Media outlets are often blamed for sensationalism in today's news coverage. Reporters are criticized for exaggerating the facts in the name of getting higher Nielsen ratings or more newspaper subscriptions.
Are the Criticisms Valid?
Violence breaks out in the county jail, leaving some inmates injured. The sheriff holds a news conference, saying that his deputies are investigating an "incident" at the jail.
As a reporter, you know there's a better way to describe the scene. The sheriff insists on only calling it an incident in order to downplay the violence so that it looks minor. You have a choice of sticking with his word or calling it something else—a scuffle, an uprising, even a riot.
There's no rule on which word to use. Unfortunately, no matter what choice you make, it's likely the sheriff will accuse you of sensationalism. While he's trying to use language to protect himself, you need to accurately describe the situation.
One solution is to say, "While the sheriff calls this an incident, the families of the inmates hurt say it was an all-out brawl." You let others label the fighting.
A common misconception is that large font or bright colors make the story sensational. It's the content that matters more than the presentation.
Every news reporter wants to see her story on the front page or at the top of the 6 o'clock news. That may lead to the temptation to make a story sound bigger than it is.
Let a checklist of fair reporting be your guide. There's nothing wrong with using words like "chaos" or "shocking" if you can back it up with facts. Avoid using these words every day, or else your audience will grow bored.
Assignments Leading to Criticism
Sometimes it's the news story assignment itself that leads to charges of sensationalism. At no time was that truer than during the Monica Lewinsky scandal involving President Bill Clinton.
Sure, it sounded like sensationalism on the surface. Except that the Clinton presidency was at stake. Reporters had to merge the titillating details with the mundane mechanics of federal government because President Clinton faced impeachment.
There are cases where the critics are right, that a news report is sensationalized. That usually happens when promises of coverage aren't kept.
The culprit is usually media advertising, which is typically produced by someone other than a news reporter, likely someone not even in the news department.
That person will create a topical ad saying something like, "See the worst fire in the city's history!" Viewers that tune into the 6 o'clock news see the fire and think it's not all that bad. Once that happens, viewers become skeptical toward your advertising claims.
Make sure that the person creating daily advertising for your news product has accurate information. While it's his job to sell the product, remind him not to oversell. For him, it would be no different than if he created an ad for a restaurant promising that it has the "world's best chili" when it doesn't.
Reporters and newsroom managers need to develop a gut instinct on setting limits in promoting coverage. If you have a legitimate, exclusive news story that no one else has, there's no harm in advertising that fact. But words like "exclusive" can become so overused on mundane, daily news stories that they lose their value.
As you can see, sensationalism is difficult to pin down. That's why it's easy for so many people to label the news media as being driven by sensationalism because it means different things. For any journalist, if you deliver factual, accurate stories every time, you can defend your work against these claims.