sensationalism, in philosophy, the theory that there are no innate ideas and that knowledge is derived solely from the sense data of experience. The idea was discussed by Greek philosophers and is shown variously in the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Julien de La Mettrie, Baron d'Holbach, Claude Helvétius, Étienne de Condillac, Ernst Mach, and others. See also empiricism.
Sensationalism is a manner of being extremely controversial, loud, or attention grabbing. It is especially applied to the emphasis of the unusual or atypical. It is also a form of theatre.

The term is commonly used in reference to the media. Critics of media bias of all political stripes often charge the media with engaging in sensationalism in their reporting and conduct. That is, the notion that media outlets often choose to report heavily on stories with shock value or attention-grabbing names or events, rather than reporting on more pressing issues to the general public.

In the extreme case, the media would report the news if it makes a good story, without much regard for the factual accuracy. Thus, a press release including ridiculous and false pseudoscientific claims issued by a controversial group is guaranteed a lot of media coverage. Two examples are claims of human cloning by Clonaid and claims of cold fusion by Pons and Fleischmann.

Such stories are often perceived (rightfully, or mistakenly) as partisan or biased due to the sensational nature in which they are reported. A media piece may report on a political figure in a biased way or present one side of an issue while deriding another, or neutrally, it may simply include sensational aspects such as zealots, doomsayers and/or junk science. Complex subjects and affairs are often subject to sensationalism. Exciting and emotionally charged aspects can be drawn out without providing elements such as pertinent background, investigative, or contextual information needed for the viewer to form his or her opinion on the subject.

Mainstream media is sometimes duped into reprinting stories from comedy sites as facts without any factual checks. One widely reported example involved The Onion's story on Harry Potter causing an increased interest in Satanism. The media is also occasionally taken in by mistakes, such as a story about deep sea creatures brought by the 2004 Asian tsunami.

One presumed goal of sensational reporting is increased (or sustained) viewership or readership which can be sold to advertisers, the result being a lesser focus on proper journalism and a greater focus on the "juicy" aspects of a story that pull in a larger share of audience.

History of sensationalism

Many believe that sensationalism is a practice of media corporations especially through Television News whereby the use of pictures and footage overpowers the story creating a different and often biased viewpoint. However, Mitchell Stephens in his account of "The History of News" illustrates that sensationalism can be found in the Roman Acta, and was spread with enthusiasm by preliterate societies. Sensationalism can be found in books of the 16th and 17th century however sensationalism was viewed differently in this era. Rather it was used to teach moral lessons.

It is difficult, therefore, to resist the conclusion - however unpleasant and unfashionable - that the bulk of the blame for the amount of sensationalism that continues to appear in the news rests not only with media corporations, no matter how greedy, but with our natures. Sensationalism is further believed by Stephens to have brought the news to a new audience. He discusses the heavy use of sensationalism aim towards the lower class as they have less of a need to understand politics and the economy. But by doing this, this audience is being further educated and encouraged to find interest in the happenings of their society.

Controversy is created "when journalists confine themselves to the search for the violent or the miraculous, not only do they paint a grotesque face on the world, but they deprive their audiences of the opportunity to examine subtler occurrences with larger consequences" (Stephens, 2007:113). However without gossip, without crime - without the humanising and stimulating touch of occasional inanities and outrages - the news would lose much of its vitality. News is a coarse, unrefined substance made up of events selected for their strangeness as much as their significance, their emotional appeal as much as their import.

Sensationalism in broadcasting

Sensationalism is often blamed for the 'infotainment style' of many of the news programs broadcast over radio and television. Yet the news has always been enjoyed for as long as it has been exchanged (Stephens, 2006:15). The debate of sensationalism used in the mass medium of broadcasting is based on a misunderstanding of its audience, especially the television audience. Thompson (1999) explains that the term 'mass' which is connected to broadcasting, suggests a 'vast audience of many thousands, even millions of passive individuals'. When sensationalism used through broadcasting is combined with this concept of the passive mass audience, it is assumed the audience consumes all information fed to them. However Thompson continues that the recipients of a message, no matter how sensationalized it is, ' make with it what they will, and the producer is not there to elaborate or to correct possible misunderstanding' (1999:195). Thus it is the misinterpretation of the broadcast audience as passive consumers which is problematic for the use of sensationalism.

Further more, whilst the newspaper is often seen as a more credible source than television news because of televisions use of footage over spoken information; they are both sensationalized to the same extent. Television news is restricted to showing the scenes of crimes rather than the crime itself because of the unpredictability of events. Whereas newspaper writers can always recall what they did not witness. "No act of violence is beyond the reach of the still formidable magic of words" (Stephens, 2006:280). Furthermore, television news writers have room for fewer words than their newspaper counterparts. Their stories are measured in seconds, not column inches and thus even with footage, television stories are undeniably shallower than most newspaper stories. And because their words are intended for a less acute, less painstaking sense — hearing — television news writers must forswear the more complex formulations a newspaper reporter might hazard (Stephes, 2007: 281).

Sensational spellings are common in advertising and product placement. In particular, brand names such as Cadbury's "Creme Egg" (standard English spelling: cream) or Kellogg's "Froot Loops" (fruit) may use unexpected spellings to draw attention, and also to make an everyday word patentable. The inscription "Fish 'n' chips" above a chip shop is similar. Sensational spelling may take on a cult value in popular culture. An example of this is the heavy metal umlaut. In esoteric circles, magic is often spelled magick to differentiate it from stage magic.

It is also often used in teenybopper media including that targeting young children including Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, and other teen celebrities.


Stephens, Mitchell. "The History of News" Oxford University Press, New York, 2007 Thompson, John (1999) "The Media and Modernity" in Hugh Mackay and Tim O'Sullivan (eds)) The Media Reader: Continuity and Transformation, Sage, London

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