How Does Sensationalism Relate To The Media's Role Of Promoting Democracy?
The democracy of a country depends on its citizens' participation. For it to be more democratic, it requires its citizens to actively participate, after they have obtained information that will guide them in making informed decisions. Most of this information is provided by the media. Some authors, (Camp 1) would argue that sensationalism has led to more viewing and readership of news, which in turn has led to having more informed citizens who make informed choices. Other authors, (Camp 2) would argue that it is diminishing the importance of news, especially in 'hard' news stories. The reason that they disagree is that authors in camp one believe that by sensationalizing news, the media attracts a larger audience than if they were to present the public with cold hard facts only. While authors in camp two acknowledge that sensationalism sells stories they believe that to promote democracy, the public has to be properly informed. The media can only do this if it presents its audience with stories that won't diverge their attention from the main story, or make them focus on some parts and leave others out, which sensationalized news tends to do.
Camp 1: Sensationalism promotes democracy
By sensationalizing news, the media increases its target audience. Not only does it attract the older citizens but the younger generation who thrive from news that has been 'laced' too. It's like they are being spoon fed. Sensationalism in the media allows the younger public to receive news in a way they can relate to. Information is being broken down for them, to make it easier to understand. This ensures that more citizens know what is going on in the government hence promoting democracy. Authors in camp one believe it provides deeper coverage of news, gives insight to politicians lives and brings to light information that wouldn't be known had the media only been interested in covering hard news only. This promotes democracy because citizens will have an idea of whom they are electing into office.
Most politicians don't see eye to eye with journalists. They also fight amongst themselves, not physically, but they usually exchange words. When these stories find their way into media houses then to the citizens' televisions, they claim that journalists are opportunists who don't do their work but lay waiting for such moments to portray them in bad light to the public. The media is doing its job. These stories, though at times sensationalized, keep them on their toes. The public will now be aware that their parliamentarians find squabbling more important than what they vowed to do when they were being elected. This will ensure that during the next elections they will make wiser and more informed choices.
The role of the media is to inform the public. However, this question arises; Are sensationalized stories able to provide information that can assist the public in promoting democracy? Authors in this camp think so. Sensationalizing news allows the public access more to information, learn things that would not see the light of day in a hard news story, and, although it is repetitive at times, people become more informed in the process. More information gives them ground to make informed and better decisions thus promoting democracy. Repeating some facts shows the importance of the story .The audience's attention is caught by the emphasis put on the more important parts of the story.
Camp 2: Sensationalism diverts the public's attention from what is important
The authors believe that sensationalism does nothing for the democracy. It is used by journalists who are primarily driven by the urge to sell more rather than inform the public. It only aims at attracting a larger audience. This does not mean that they will be more informed. The audience tends to make decisions according to the information they get from the media. It takes their attention away from what is supposed to be important and, as such, they are unable to make the right decisions. Sensationalism focuses on crime or sex related stories. These are the one that attract a large audience therefore the media tends to capitalize on these. While doing so, there are other stories-that might be of more importance to the audience, which they might be ignoring. The media's work is providing the public with information. However, as it's not clearly stated what kind of information they are supposed to provide, they give the public news they 'think' will be newsworthy to them. They might also decide to with-hold information which might be of importance to the public if they think it won't sell as much as a story of less importance which might bring in more sales.
By concentrating on what politicians did and didn't do or lifestyles of the rich and famous, journalists forget about the most important person. The common man. This is the tax payer who keeps food on the politicians' plate. However he is easily forgotten as the media is more interested in covering who made it into The Forbes Magazine. They forget that the common man is part of the economy, which isn't only made up of the rich. How democratic a country is depends on its economy too. Sensationalism of one side (the rich and politicians) of the economic scale and forgetting about the other side of the scale, (the workers) tips it over.
Competition in media is on the rise and there are more media companies now than ever before. It has become a case of who sells more. The media who is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public, is failing to do its job. Sensationalism stretches the truth, though not to the point where it can be accused of slander or libel, the media provides the public with half truths. Sensational news is entertaining, for this reason, the media has to tone down the level of seriousness in news. The toned-down stories are what the public have to work with when they want to make any democratic decision. This might mislead them and they may end up making poor choices because they lacked enough information.
