Sensationalism in News
BY MEI SHAO '25
“Trial continues, you won’t BELIEVE what happens!” If you saw such a headline, you might write it off as clickbait, and, usually, you’d be right. Headlines that snag your attention, clicks, and time for revenue go by many names: yellow journalism, tabloid journalism, and, of course, sensationalism. The practice of dramatizing news has become progressively harmful because it incites panic and irrationality.
So, why do journalists and politicians resort to sensationalism? Unsurprisingly, the answer is prestige and profit. Think back to the last time you watched the news: a person in a stuffy suit read off of a teleprompter, appealing to you, the viewer, with their inflection and eye contact. Five minutes later, ads for bedazzled toilet paper and teeth whitening strips attempt to draw you in. Though their subjects seem conflicting, they share a simple purpose: to maximize ad revenue. Thus, stations strive to make news engaging, and the most effective method to achieve that is through sensationalism.
Though atypical, some news exaggerations are helpful. For example, though “ozone hole” is a misnomer, it draws more attention than “exceptionally depleted levels of ozone.” This catchy phrase has allowed an urgent climate issue to enter the public sphere of knowledge. In fact, the ozone hole drew so much attention that the government recently addressed it in new legislation: the Montreal Protocol will gradually eliminate the production of ozone-deteriorating substances.
Yet, there is a fine line between journalism and malicious exaggeration, and nowadays, most articles approach the latter. Take American news coverage of the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Throughout the outbreak, there were only two Ebola-related deaths in the United States. But fear spread faster than the virus itself due to its reporting. News sources erroneously claimed that the virus was airborne. Former President (then politician) Donald Trump claimed that immigrants carried the virus across borders, and newscasters reported the virus as “completely out of control,” twisting the truth to addle the public’s minds. This misinformation incited a cycle of riots and apprehension, and, long-term, it may have prompted the current hesitancy to trust officials regarding COVID-19. Although this hesitancy could be the result of strong political inclinations, it also could’ve stemmed directly from Ebola being played up. After all, no one trusts the boy who cried wolf.
Aside from its lasting effects, sensationalism can create mobs, irrationality, and serious crime. For example, in the 2021 Capitol Riots, former President Trump posted biased and inaccurate messages on Twitter, urging his followers to disrupt President Biden’s inauguration. The rioters succeeded in infiltrating the White House, costing four lives.
Sensationalism has become institutionalized in the US and is hard to resolve. Other countries have found avenues to provide accessible and objective news though. BBC News, the national broadcaster for the UK, is state-funded, so the BBC has no need to maintain viewer engagement, which massively reduces sensationalism. British news’s content reflects that, tending to include less incendiary or extreme language compared to American news.
Accurate news matters, and sensationalism can have costly repercussions. Thinking more critically about the media one consumes and advocating for more regulated news to protect the world is beneficial in the long run. After all, words carry power.