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Sensationalism of the 20th century and beyond

Posted by: | December 2, 2009 | No Comment |

During a recent class discussion,  I addressed a classroom full of peers concerning an important element of Mitchell Stephens book “A History of News.” The chapter revolved around the intricate question of whether or not news becomes better with better technologies–and if not then what exactly are we losing. Essentially, Stephens argues that from the mid twentieth century on, news continues to grow less and less valuable, as new technologies outpace the capacity by which news can be dispersed.  Stephens says as the velocity and volume of news has increased, then we as a society transform from true news-seekers to a news-waiters.

By examining sensationalism in this perspective and also with an eye cast towards the future, it is possible to better understand the news and why it flows the way it does.

A great example of a sensational story that many of my fellow classmates have cited over the course of the semester has been the impact of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial–as cited here, here, and here. Another good example of sensationalism in the modern era could be cited as the Bill Clinton sex scandal in 1998. Harken back to the 1996 Olympics, what happened there? If the word bomb came to your mind before the story of a certain red-haired gymnast,well there is a reason for that. Murder, sex, violence, all these stories share a common element: sensationalism.

As technology has progressed, we have instinctively become bored with news once it stops becoming breaking news. Therefore we always search for the next best thing to focus on. On July 23, Kerri Strug’s awe-inspiring vault for the ages was done-in four days later when a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park. We had already been pounded hour after hour with interviews and analysis and inspiring montages of what had transpired on July 23, that by the time July 27th hit, America was ready for the next juicy story.

This is a great example of how technology helps to bring about sensationalism; or more accurately, how “better” technology brings about poorer journalistic quality. If a TV station has the resources and technology to report on stories that are poorly put together but bring about ratings, they will do so. This continues to this day, and as Stephens says in his book, technology may be great for journalism,  but at what cost? Well, that cost is, according to Stephens, our communities, our local news, and above all, quality of reporting.

In the past week, America has become concerned with this story and these people. The past few months we have been obsessed with things like  Swine Flu and Balloon Boy. And in the past year we have become neurotic over things like this. All the while we are at war, facing a huge economic crisis, are in environmental despair, suffer from ridiculous unemployment, but the only news we talk about is the kind that Stephens warns us about. Now this may not apply to all, but with the theme of looking forward in journalism as our guidance in this course, I implore you to ask yourself one question: when you wake up in the morning what is the first news-piece you search out? Even more concerning, do you search out the news still?

The point I am trying to make here is that technology, experience, and good training can all lead to good reporting. But when not used in conjunction with one another we are left with sub-standard news, and as a result the news we do get is often times delivered like this…


Okay, I just had to use this piece because it is so classic. But it also illustrates a great point. This fictional story was made 30+ years ago, but do you notice much of a difference in the manner that talking head acts compared to the talking heads of today? Because of 24-hour cable networks, we have talking heads that are loud, attention-grabbing, and sensational all the way to the barn. Sure we have access to news and opinions at our fingertips, but as Stephens asks: at what cost?


THAT’S the news today? Shame, shame.

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