Sensationalism in the Present Era- A Blight On Social Evolution

Sensationalism dies quickly, but the fear is long-lived.

Agatha Christie could not have been closer to the truth with that one sentence. 

From the days of the Spanish-American war caused by sensationalism in 1898, where outlets dressed up a sunken American ship as a dastardly Spanish plot, to a gory illustration proclaiming “Ebola is coming” in the present. They say that change is the only constant in our lives, but it seems like we can add sensationalism to that list too.

But first, what exactly is sensationalism? 

It is essentially a means of exaggerating details or even lying in the news, to gain more viewers and maintain a reader or watcher’s interest, but at the cost of accuracy. 

I strongly believe that it is immoral to lie for the sake of personal gain, especially when it comes to something as sensitive as news. So, this article will be about Sensationalism In The Present Era- A Blight On Social Evolution.

Throughout the course of this article, I will highlight the major reason for resorting to sensationalism, various issues associated with it, at the micro level in the form of fear mongering and misinformation harming individuals, and at the macro level in the form of harming movements for social change. Finally, I will provide multiple practical solutions that can help curb such a problem effectively. 

News outlets insist on following a tailored approach to high viewership through cheap tricks. After all, in the status quo, media houses garner profits simply based on the number of views they get on their channels and websites. To maintain viewership, simple facts cannot suffice. Exaggerated puns, comics, buzzwords, search engine optimization, outright lies – all of these are utilized in a cold and calculated manner to achieve the desired goal. 

The sad part is that sensationalism is actually effective, because it capitalizes on something called the negativity quirk- a psychological phenomenon stating that we are more likely to be drawn in by and retain negative feelings and facts, than positive. As a result, sensationalism too becomes inherently negative, since the end goal of the media houses, as stated earlier, is maximizing viewers and clicks. For example, when the City Reporter, a Russian news outlet, attempted to showcase only positive news for the day, they immediately lost 2/3rds of their viewership.

Fear mongering is an extremely common tactic branching from the same- a study by Jakob Jensen et. al. found that breast cancer received immense media attention, about 300% more than an underrepresented prostate cancer, which led to the public viewing breast cancer as far more common than it actually was. This in turn led to unnecessary fears of breast cancer, and a gross underestimation of prostate cancer because only other ‘popular’ cancer types are spoken of.

Keeping this in mind, we need to understand that one who reports and sensationalizes a recent incident first will make immense profits. Every subsequent reporting will make lesser profits, assuming similar levels of information since the incident is too recent for an in-depth and unique analysis. Thus, there is always a push to be the early bird, to get the juiciest worm there ever was. Media houses sacrifice accuracy for profits and views. Consider the “Covington Catholic Boys” incident, where students were doxxed and harassed because CNN falsely accused them of harassing Indigenous protesters in Washington D.C. CNN based this information on one video without doing any further research, merely to gain more views. The truth only came out when other news outlets found false information in the story, after some research given the passage of time.

Sarvjeet Singh Bedi was an innocent man who was accused of harassing a woman on the street- though there was absolutely no evidence, he was publicly shamed by the media. He lost his job, and was labeled the ‘Demon of New Delhi’. Thankfully, he was acquitted by the court. 

But this is in itself extremely troubling- why should the lives of innocent men and women be destroyed by an incessant and malevolent corporate greed?

However, once we think a little deeper, we realize that sensationalism also has chilling macro-level consequences, in the form of hurting movements for social change. 

In multiple countries, there is a divisive political climate. Either you’re with us, or against us. There is no in-between. This means that logically, movements for social change should be carried out in a manner that allows for natural civil discourse, especially in an increasingly polarized world where the slightest of differences can ignite a passionate debate. To ensure that the detractors of a movement don’t immediately dismiss a movement because of prior biases, and actually attempt to critically think into understanding the logic behind it, activism must take place in a ‘moderate’ way. Read my article on “A Brief Criticism Of Humanity’s Role in Social Change” for a deeper explanation.

Consider the Black Lives Matter, or BLM movement. The protests broke out due to unjust police brutality that resulted in the death of an innocent black man. The media did cover these protests, yes- but they focused on a mere 0.1% of protests that turned into riots, showing pictures of burning buildings and looted stores but the vast majority of peaceful protests were more or less ignored.

