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Is sensationalism good?

In the early days, sensationalism in print journalism was used to inform the public about corruption, bribery, and such and inflamed the public’s spirit to fight for reform. Due to the growth of the television and film industry, sensationalism has extended into glorifying celebrities and politicians in such a way that it has become a propaganda weapon to sway opinions on issues.

Most news organizations find it difficult to avoid sensationalized or exaggerated stories. Some stories, such as a presidential assassination, war, or a natural disaster, are inherently sensational. Because of the events’ importance, reporters do not make such events sensational.

If you’re covering a potentially scandalous story, you’ve first got to determine if the story is newsworthy, if the public has a need and a right to the information, if the story would seriously harm the people affected, and how readers will react to the information.

These factors often can conflict with each other, but you need to balance the considerations by avoiding anything tasteless or sensational. There is no right or wrong answer to whether sensationalism in stories reflects negatively on a news organization. Each story is an individual judgment call that reporters and editors must debate each day.

The media has a desire to feed people’s hunger for entertainment and instant gratification. More than 80 percent of Americans believe that sensationalized stories seem to receive more news coverage than stories without sensationalistic aspects simply because they are exciting, not because they are newsworthy or serve the greater good.
Sensationalism began in the early 19th and 20th centuries with the feud between publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, whose circulation wars led to huge newspapers. The papers were produced in expensively equipped plants with huge payrolls and other business problems BUT gave way to startling stories.

Pulitzer focused on writing and production techniques that set a revolutionary newspaper standard. Reporter Elizabeth Cochran, known better as Nellie Bly, feigned insanity to get committed to Blackwell’s Island and then wrote a series of articles that stunned the world. Also, in 1890, Bly made an around-the-world trip in 72 days for Pulitzer, beating the fictional 80 days in Jules Verne's novel. Other reporters on Pulitzer’s staff ripped into the inhumane prison conditions, cheating tenement builders, greedy monopolists and aldermen who traded streetcar franchises for bribes.

One of the most memorable stories of this era is on the beginnings of the Spanish-American War.

Near the turn of the century, as Hearst doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to dominate the journalistic world, Pulitzer finally retreated from the competition and stopped printing as many sensational stories around the turn of the century. Hearst continued this trend, which has persisted into the new millennium.

Hearst was adamant that his readers became inflamed with patriotism when they read his stories of the Spanish-American war. The news format during the war conformed to gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is still prominent among present-day journalists. Gatekeeping is when journalists tend to be influenced by what their story brings to the table before the editing process even begins.
Changes in a News Organization

Technology has changed news production in a process of many decisions within a news organization.

The choice of published stories is sometimes decided before an event occurs, and the crucial choices are often made by the executives of a news organization and not by the journalists.

Many scholars feel that news is the by-product of three factors: events, the journalist’s perceptions of them, and the basics of the news organizations. Taking this into consideration, one realizes news is not what is happening but what others perceive to be happening.

Let’s move now to sensationalism of the 1990s and today.

Celebrities are a capitalistic commodity, and the study of celebrities is a growing industry. Ordinary people are transformed into something which is seen as extraordinary by the media and public. Celebrity status develops quickly and decays even faster, depending on the revenue the celebrity exhibits.

You’ve got gossip columns, fan club newsletters, and entertainment magazines offer intimate details about the lives of celebrities, from what their favorite beverages are to where they went on vacation.

No detail is too private, no scandal too horrific for the public and paparazzi. Even celebrities from earlier decades live on through reruns, “classic” movies, and oldie radio stations. Those who die young are often transformed into cultural icons, though generally, celebrity decays with age.

How old were you when Princess Diana died? Diana had been in the public eye for years: she received huge media attention due to her high-fashion, collapse of her fairy-tale marriage, and gracious manner. She appeared on People Weekly 41 times in 16 years and became known to headline writers as “Princess Di.”

The story of Princess Diana’s death was watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide and is still covered, though the death of Mother Theresa, who died shortly after Diana, received minimal coverage in comparison. Diana’s death gave rise to the concept of how far the paparazzi go to get a picture.

Celebrities are not the only media darlings assaulted with scandal. Political figureheads, from the village mayor to the president of the United States, are being becoming sensationalized, over-hyped media fodder – which may or may not be beneficial to the state of the country.

Due to the series of high-profile abuses of power in the 1990s, many researchers have started to believe that the coverage of political figures has begun to slip into a spiral of sensationalism. When you mention political figures in your writing, whether news or columns, you need to watch this.

Think about the Casey Anthony trial. Think about Prince William and Kate’s wedding earlier this year. When you write about high profile events – and you will – be careful that you’re reporting news, not simply sensationalism.