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View Full Version : When does media sensationalism go too far?


Achilles
07-27-2007, 10:55 PM
This (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070727/ap_on_re_us/helicopters_collide) happened downtown a few hours ago. While the accident is tragic, I can't help but feel a little sickened to know that these four people died so that their respective stations would have "juicy footage" for the evening broadcast.

I don't want to focus on this specific accident, because I feel it's indicative of a much larger problem. So, sensationalism in the media and why we buy what they're selling. Thoughts?

JediKnight707
07-27-2007, 11:38 PM
We love the cheap thrill, whether it be real or fake. We love to watch others get hurt. When you see someone fall down, rather than help them, we laugh. Is this wrong? No, because they do the same thing when another falls. I wouldn't say that we're becoming de-sensitized, I'd say that we are becoming sensitive to something else. We aren't losing our sympathy, it's merely going towards other things, mainly: ourselves. I think that we care less and less about someone else and more and more about ourselves (family and friends included). When I hear about someone from my city dying in the war in Iraq, I feel a pang of sadness for a second, but past that, I feel nothing. I've found myself thinking that I never knew this person so why should I feel bad for them, whereas my girlfriend just dumped me, so alert the bleeping media because my life is crashing all around me. It's a fact of life now-a-days that people don't care about others. They might care about societies or organizations, but not specific people in general (aside from people that are close to you). We might donate money to the local police fund and we feel bad that when someone dies, but we never join them. And we only feel true sadness when someone close to us dies, but in the back of our minds we are always thinking "better them than me."

John Galt
07-27-2007, 11:44 PM
*shrug* It's a 100+ year old American tradition. The media basically started the Spanish-American war, with the whole "remember the Maine" thing. They wield far, far too much power, and they've established a cartel-like clamp on information in this country, except for internet sources, which the newspapers and TV stations malign at every opportunity. Personally, I think that, with the rise of the internet, traditional media is on the way down, in a big way, and they know they are, so they're gonna milk it for what its worth for as long as they still can.

They can shape public opinion and manipulate homefront morale simply by deciding which stories to run, and which not to run. Of course, there's no news like bad news, so whadya think we get to see on the nightly news?

Totenkopf
07-28-2007, 01:59 AM
Simply put, their mantra is "bad news sells/if it bleeds, it leads". If people want to see more uplifting stories, they need to make their views known by supporting a media that focuses on positive stories rather than negative. I'd chalk it up to exploitation of peoples' morbid curiosity and (seemingly) increasingly shorter attention spans. Disasters are more likely to attract peoples' attention than someone's good deed (lest it be on an almost monumental scale) of the day.

Jae Onasi
07-28-2007, 09:52 AM
I've noticed this trend in 'shorter bits, more drama; sex, violence, and tragedy sells best' in the news over the last 20 years or so. It's better in some markets, worse in others, so the market itself can contribute or not to this problem. For instance, the TV news in Springfield, MO, believe it or not, was more informative than the TV news stations in Columbus, OH, which is 10 times larger (unless you were talking sports, in which case Columbus was much better). We found Springfield covered more national stories in a less biased way than Columbus, which did a lot more 'fluff' stories to fill time.

I never watch the local evening news on TV anymore. I listen to news radio (out of both Chicago and Milwaukee both, since I can pull in both--one's liberal, one's conservative). I also watch cable news (Fox and CNN) and read news on the web, but I always assume now they're reporting with a bias and sensationalism bent. The bias I knew about, but sensationalism was not something I worried about 20 years ago. It wasn't until the OJ trial that I started to see the trend increasing.

Why do we like sensationalism? I think we're adrenaline junkies. A car crash (even better with injuries!!111one11one!! [/over-the-top] ), copter crash, police chase, fires, and so forth are fascinating. I think it's first because it's not the usual thing in our lives, and second we want to know how the story turns out--do the people survive? How does the family handle deaths? Does the fire department put the fire out in time to save the family and the house? The very popularity of shows like ER show how very much we're mesmerized by vicariously living that moment with the affected person. We wonder how we'd handle emergencies, and we crave the excitement we get watching an accident to see if time runs out for the victim or if the paramedics save the person in time.

