Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Explicating Sensationalism in Television News: Content and the Bells and Whistles of Form

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Explicating Sensationalism in Television News: Content and the Bells and Whistles of Form

Article excerpt

Sensationalism in journalism has been discussed with much fervor over the past decade. Carl Bernstein characterizes one pole of this public debate when he refers to sensational journalism as public discourse turned into a kind of news "sewer" which is perpetuating an "idiot culture" (Bernstein, 1992, pp. 22, 28). At the heart of this outrage are three popular concerns about sensational journalism: It violates notions of social decency; it displaces socially significant stories; and it is seen as a new-sprung drift into excessiveness. A number of scholars have refuted these three concerns. First, it has been argued that sensationalism plays an important role in maintaining a society's commonly shared notions of decency and morality by publicly showcasing what is unacceptable (Erikson, 1966; Francke, 1985; Stevens, 1985b).

Second, the legitimacy of what is defined as socially significant news has been questioned. Stories about family conflicts, substance abuse, violence, disaster, and other disruptions of everyday life are regarded as more significant to the lives of ordinary people than the traditional political and economic issues that elites prescribe as important information for the masses (Bird, 1992; Grabe, 1997; Stevens, 1985a). Like the Penny Press papers of the 1830s, today's tabloid news magazine shows and newspapers have made news accessible and popular among non-elite audiences, serving a democratizing function.

Finally, historians have pointed out that the discontent with the current state of journalism in America stems from mostly unsupported nostalgia about the profession's supposed exemplary past. Bernstein's (1992, p. 25) argument that "for the first time in our history the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal" lacks historical insight. Sensational news stories date back to newsbooks and news ballads in Europe during the late 1500s (Bird, 1992; Shaw & Slater, 1985; Stevens, 1985a). Periods of public outrage about sensational journalism have become a periodic ritual. Reactions to the Penny Press of the 1830s, "yellow journalism" at the end of the nineteenth century, and the findings of the Hutchins Commission after the Second World War strongly resemble the damning tone of current public discourse about sensationalism in journalism (Altschull, 1990; Tannenbaum & Lynch, 1960). The recent preoccupation with tabloid news should therefore be put into historical perspective rather than presented as a crisis unique to contemporary times.

The validity of the concerns about sensationalism will not be further contemplated here. But the very use of the term sensationalism as if it were precisely defined deserves further scrutiny. The rather small body of research related to sensationalism reveals fragmented and largely incomparable measurements of the concept. Though generously employed in public condemnations of journalism, the term sensationalism is in desperate need of explication. The goal of this study is to examine the content and formal dimensions of what is commonly known as a sensational tabloid news program (Hard Copy) and a "proper" television news magazine program (60 Minutes) in an effort to unravel what is referred to when the term sensationalism is used.

Explicating Sensationalism

Interestingly, dictionary definitions of the word sensational developed a negative connotation a few decades after the rise of the Penny Press; over the years, the negative undertones have intensified. In Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 the term carried no negative connotations. It was simply defined as "perception by means of the senses" (p. 230). By 1880, The Oxford English Dictionary (p. 1840) described the word sensational as "calculated to produce a startling impression." in more recent times, The American Heritage Dictionary (1982, p. 1116) describes it as something designed to arouse a strong reaction by exaggeration and lurid detail, and The Random House Dictionary (1987, p. …

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