Media outlets are often blamed for sensationalism in today's news coverage. Reporters are criticized for exaggerating the facts in the name of getting higher Nielsen ratings or more newspaper subscriptions. Online journalists are accused of writing "clickbait" headlines to boost advertising sales. But are the accusations fair? And how can reporters make sure they don't give their accusers any fodder?
A Choice of Words
A common misconception is that large font or bright colors make the story sensational. But it's the content that matters more than the presentation.
Consider a scenario, and you're the reporter. Violence breaks out in the county jail, leaving some inmates injured. The sheriff holds a news conference, saying that his deputies are investigating an "incident" at the jail.
As a reporter, you know there's a better way to describe the scene. The sheriff insists on only calling it an incident in order to downplay the violence so that it looks minor. You have a choice of sticking with his word or calling it something else—a scuffle, an uprising, even a riot.
Your goal is to describe the situation as accurately as possible. Unfortunately, no matter what choice you make, it's likely the sheriff will accuse you of sensationalism. While he's trying to use language to protect himself, you are trying to do your journalistic duty of informing the public.
One solution is to say, "While the sheriff calls this an incident, the families of the inmates hurt say it was an all-out brawl." You let others label the fighting. This is generally a good journalistic practice—get out of the way and let the subjects tell the story. Nonetheless, there is a risk you'll be accused of sensationalism, so your objective is to convey the facts accurately and vividly without exaggerating or downplaying events.
Exaggerating the Facts
Every news reporter wants to see their story on the front page or at the top of the six o'clock news. That may lead to the temptation to make a story sound bigger than it is.
Let a checklist of fair reporting be your guide. There's nothing wrong with using words like "chaos" or "shocking" if you can back it up with facts. Avoid using these words every day, or else your audience will grow bored. Generally speaking, your goal is to show, not tell. Give balanced coverage to those involved or connected to a story, and let their voices color the story more than your own.
Sometimes it's the news story assignment itself that leads to charges of sensationalism. At no time was that truer than during the Monica Lewinsky scandal involving President Bill Clinton. It became one of the 12 events that changed news coverage because every news outlet was forced to decide how to cover taboo sexual topics.
On the surface, the lewd sexual specifics sounded like sensationalism. But the Clinton presidency was at stake. Reporters had to merge the titillating details with the mundane mechanics of federal government because President Clinton faced impeachment.
Journalists must regularly decide if a particular assignment is newsworthy, or if it's just a cheap way to score readers and satisfy advertisers.
There are cases where the critics are right to call a news report sensationalized. That usually happens when promises of coverage aren't kept.
The culprit is usually media advertising, which is typically produced by someone other than a news reporter, likely someone not even in the news department.
That person will create a topical ad saying something like, "See the worst fire in the city's history!" Viewers that tune into the six o'clock news see the fire and think it's not all that bad. Once that happens, viewers become skeptical about your advertising claims.
Make sure that the person creating daily advertising for your news product has accurate information. While it's their job to sell the product, remind them not to oversell. It would be no different than if he created an ad for a restaurant promising that it has the "world's best chili," when it doesn't.
Reporters and newsroom managers need to develop a gut instinct for setting limits in promoting coverage. If you have a legitimate, exclusive news story that no one else has, there's no harm in advertising that fact. But when words like "exclusive" are overused on mundane, daily news stories, they lose their value.
As you can see, sensationalism is difficult to pin down. That's why it's easy for so many people to label the news media as being driven by sensationalism. Any journalist should commit to delivering factual, accurate stories every time. That's the best way to defend your work against these claims.