Unfortunately, reality is a different issue. When I stop at accidents, people are frequently overwhelmed by the adrenaline surge and are riveted in place in a panic, even if the accident isn't too bad. Those who do act sometimes do things incorrectly due to not being able to think clearly in the middle of that adrenaline surge (and to be fair, it takes time and training to be able to function well and think clearly in the middle of a life-threatening situation). One of the worst situations I ever dealt with was not because the patient was that bad off but because the people around me thought they knew what they were doing because they were 5th degree black belts. They thought getting a guy with a severe concussion up and walking would be good for him, and my being a doctor was almost less important than my being a black belt. It was the only time I've ever yelled at someone to back off at an accident scene in order to protect a patient. As soon as I'm sure the patient is in OK enough shape for me to divert attention, I scan the scene to make sure others aren't a. hurt and b. doing something like standing in the middle of a highway making themselves an unintentional accident target because they're so focused on the car crash they've forgotten where they're at. If I need help, I have to give very clear and very simple instructions. "Please hand me x. Please stand there. Please call 911. Now tell them we're at mile marker x." Accidents on TV are tidy little things where we don't have to see the very worst, and yet we share the experience.

The media sensationalizes because it sells. We turn to the first channel that has the news about the accident and we tend to park it there, so there's a push among news organizations to get the scoop on something big, bad and ugly. It doesn't help that reporters are also adrenaline junkies--they like to have the news as quickly as possible themselves, and tragedies and bad news grabs our attention more than good news, or so most people think. One of the interesting things is that on WGN, John Williams on the afternoon show has a segment on Fridays called 'The Bright Side of Life". People call in with their really good news (births, graduations, marriages, etc.). It's one of the most popular segments of the week, and I always look forward to hearing good news, if only for 10 minutes a week. Judging from the jammed phone lines during that segment, many others look forward to it, too.

Web Rider
07-28-2007, 01:53 PM
On the plus side, at least it was two media choopers, not like media and police.

There'll probly be some lawsuit about how unsafe helicopters are for news, the police will get in trouble for not forcing them to land, and some stupid law will be passed limiting the use of media helicopters, pissing off the media because they can't cover LA's latest traffic jam.

Lots of people die in foreign countries so their respective media outlet can have a new, awesome issue. If the people were a little less zealous, this might not have happened, of course they might not get any interesting news, but hey, every line of work can't be safe.

Dagobahn Eagle
07-28-2007, 05:19 PM
I've read a Finnish book on this issue called (translated by me) Children and Disaster News, and one of the things that struck me in it was how it described the news items, correctly, in my eyes, as short stories, with a story arc and a clear, black-and-white fight between the 'good buys' and the 'bad guys'. They're made for entertainment, with personal stories and on-site footage to 'spice them up'. Way too often the media goes too far in its quest for ratings, and even though we're no where near... certain others (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNcTUci0IaE), I still feel they need to be reeled in. If I watched the news (which I don't, I gave them up a long time ago), it'd be to be informed, not to watch a car chase or a crying traffic accident victim or the little man's fight against the 'big bad wolf', as conflicts are very often made out to be.

As for the helicopter accident, maybe, just maybe, this'll make people think
twice about how news media operate. Except I don't think it did.

The man fleeing from police was later taken into custody. Police Chief Jack Harris suggested he could be charged in connection with the collision.And why is that? Did he ask to be chased by the media choppers? If anyone's to be blamed, it's the chopper pilots and their employers.

Char Ell
08-01-2007, 02:01 AM
So, sensationalism in the media and why we buy what they're selling. Thoughts? How exactly do you define sensationalism? In the case of the two news helicopters colliding while covering a police chase, it seems to have become a journalistic requirement to cover that kind of stuff. News organizations don't want to get scooped by their competitors is IMO a major motivating factor. Other than that I think Jae eloquently expressed most of my sentiments on the subject.
And why is that? Did he ask to be chased by the media choppers? If anyone's to be blamed, it's the chopper pilots and their employers. I personally think Phoenix PD is really stretching things to use a law that was designed to hold an individual fleeing police in a pursuit criminally responsible for any deaths, injuries, and/or damage caused by the individual during their flight. This guy didn't shoot at the news choppers, run into them, cause them to swerve and run into each other, or anything like that. I see the matter as one or both of the pilots made a tragic mistake which cost them and their photographers their lives.

