Turning the Century: Essays in Media and Cultural Studies

By Carol A. Stabile | Go to book overview

3
Sensationalism, Objectivity,
and Reform in
Turn-of-the-Century America

MARK HARRISON

The murder of JonBenet Ramsey was "a story screaming for media overkill: a beauty queen beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled in her own home." 1 It is this sense of "overkill" that pervades the various critiques of the media's coverage of the Ramsey case. Sexually motivated murder, child abuse, incest, and family dysfunction drew both a broad audience and charges of sensationalism. But what made the coverage of this story sensational? Was sensationalism inherent in the story itself? Or was it attributable to the style of reportage?

The term sensationalism often functions as a prepackaged media critique. Many celebrated stories in the late 1990s (other obvious examples are the O. J. Simpson case and the Monica Lewinsky -- Bill Clinton scandal) have drawn charges of sensationalism. But what exactly is meant by such charges? What is "sensationalism"? As a term often used by media commentators, scholars, and the broader public, and used as if its meaning(s) were clearly understood, sensationalism deserves closer scrutiny than it is usually granted by those who invoke it. The word is commonly understood as delineating a style of reportage that stands in opposition to "objectivity" and eschews social responsibility in favor of economic return. This understanding occludes the nature of the relation between the descriptors objective and sensational and the cultural context out of which they emerged. This occlusion, and the attendant misteading of sensationalism and objectivity as opposites, allows for an explanation of sensationalism that relies solely upon the factors of the greed of the producers (they just do it to sell more papers) and the vulgarity of the consumers (it's what people want). This

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