Imagine you’re running for class president. You and your opponents are each given a section of the school bulletin board to post your respective campaign platforms. You post detailed plans for the tangible impact you know you can make. However, when you see the bulletin board the next day, all the other candidates covered their sections with slogans like, “No More Homework! Guaranteed!” You know this won’t happen, but you’re still worried. Will anyone read your plans? Should you change your message to be more flashy and eye-catching?
Today’s news environment isn’t that different from your school bulletin. There’s only so much space, and big, bold messages with little context or detail take up most of it. As news companies want to boost their program rankings and viewers, they fill every minute with as much “Breaking News” and flashy content as possible.
Sensationalism is when news sources prioritize exciting or shocking stories at the expense of accuracy. They do this to boost public interest or excitement, and it’s becoming more common every year.
Sensationalism isn’t new. In the early 1800s, newspapers and magazines were luxuries. Professionally produced news had a small audience, and its content was tailored to the rich and powerful. Benjamin Day’s New York City newspaper The Sun turned all of that on its head in 1833.
Day’s idea was to sell newspapers for one cent. Recent advancements in technology allowed him to use what later became known as the “Penny Press” to print newspapers faster for less money. Others soon caught on, and suddenly the streets were flooded with affordable newspapers.
Day needed to distinguish The Sun from other papers and appeal to new audiences. He began publishing attention-grabbing stories with violent crime headlines, city scandals, and, in one 1834 edition, a claim about life being found on the moon.
Over 100 years later, the news environment experienced another major shake-up. Television became a staple of American life, and the news came with it. For a while, famous news anchors shared well-researched stories for about an hour each night. But in 1980, CNN introduced the very first 24/7 news cycle.
Suddenly, cable news had to fill time slots throughout the day and keep viewers’ attention as long as possible. They did this largely because more viewers meant more money to make on advertisements. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that over two-thirds of domestic news revenue comes from ads. As a result, news stations are less interested in in-depth, informative reporting and favor whatever seems flashiest to keep viewers’ attention.
The trend of sensationalism shows no signs of slowing down. The internet has revolutionized news into a modern-day Penny Press. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can now publish content and compete for viewers, making the news environment more crowded than ever.
The rise of the internet and social media also highlights one of the central issues in modern news - its very business model encourages more sensationalism. News today just needs to bring as many viewers in as possible. The quality and truth of the story don’t matter because as long as it generates viewers, it generates ad revenues. Clicks are the main priority, and sensationalism is the fastest way to generate them.
Sensationalism may be entertaining, but it isn’t informing - and people are noticing. A 2020 Gallup poll found that about 6 in 10 Americans report either “not very much trust” or “no trust at all” in today’s news media. So what should you do to get quality, trustworthy info?
To start, it’s important to diversify where you get your news from. Consider checking out nonprofit sources since they don’t have the same incentives to sell ad-generating content to make extra money. When you see a “Breaking News” headline or a notification, maybe wait on jumping right into the story. Be critical of whether or not the content has substantial evidence and research behind it and isn’t just trying to grab your attention.
Finally, if you see content you know is clickbait, be wary of commenting, sharing, and engaging with it. Advertisement revenue is generated regardless of how you feel about the content - it only matters if you view and engage with it.
Ultimately, sensationalism isn’t going away anytime soon. As long as it’s profitable, news will be ridden with flashy and sometimes completely fictitious stories. But by being a conscious and intentional consumer, you can focus on the many high-quality stories from reputable journalists that keep you well-informed and put content over clicks.