Web Rider
08-01-2007, 02:08 AM
I personally think Phoenix PD is really stretching things to use a law that was designed to hold an individual fleeing police in a pursuit criminally responsible for any deaths, injuries, and/or damage caused by the individual during their flight. This guy didn't shoot at the news choppers, run into them, cause them to swerve and run into each other, or anything like that. I see the matter as one or both of the pilots made a tragic mistake which cost them and their photographers their lives.

To this I agree, Media personnel are under no obligation to follow a car chase, especially recklessly. Unlike cops, who are required to chase you, and therefore if they get hurt doing so, it's your fault for not stopping like your supposed to.

Totenkopf
08-01-2007, 03:47 AM
To this I agree, Media personnel are under no obligation to follow a car chase, especially recklessly. Unlike cops, who are required to chase you, and therefore if they get hurt doing so, it's your fault for not stopping like your supposed to.


Agree completely. And the choppers were in "3D", so even less excuse to collide. Guess the pilots forgot about situational awareness.

Achilles
08-01-2007, 02:37 PM
How exactly do you define sensationalism? The act of "punching up" a story to make it seem more important than it really is. Usually for the purpose of attracting more viewers/readers. In this scenario, the newsworthiness of the story itself is questionable, while having live news footage would seem like sensationalism. My 2 cents.

In the case of the two news helicopters colliding while covering a police chase, it seems to have become a journalistic requirement to cover that kind of stuff. If that is being said cynically, then I would say that you've captured my point rather sustinctly.

News organizations don't want to get scooped by their competitors is IMO a major motivating factor. But who decides when someone has been scooped? At the end of the day, I'd say that we do. Essentially, we vote for what's considered newsworthy with our dollars and our viewing choices.

I personally think Phoenix PD is really stretching things to use a law that was designed to hold an individual fleeing police in a pursuit criminally responsible for any deaths, injuries, and/or damage caused by the individual during their flight. This guy didn't shoot at the news choppers, run into them, cause them to swerve and run into each other, or anything like that. I see the matter as one or both of the pilots made a tragic mistake which cost them and their photographers their lives. I agree.

Char Ell
08-02-2007, 11:21 AM
The act of "punching up" a story to make it seem more important than it really is. Usually for the purpose of attracting more viewers/readers. In this scenario, the newsworthiness of the story itself is questionable, while having live news footage would seem like sensationalism. My 2 cents. I'm on board with your definition of sensationalism. With respect to live news coverage of police chases though I have conflicted thoughts in that I believe that such coverage can provide a valuable service to the general public by letting people know a chase is going on in a particular area. I want that information so I know to avoid the area if I'm driving or get off the road if I'm in the area (though in that situation I would have to get chase information from radio news since I don't watch TV while I'm driving ;P). People who are in their homes or businesses in areas where a chase is occurring, and happen to be watching TV, can use that info and make a decision to stay inside, lock their doors, and take other measures to secure themselves in the event the chase ends up in their driveway for some reason.
If that is being said cynically, then I would say that you've captured my point rather sustinctly. I definitely wasn't trying for cynicism. I made this statement based on observed behavior. IIRC we have 5 Phoenix-based TV stations with helicopters and if I'm not mistaken all 5 helicopters were present in the airspace over the chase area that ill-fated afternoon. I don't think anybody in the news media (TV, print, radio) likes to get scooped by their competition and IMO that is a simple reality of how the U.S. news media has worked for a long time. For example, a recent trend I have observed with Phoenix TV news is investigative reporting. IIRC it was KNXV channel 15 that started this and now most of the other TV stations have established their own investigative reporting crews to dig into things like the dirtiest restaurants, companies that scam people, etc. I believe these things have intrinsic value but at the same time I do recognize that these news organizations use sensationalized methods to promote their latest investigation.
But who decides when someone has been scooped? At the end of the day, I'd say that we do. Essentially, we vote for what's considered newsworthy with our dollars and our viewing choices. I 100% agree with this. I couldn't understand why Paris Hilton's jail time merited so much news coverage. I for one only cared about her having to serve her sentenced jail time. I didn't need or care to know what she was reading in jail, eating in jail, what her jail schedule was, etc. So in this instance all I was really interested in was that she went to jail, served her time, and got out. IMO all the other info was just so much more "sensationalized" and unnecessary news coverage. I can only assume that such coverage was provided because there are enough people out there that wanted to know all the juicy and sordid details of Miss Hilton's internment that news organizations were willing to provide because their ratings experienced a resulting increase.