Reporting like this leaned into fear mongering, but it also led to viewers applying the actions of outliers to a more general whole. As a result, the progress of the BLM movements was impeded. The general public became less and less open to accepting change. Sensationalism was actively harmful for the movement owing to its contribution to creating further divisions. For example, Fox News, an outlet with a primarily right-wing audience, reported the BLM protests as riots, or lootings, as much as 3x more often than other outlets. This led and will continue to lead to the creation of an echo chamber- those who were for some reason already susceptible to disagreeing with anti-racism protests, even if not anti-racism as a whole, have their beliefs further reinforced by the same cycle of misinformed and biased coverage. Some of their negative beliefs will take a turn for the worse, as they become more open to accepting the more ‘extremist’ elements on their side of the political spectrum. Case in point: QAnon.

In fact, a study by Daniell Kilgo from the University of Indiana found that media outlets in the USA provided anti-racism protests with less than 25% of legitimizing coverage. This is obviously detrimental.

Another example of generalization- the Media Council of Kenya found that Kenyan journalists had partially contributed to the unfortunately dominant idea that people of Somali descent 

were potential terrorists. 

Generalizations are particularly prevalent with respect to terrorist attacks carried out by people who happen to be Islamic- media reportings lack nuance and thus, media biases translate to public biases as well. For example, a study found that 90% of sources used to talk about Islam in a major Spanish newspaper were western, and only 4% highlighted Islam in a positive light. This has been directly correlated with a tragic 106% increase in Islamophobia between 2015 and 2016 in Spain, making social progress infinitely harder.

Tackling islamophobia, racism, terrorism- all of this becomes nigh impossible in a world as tainted by sensationalism as it is right now. Clearly, activism as a whole is impeded by sensationalist news because it leads to generalizations, exacerbates political and societal divisions, and leads to fear-mongering. There is a dire need for a solution that allows us to attack the problem at its core. Unfortunately, rather than exterminating sensationalism, we can, at best, mitigate. This is because we must understand that humans are incentive based creatures, and thus the same applies, by extension, to media outlets. The only possible incentive for a media house to continue reporting is profits- and sensationalism is quite literally a gold mine for them. We can, however, provide them with monetary and ethical incentives to consider other paths, and hence minimize sensationalist reporting.

Firstly, we need to provide incentives to the common people to fact-check. Similar to how tech companies like Google and Amazon pay those who find bugs in the system, governments must set up monetary incentives for citizens to report erroneous reporting. Private fact checking organizations already exist, but they need to be encouraged further.

Secondly, we need to implement a system analogous to peer reviewing for news outlets. Analytical articles must be fact checked by a politically diverse body of experts before being published if they relate to sensitive topics such as terrorism. Yet, to ensure that awareness of an issue reaches the public, the facts of the situation can be reported in a manner similar to what the outlet ‘Roca News’ does- purely objective reporting presented in an appealing format that allows for consumers to stay engaged, yet not be affected by biases. This will be harder to implement for news channels owing to the various deadlines they face- however, AI and technology can serve as a powerful and fast means of achieving the desired ends. Yes, debates may erupt and carrying this particular step out might prove impractical given the absolutely mind-boggling number of articles that are put out on a daily basis. Still, some change, particularly for media houses with larger outreach, will go a long way in setting a global precedent.

Thirdly, 24/7 news needs to be abolished. A repetitive drawl of the same news over and over again can create an echo chamber which kills room for debate, and leads to increasingly flamboyant claims and presentations to maintain interest throughout the day.

Finally, we need to move away from the view-based model prevalent in the status quo. We need to encourage subscriptions- a study on news channels in India found that only 30% of the revenue of a news channel was derived from subscriptions. This figure needs to go up, and government subsidies to companies must come into play to facilitate the transition. The government can cover subscription costs for the poor, which will be particularly helpful in developing nations and thus help maintain or even improve accessibility.

The media serves as a watchdog, yes, but who is watching the watchdogs? Perhaps more than a press-crushing Big Brother from 1984, we need to fear a press that implodes as it is consumed by its own avarice.