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Sensationalism is a manner of over-hyping events, being deliberately controversial, loud, self centred or acting to obtain attention. It is also a form of theatre.

In mass media

The term is commonly used in reference to the mass media. Critics of media bias of all political stripes often charge the media with engaging in sensationalism in their reporting and conduct. That is, the notion that media outlets often choose to report heavily on stories with shock value or attention-grabbing names or events, rather than reporting on more pressing issues to the general public.

In the extreme case, the media would report the news if it makes a good story, without much regard for the factual accuracy or social relevance. Thus, a press release including ridiculous and false pseudoscientific claims issued by a controversial group is guaranteed a lot of media coverage. Two examples are claims of human cloning by Clonaid and claims of cold fusion by Pons and Fleischmann.

Such stories are often perceived (rightfully, or mistakenly) as partisan or biased due to the sensational nature in which they are reported. A media piece may report on a political figure in a biased way or present one side of an issue while deriding another, or neutrally, it may simply include sensational aspects such as zealots, doomsayers and/or junk science. Complex subjects and affairs are often subject to sensationalism. Exciting and emotionally charged aspects can be drawn out without providing elements such as pertinent background, investigative, or contextual information needed for the viewer to form his or her opinion on the subject.

Mainstream media may choose a comedy site as a news source and then proceed to display its content without any factual checks. One widely reported example involved The Onion's story on Harry Potter.[1]

One presumed goal of sensational reporting is increased (or sustained) viewership or readership, which can be sold to advertisers, the result being a lesser focus on proper journalism and a greater focus on the "juicy" aspects of a story that pull in a larger share of audience.

History of sensationalism

Mitchell Stephens, in his account of "The History of News", illustrates that sensationalism can be found in the Roman Acta, and was spread with enthusiasm by preliterate societies. Sensationalism can be found in books of the 16th and 17th century; however, it is asserted that sensationalism in this era was used to teach moral lessons.

Sensationalism is further believed by Stephens to have brought the news to a new audience. He discusses the heavy use of sensationalism aimed towards the lower class, as they have less of a need to understand politics and the economy. Through this, this audience is further educated and encouraged to take more interest in the news.

However, Stephens notes, "when journalists confine themselves to the search for the violent or the miraculous, not only do they paint a grotesque face on the world, but they deprive their audiences of the opportunity to examine subtler occurrences with larger consequences". (Stephens, 2007:113).

Sensationalism in broadcasting

Sensationalism is often blamed for the 'infotainment style' of many of the news programs broadcast over radio and television. Yet the news has always been enjoyed for as long as it has been exchanged (Stephens, 2006:15). The debate of sensationalism used in the mass medium of broadcasting is based on a misunderstanding of its audience, especially the television audience. Thompson (1999) explains that the term 'mass' which is connected to broadcasting, suggests a 'vast audience of many thousands, even millions of passive individuals'. When sensationalism used through broadcasting is combined with this concept of the passive mass audience, it is assumed the audience consumes all information fed to them. However, Thompson continues that the recipients of a message, no matter how sensationalized it is, ' make with it what they will, and the producer is not there to elaborate or to correct possible misunderstanding' (1999:195). Thus it is the misinterpretation of the broadcast audience as passive consumers which is problematic for the use of sensationalism.

Furthermore, while the newspaper is often seen as a more credible source than television news because of televisions use of footage over spoken information, they are both sensationalized to the same extent. Television news is restricted to showing the scenes of crimes rather than the crime itself because of the unpredictability of events. Whereas newspaper writers can always recall what they did not witness. "No act of violence is beyond the reach of the still formidable magic of words" (Stephens, 2006:280). Furthermore, television news writers have room for fewer words than their newspaper counterparts. Their stories are measured in seconds, not column inches, and thus even with footage, television stories are undeniably shallower than most newspaper stories. And because their words are intended for a less acute, less painstaking sense — hearing — television news writers must forswear the more complex formulations a newspaper reporter might hazard (Stephes, 2007: 281).

Sensational spellings are common in advertising and product placement. In particular, brand names such as Cadbury's "Creme Egg" (standard English spelling: cream) or Kellogg's "Froot Loops" (fruit) may use unexpected spellings to draw attention, and also to make an everyday word patentable. The inscription "Fish 'n' chips" above a chip shop is similar. Sensational spelling may take on a cult value in popular culture. An example of this is the heavy metal umlaut. In esoteric circles, magic is often spelled magick to differentiate it from stage magic.

It is also often used in teenybopper media including that targeting children including Miley Cyrus[2], Hilary Duff, and other teen celebrities.

See also


  • Stephens, Mitchell (2007). The History of News. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195189919. 
  • Thompson, John (June 22, 1999). "The Media and Modernity". in Mackay, Hugh; O'Sullivan, Tim. The Media Reader: Continuity and Transformation. Sage Publications Ltd. ISBN 978-0761962502. 

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SENSATIONALISM, in psychology, the theory that all knowledge comes from sensation (see Psychology). Thus Aristippus the Cyrenaic held that there could be no knowledge save that which the senses give, but the Stoics, while finding the origin of knowledge in the senses, do not restrict it to this. Sensationalism in modern times is chiefly associated with Hobbes, Locke, Hume and the French philosophers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Condillac and others. In its extreme sense it has rarely been held, and is practically abandoned by modern philosophers on the plain ground that a sensation as such lasts only as long as the stimulus is applied. Any connexion of sensation is something over and above sensation, and without this connexion there can be no knowledge (see Empiricism, Phenomenon, &c.).

The term has also come into colloquial use for the practice of appealing - e.g. in art, literature and especially in journalism - solely to the emotions, disregarding proportion and fact.

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