimes people will give you the run around and then bail. And sometimes you have to have Jill call people to smooth things over. The biggest thing I learned this week is kill people with kindness. Be super nice; even if they are mean be nice.

Until the next mass communications adventure….


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