Attracting Readers vs. Sensationalizing Crime

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Crime reporting is especially susceptible to sensationalism. But is it ever appropriate?

Competition for readers and consumers of news has never been more intense. Because the public can get information from so many sources—newspapers to TV to the Internet—journalists may be tempted to resort to sensationalism in order to attract an audience and get an edge.

The word “sensationalism” was first used in the nineteenth century to criticize the so-called “yellow journalism” of newspapers such as the New York World and New York Journal. The term has since been applied to media coverage that’s controversial, shocking, attention-grabbing, graphic, appealing to the lowest instincts or focused on superficial details.

But no matter how you define it, all sensationalist journalism is essentially designed to arouse strong emotional reactions in readers.

Journalism has come a long way since the nineteenth century, but some things haven’t changed. Journalists still sometimes resort to sensationalist techniques to get a leg up on the competition. Exhibit A: The modern saying often attributed to the broadcast media that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

So are reporters more guilty of sensationalism now than they were in the past?

A study recently published in the Journal of Media Psychology attempted to answer that question. The researchers looked at the use of 10 specific sensationalizing descriptors over the past 100 years in headlines from the New York Times and Washington Post. The function of a good headline is to attract readers, so it’s a logical place to find evidence of sensationalism.

The researchers classified the descriptors as either strong (such as “massacre” and “slaughter”) or weak (such as “unfavorable” and “misfortune”). Their analysis of how often these terms appeared in 100 years’ worth of headlines revealed that the use of strong and weak sensationalist descriptors declined in both newspapers.

And when such descriptors were used, weak ones were used significantly more often than strong ones.

Not in Decline

But don’t assume that these results mean that sensationalism overall is in decline. For example, look at the coverage of the January 8 shootings at a Tucson strip mall. An informal survey of various news reports on this incident shows that the initial coverage seemed to have had two focuses. The first was on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford. Because she was the apparent target of Jared Laughner, the alleged shooter, this focus is certainly appropriate.

However, a secondary focus of the coverage was the death of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the youngest of the six people who died in the incident.

Why? The tender age of this victim made her death, in a sense, more tragic than the deaths of the other victims. People are usually shocked and outraged by crimes against children. By focusing on Green’s death, reporters could appeal to and play on the emotions of readers—hence, they were resorting to sensationalism.

Some would argue that sensationalism is simply giving readers what they want and what’s wrong with that? The problem is that it distorts the news. Let’s return to the Loughner shootings. Ask yourself—besides Christina Taylor Green, can you name any of the other people who died? I couldn’t. That’s partly because the skewed coverage that emphasized her death to play on people’s emotions downplayed the deaths of the other victims.

And these victims were as much a part of this tragedy as Taylor Green.

Sensationalism isn’t just about word choice, either. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. The use of excessively graphic photos is a form of sensationalism. On the Internet—the only source of news for many people—journalists can also use video to tell a story. And video can be very manipulative.

Avoiding Sensationalism

If sensationalism is bad, how do journalists avoid it while still writing interesting, descriptive and emotional pieces that attract readers?

Dr. Mustafa K. Anuar, a Malaysian journalist and journalism professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, has written about the line between crime reporting and sensationalism.

To ethically report crime stories, Anuar advises journalists to ask themselves three questions:

1) Was the coverage of the story responsible, balanced and fair?

2) Did the media respect the rights and interests of the people who are victims of crimes, as well as their families and friends, or was the coverage too intrusive?

3) Why did the media devote so much space to the story and why did it choose this angle over others?

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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