Beyond The Headlines #2: Media Sensationalism In News Coverage

Shortly into the 20th century, Frederick Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazzette while speaking about sensationalism told the proprietor and managing editor of News of the World, George Riddell that he had looked at his paper “and then I put it in the waste-paper basket. And then I thought, ‘if I leave it there, the cook may read it‘ – so I burned it!

Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories are overhyped to present biased impressions on events, which may cause a manipulation to the truth of a story.

Some tactics include being deliberately obtuse, appealing to emotions, being controversial, intentionally omitting facts and information, being loud and self-centered, and acting to obtain attention. Sometimes, the content and subject matter typically affect neither the lives of the masses nor society and instead it is broadcast and printed to attract viewers and readers only.

While the media has the responsibility of the playing its role as fourth estate of the realm, nowadays, it (media) is often accused of routine sensationalism.


For example, there was a fatal accident that claimed the lives of over 100 persons, and the spokesman of the Federal Road Safety Commission called a press conference saying his team is investigating the cause of the ‘jam’.

It is widely known that the road safety official used the word ‘jam’ to downplay the incident so that it looks minor. However, as a reporter, you know there’s a better way to describe the scene and therefore have the choice of using any word you consider suitable. If you use a word against the will of the road safety official, you will definitely be accused of sensationalism.

How then would you describe the situation accurately? The best solution is to say:  “While the FRSC spokesman called the incident a ‘jambetween cars, the eyewitnesses said it was a fatal accident caused by bad road and claimed the lives of 100 persons“. By this, you have detached yourself from the story as a reporter and made others label the accident. Regardless of what comes after, this is fair reporting.

A media outfit that uses words like ‘shocking’, ‘alarm’, ‘alert’ and ‘explosion’ as headlines has not committed any offence if the publishing firm can back those words with facts. The only time such media outfit should be criticised is when the ‘shocking’ promises are not kept in their coverage!

So, for this reason, newsrooms may slam their report ‘exclusive’ when they are certain that they have a ‘legitimate news story‘ that is alien to other media outfits.  

While sensationalism is difficult to pin down because it means different things to different people, what is expected of every journalist is to be factual and accurate in every of their reports and be certain that they can defend their stories when sensationalism allegations arise.


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