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Where Should We Draw the Line on Media Capitalizing on Sensational News?

Essay by   •  April 22, 2018  •  Research Paper  •  3,488 Words (14 Pages)  •  327 Views

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Where should we draw the line on media capitalizing on sensational news?

(by Chris Low)

For movies, advertisements, pop songs and billboards, sensationalism is not a controversy but a must-have, so, in this essay, we are defining “media” as the “news media”.

In the first part of our essay, we will assume that the journalistic content (news) are independent of its “carrier”, be it paper (newspaper, magazine, journals) or electronic (radio, television and the internet).  Subsequently, we will relax this assumption and will examine the impact of media on the content.

Bill Kovach & Tom Rosentiel[1] seem to suggest that human beings’ need for news existed since prehistoric times until the present day (& beyond). This need for news is instinctive, fundamental and “engenders a sense of security, control and confidence” – much like the “Security Needs” defined by Maslow, as the set of needs immediately above those of the all-important physiological needs (in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

Just like (wholesome) food, human beings need to trust the news that they read, hear or see – otherwise, they will not classify the information received as “news” – rather, it will be classified as rumours, gossips, fiction, propaganda, advertisements, myths or fairy tales.

In 1997, the Committee of Concerned Journalists[2] defined the nine core principles of journalism, listed below.  It was precisely within principle number 8 (“It must keep the news Comprehensive and Proportional”) that sensationalism is “outlawed”.  But, how easy it is to keep the news comprehensive and proportional and not resort to sensationalism (in view of the intense economic pressures).

1.  JOURNALISM'S FIRST OBLIGATION IS TO THE TRUTH

2.  ITS FIRST LOYALTY IS TO CITIZENS

3.  ITS ESSENCE IS A DISCIPLINE OF VERIFICATION

4.  ITS PRACTITIONERS MUST MAINTAIN AN INDEPENDENCE FROM THOSE THEY

             COVER

5.  IT MUST SERVE AS AN INDEPENDENT MONITOR OF POWER

6.  IT MUST PROVIDE A FORUM FOR PUBLIC CRITICISM AND COMPROMISE

7.  IT MUST STRIVE TO MAKE THE SIGNIFICANT INTERESTING AND RELEVANT

8.  IT MUST KEEP THE NEWS COMPREHENSIVE AND PROPORTIONAL

Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map. The map also should include news of all our communities, not just those with attractive demographics. This is best achieved by newsrooms with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. The map is only an analogy; proportion and comprehensiveness are subjective, yet their elusiveness does not lessen their significance.

9.  ITS PRACTITIONERS MUST BE ALLOWED TO EXERCISE THEIR PERSONAL                  CONSCIENCE

In one of its reports, The Journalism Biz[3] reported that circulation revenue is only about 27% of a newspaper’s revenue – this means that 73% of a newspaper’s revenue come from advertisements and “Other Revenue”.  Both the revenues from circulation and from advertisements have been dropping steadily since 2003. Within this context, there is intense pressure for a newspaper to grow its circulation and increase its revenue from advertisements.  Can “sensationalism” be a possible solution to this problem?

Taking a closer look at sensationalism, Hayley Surguy has this definition:

Sensationalism can be defined as the use of “exaggerated or lurid material in order to gain public attention” (wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn). Journalism is meant to be the fifth state – an objective watchdog over the communication that is presented to otherwise unknowing consumers (For we consume the news, and the media is with no doubt a business, not a public service). However, this idealistic purpose of journalism has been overshadowed by political and economic incentives, resulting in the main priority of news channels to be RATINGS. Ratings make the network money, and ratings peak when an event that consumer can identify with occurs. Therefore, it is a clever business strategy to exaggerate and expand upon the already given information into a dramatic, biased and sensationalist report.

An often cited example of sensationalism (yellow journalism) was the “USS Maine” incident - on February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded, “and both papers jumped at the opportunity for a story. Despite the fact the cause of the explosion was unknown; the “World” ran a story about the ship being blown up by an enemy torpedo along with a picture of a violent explosion. The “Journal” ran a similar story, claiming they would give a $50,000 reward to anyone with information on the attack. This was obviously just to pull in readers since there was no actual attack on the ship[4] – the $ 50,000 reward was a gimmick because there was NO attack and the artists’ impressions of the explosion were dramatic, to say the least:

[pic 1]      [pic 2]

It would be a natural path for a mainstream newspaper, going from “mainstream” to “tabloid”, if it continues to be sensational and lacking in journalistic excellence as defined in the traditional sense.  It is tempting to think that sensationalism brings higher profit though at a cost of losing credibility in the long run. Whether this (sensationalism) approach will be more profitable is hard to prove – there is no guarantee that the newspaper as a tabloid will become more profitable.

A dramatic example of sensationalism in Singapore happened in 1996.  In that year, Dr Toh Chin Chye, the founding chairman of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, was awarded libel damages by media group Singapore Press Holdings – this was announced in a front-page apology in its flagship daily, The Straits Times, and other papers in the group.  Dr Toh was wrongly named in the group's tabloid, The New Paper, as the culprit in a hit-and-run accident that left a 17-year-old student dead. Although no figures were mentioned, the company agreed to pay Dr Toh damages and his legal costs. "We would like to apologize to all Singaporeans for besmirching the name of one of our founding fathers," the company announced in a statement.  

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