Module JG360

Sensational Journalism

Module author

Peter Downie

Concordia University

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • define and explain sensational journalism;
  • explain why sensational journalism sells;
  • give an overview of the historic development of the genre;
  • reflect this genre critically and discuss why sensational journalism is ethically problematic.
Study point 1
Reading extract Sensational Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Sensational Journalism is important zu know

When the term "Sensational Journalism" is used, it's not used to describe how great a piece of journalism is. Instead, it's descriptive of a genre that has gained greater credence within media circles over the past few decades, one in which the basic principles of journalism tend to be discarded in the rush for greater profits or ratings. 

In attempting to determine what exactly constitutes Sensational Journalism, it tends to a subjective exercise that mirrors the memorable comment Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart made about pornography: "I know it when I see it." No two people have the same exact opinion when it comes to this subject, with a variety of elements making up what can be the equivalent of a toxic stew for detractors and an aromatic bouquet for supporters.

The basics of defining it boil down to the use of stories that appeal to the lowest common denominator, so that the story itself is not what's most important. The story simply becomes a commodity that can enhance revenues through the use of either lurid information or photographs, prurient speculation or a biased viewpoint to advance a political agenda. 

That journalistic philosophy is in direct contrast to the concept of what is considered "everyday journalism," which seeks to document the world in a way that gives as balanced a portrait as possible of a story's subject.

The phenomenon of Sensational Journalism has been around since the days of Ancient Rome, and flourished almost 300 years ago when an attempt was made to work moral teachings into the everyday contributions from journalists of the era. 

Through the ensuing years, that morphed into the "Yellow Journalism" era that was championed by both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst more than a century ago. The pair's stories often fixated on graphic crime-related stories, while ignoring stories that were much more relevant to the population.

However, it was during the 1898 Spanish-American War that the rivalry between the two publishers reached its peak, with each of their newspapers either exaggerating or sensationalizing stories about Cuba in order to ratchet up the push to go to war.

The end result of their efforts was that both individuals became extremely wealthy, with Pulitzer ironically attaining immortal status through the Pulitzer Prize, which rewards the best examples of journalism during the course of a year.

Sensational Journalism would only periodically resurface during much of the 20th Century, primarily staying on the fringes of standard media reporting, but would resurface with a vengeance during its last two decades. That was when television programs were specifically created to produce stories that focused on scandals or dealt with issues that were not especially relevant, but could get people to watch—which in turn would increase revenue via increased advertising rates.

Shows like "A Current Affair" became huge successes through the use of this strategy, which caused the number of similar-type show to mushroom in a quest to tap into what had become a cash cow. By this time, the advent of the internet brought about even more desire to push the envelope when it came to what was considered journalism.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 was another touchstone for Sensational Journalism, since it involved a sitting U.S. President, Bill Clinton. While sex scandals in the White House were nothing new (Grover Cleveland and Warren Harding were two prior examples), this was the first in which newspapers, television and the internet converged, causing a crush of information about it that blocked out many other pertinent stories.

The success that media outlets like Fox News and MSNBC gained from that endeavor only emboldened some to continue focusing on the most profitable (as opposed to most relevant) angles to a story. The economic downturn that began in 2000 helped fuel that approach, but even as the economy improved, the potential for greater profits was often too much to ignore.

The need to be the first to break such stories soon became as important as the story itself, with some media choosing to print or announce information on a story that had yet to be confirmed. That led to several embarrassing errors in which standard news outlets reported stories as fact that had been published on the satirical website, The Onion.

Within the past few years, this has remained an issue: in 2012, the Supreme Court ruling on the politically-volatile Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) was reported by many outlets as having been ruled unconstitutional, when in fact the opposite was true. Less than one year later, during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, CNN reported that arrests had been made, when in fact they hadn't. An even more egregious rush in that same story had the New York Post identifying two men as the main suspects in the bombing, when in fact they were completely innocent.

The need to understand what exactly Sensational Journalism is remains vital, considering that the trend shows no sign of dissipating. Newspapers continue spiraling downward in circulation, which increases the lure of producing stories with questionable journalistic integrity in order to sustain their market share. Television, in its quest for ratings, can offer the power of video that can draw people to their TV set, which helps boost profits. Finally, the internet can have anyone "report" the news, even if such news has no context or has an obvious political bias. Such realities are integral for today's journalist to understand, so that he can determine his own course of action for the future.