In Camp 1, Karen Horn who thinks that the media has been unfairly burdened with the country's democracy writes that, "what the media really does, minus their role in as the fourth estate, is to transform information into more easily communicable content, typically mixing it with entertainment."(34). This way, the audience is given information that it can comprehend easily and the media is able to stretch its target audience to reach not only the older citizens, but the younger generation too thus promoting democracy by having more informed people. She adds that, "The idea is that even though the media cater to their clients' private needs, they simultaneously provide a public good-namely, an adequate amount of" informedness" and knowledge about current events, which allow the common citizenry to participate in open, decentralized, public discourse and to perform effectively as voters. (37) The media, though it entertains, is also doing its part by providing the public with information they deem useful in helping them make decisions concerning their democracy Herbert J. Gans writes that, "If journalists really want to encourage citizen participation, citizens must know more about how and why the events and trends that most affect them are taking place. Analytical stories can help people understand . . . and can help them take the appropriate political action." (11). For citizens to make the right democratic decisions, they have to have elaborate information, which has been widely researched by journalists. To promote democracy, the media wont just scale over a story, but will dig deep to find out all the information before presenting it to the public.
In the same camp, author Jeffrey P. Jones argues that Even though The Daily Show is a fake news show, its faux journalistic style allows the show's writers and host to question, dispel and critique the manipulative language and symbolizations coming from the presidential campaign while simultaneously opening up deeper truths about politics than those offered by objective reporting of mainstream journalism. (130)
Jones believes that The Daily Show though a comedy, takes a deeper look into facts that are overlooked by journalists who will only mention the story in passing. Further insight into a particular story ensures that the audience gets all the information that would not necessarily be put in a hard news story. He adds that, "In a single news report, the television news reporters rarely put things in such a manner (as The Daily Show does). And what the media ignore may actually provide citizens with the type of meaningful information upon which they can base their electoral decisions" (142). The media, in its quest to promote democracy, has not only found a way of informing the citizens of what is happening in politics but is entertaining them at the same time. Sensationalism covers all the bases that a hard news story might ignore, which at times is important to the public.
From Camp 2, Mariska Kleemans and Paul Hendriks Vettehen say that the selection of news on the basis of its attention-grabbing capacity could result in the selection of more interesting, but less informational stories. (233). The media is capable of reaching as many people as they want, but, if it doesn't provide them with informational stories, it will not be helping the country's democracy. They add that, On the one hand, a combination of sensational content and production features may result in cognitive overload of the information processing system. On the other hand, sensationalist features have the capability to distract the viewer's attention in a way that viewers only focus on specific parts of the news story. (239)
The human brain can only handle so much information at a go. Sensational stories contain more information than a viewer is capable of processing at once. Due to too much information, the viewer will either forget most of it, or grasp a little that he thinks will be beneficial. Therefore, he might overlook some important facts that might have helped him in decision making. Ted Turner argues that, "When the ownership of these firms [media companies] passes to people under pressure . . . the corporate emphasis instantly shifts from taking risks to taking profits. When that happens, quality suffers, localism suffers, and democracy itself suffers." (6)
The democracy of a country will suffer when the media, whose role is to provide the public with informed news, become more interested in beating their competition and sell stories because they are more interested in making money than providing their audience with quality stories. He adds that when media companies dominate their markets, it undercuts the country's democracy. (7) No real competition for news stories goes on because most media companies are owned by one person. This encourages news sharing amongst them. They will therefore ignore stories that they think are not important. If there aren't any independent competitors who will cover the story, it will go untold, no matter how important it could have been to their audience.
Sensationalism is good for competition. Through it, the media is attracting larger audiences by the day. It makes it easier for the younger generation, who are not usually keen on politics aware of what is new in the political scene. By sensationalizing news, the media makes it easier for them to understand. However, this promotes sales, not democracy. It might keep their ratings up but a few things suffer in the process. Lack of news diversity for one. A media company will cover news that the other companies are reporting on, milk it for what it's worth while ignoring news that is fresh. Reason? They don't want to risk their ratings going down because the news is unfamiliar to the audience. Active participation from the citizens makes a country more democratic.
A country will not suffer if it has citizens who are making informed choices. When presenting news, the media should use a cut-throat approach. This involves giving the public informed news only without sensationalism, that will enable them make decisions that will make their country more democratic.
Web blogs, also known as the fifth estate have become an important way of getting news. Blogs do not sugar coat information and the best thing about them, the media does not get a chance to edit or sensationalize the information. News is told as it is. This is also another way of avoiding sensationalism in news. Media companies are turning to blogs to get the latest news because it has not been edited or sensationalized but is being told as it is happening. The media should not provide the public with news because of its capability to attract a large audience but because it will be useful to them.
- Drezner, Daniel W., and Farrell, Henry. Web of Influence, 2004.
- Gans, Herbert J. What Can Journalists Actually Do For American Democracy? Harvard College, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology,1998.
- Horn, Karen. "A Market Like Any Other:" Against The Double Standard In Judging The Media, 2007.
- Kleemans, Mariska., and Vettehen H. P. Sensationalism In Television News, 2002.
- Lang, Peter. Politicotainment. Television's Take on the Real. Ed. Riegert Kristina, 2007.
- Turner, Ted. My Beef With Big Media, 2004.