When we discuss press freedom in our History of Journalism class, we usually center our discussions on government restrictions on publications throughout history. These governments would target newspapers which blasted authoritative figures, examples being kings and the Catholic Church.
Today, the press has various high-impact public figures to blast, and restrictions (at least in the U.S.) are subtle at best and nonexistent otherwise.
These contrasting times bring up an interesting dilemma:
Are the personal lives of high-profile celebrities everyone’s business?
Sensationalists writing for 16th- to 18th-century publications seemed to believe so.
Because press owners dominated journalism, they concentrated on gaining readers – and in turn, focused more on making their publications entertaining than accurate. Incorporating big-name celebrities and political authorities was a surefire way to gain reader attention, even via falsehoods. In Mitchell Stephens‘ “A History of News,” sensational journalists falsely reported the deaths of various rulers, and even wrote that Joan of Arc was alive, long after she had died.
In those days, sensationalism was a survival tactic.
Now, sensationalism is an entertainment hook.
Think about some of the stories that have made the news over the past year:
And recently, the (extra?)marital affairs of the greatest golfer in the world, Tiger Woods.
With the future of newspapers dependent on a lot more than celebrity escapades, one has to wonder why media outlets are ruthlessly pursuing a story inconsequential to everyone except for Tiger Woods and whoever is involved in his marriage. Now, more than ever, it is more important that senseless sensationalism does not come to dominate the news, especially with the U.S. engaged in multiple wars and shaky relationships with other nations.
While TMZ continues to pursue this story (along with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of others), and while it does make Saturday Night Live fodder, some columnists have become sickened of this coverage.
- Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus said Woods’ silence is essential to the survival of civilization.
- FOXSports.com weekly columnist Jason Whitlock says Woods should not play the media’s game.
- John Leicester of the Canadian Press says “Leave Tiger Alone.”
- And of course, the public is sick of it.
Take a good look at all this coverage. Is it saving newspapers? No. Is it increasing television viewership? Maybe. Are people sick of it? Absolutely. Does this fall into the sensationalism category? Yes. Is this story the sole life of any single publication or news organization? Absolutely not.
Has the use of sensationalism evolved?