Sensationalism in the Media

What is Sensationalism

There are numerous definitions for sensationalism. There’s gossip, exploitation of the facts, etc. In today’s society, media sensationalism has become the norm. Journalism in particular, has become the biggest perpetrator of sensationalism. To appear more dramatic and exciting, the truth is frequently exaggerated. All in the name of increasing ratings and earning money from sponsors.

Joy Wiltenburg states in her article"True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism" that the media has a strong desire for violence. She writes “depictions of violent crime, as observed at the outset, rouse emotional reactions even when presented by news media in the modern objective mode.” The potential of sensationalism to appeal to our emotions is its most appealing feature. Media is aware of this and can arrange its stories in such a way as to appeal to those emotions in the viewer.

How Sensationalism Used in the Media

The media has a desire to feed people’s hunger for entertainment and instant gratification which is why it seems as though every headline on newspapers and television is riddled with sensationalism. For instance, nowadays when you look at a headline it’s sure to feature an over exaggerated display of events. With a tool like this, the media can make the most lackluster thing seem so extraordinary.

Then there's the aspect of fear mongering. Every time I turn on the news recently, I’ve noticed an increase in reporting of NYC subway incidents.

While I do believe most of these news channels wanted to keep us safe, I can’t ignore how this was another way for the media to prey on our emotions (fear) in order for us to engage with their content and it worked. As someone who takes the subway daily, I found myself clicking on numerous stories about subway attacks to figure out ways to keep myself safe. It makes it very difficult to decipher what to believe. I’m one to believe that sensationalized stories receive more news coverage than non-sensationalized stories because of the excitement factor. Regardless if it’s newsworthy or not.

The recent Oscar incident involving Will Smith and Chris Rock. I don’t feel it necessary to discuss the events that took place, that’s been done enough. A day after the incident there was a picture of the actress Nicole Kidman looking very surprised. Many news outlets picked this up and wrote headlines stating it was her reaction to the incident. This was revealed to be not true. In fact the photo was taken hours before the incident. This struck me as another prime example of how irresponsible the sensationalism media can be.

Sensationalism and Media Literacy

Media Sensationalism is a threat to media literacy.

Media literacy is essential to helping people understand the messages that are being broadcasted to them, the biases in media and how they may affect the perception of an event or issue. With an overwhelming source of information, the need for media literacy is more prevalent than ever. Unfortunately sensationalism of the media makes it tougher for the average reader and/or viewer to filter through sources. There is also a lack of consequence for media outlets that sensationalize stories. Ultimately it’s the consumers that are left disappointed with the lack of substance when we’re made to view sensationalized media. However, media outlets are satisfied with the interaction they received through sensationalism. At this point, sensationalism is far too engraved in our society for it to suddenly up and disappear and media outlets don’t seem to be slowing down the output of sensationalized media. As of now, I believe the best approach is to be cautious of the media sources we choose to engage with.

Agassi, J. (1966). Sensationalism. Mind, 75(297), 1–24.

Wiltenburg, J. (2004). True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism. The American Historical Review, 109(5), 1377–1404.


Kiana Boston is a Media Studies grad student at Brooklyn College. She holds a Bachelor’s in Criminology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has worked as a video editor and with children as a teacher’s assistant. She enjoys writing and is particularly interested in the work of those behind the scenes in the entertainment industry like fellow editors and screenwriters . She aspires to be part of the innovative work being done by her fellow African American counterparts in the entertainment industry and continues to place huge value on the importance of giving a voice to those that fear they have now.

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