Achilles
08-02-2007, 12:43 PM
With respect to live news coverage of police chases though I have conflicted thoughts in that I believe that such coverage can provide a valuable service to the general public by letting people know a chase is going on in a particular area. <snip supporting arguments>. I would tend to agree with you if I could convince myself that this was either the only or the best way to accomplish this goal.

I can only assume that such coverage was provided because there are enough people out there that wanted to know all the juicy and sordid details of Miss Hilton's internment that news organizations were willing to provide because their ratings experienced a resulting increase. Right. So do we blame the media for bringing us the story or do we blame ourselves for losing focus?

Jae Onasi
08-02-2007, 02:05 PM
You know, the whole copter crash incident could have been prevented if the news agencies had a cooperative agreement--1 copter only per incident, the feed goes to all the news stations to do with as they wish, each station gets a turn in the rotation of coverage.

Paris Hilton--ugh. Just ugh. There are tens of thousands dying in Darfur, important decisions being made in Washington (and other places around the globe), any number of important state and local happenings, all being pre-empted so we can hear stories about how a sex-star wannabe whines about how she can't have her parties or she dislikes the food so much she's losing weight. We have our priorities so messed up.

Char Ell
08-02-2007, 10:53 PM
So do we blame the media for bringing us the story or do we blame ourselves for losing focus? Is this a trick question? :p I'm one who definitely subscribes to the concept of taking responsibility for one's own actions so I have to say we have only ourselves to blame. The media feeds it to the general public and the general public apparently loves it and wants more, judging by ratings, readership, etc. When people lose interest in something and the ratings/readership drops then the media will try other things in an effort to get ratings/readership to increase again. You of course know this so that is why I asked if this was a trick question.
You know, the whole copter crash incident could have been prevented if the news agencies had a cooperative agreement--1 copter only per incident, the feed goes to all the news stations to do with as they wish, each station gets a turn in the rotation of coverage. Nah. That makes too much sense. Surely these TV stations can't be that rational, can they? ;)

SilentScope001
08-03-2007, 03:00 AM
I don't believe that there is such thing as media sensationalism. I think all news is, well, valid. It is news after all.

A common subscription is "If a dog bite a man, it's not news. If a man bites a dog, it's news." We don't hear about people dying in Congo due to that Great African War because it's expected. People die all the time in Africa due to warlords and mayhem, etc.. Who cares? But when Paris Hilton, an upstanding young lady, goes and get arrested, it's unexpected, it something great and so people must watch!

Uh. Yeah. Forget all that nonsense. It's really due to what the viewers want to hear. Many viewers care more about Paris Hilton than they do of the Rwandan invasion of Congo and the accusations of genocide and counter-genocide being flung to and forth. But is that a bad thing? Is it really that bad to have cameras and interviews occuring over Paris Hilton than it is to have cameras and interviews with warlords and refugee camps in Congo? In the end, people will say we pay so much attention to Congo than we do to the insurgency in Mynmanr, or the poor people on the streets in America, or the Mexican riots, or the drug legalization efforts, or of the Hilton's family (NOT Paris Hilton, I'm talking about her father), or of the world economy, etc.

Why mention Congo? Well, unlike Darfur, many people know very very little about the war in Congo (offically it ended, but there was some very huge gunfight between the bodyguards of presidental contenders just before the elections, so things are very tense). Thanks in part to the news which cares more about Darfur than about Congo where over a million died. *cough* So, it's a great example of what the media focuses on and what it doesn't focus on. We can't really care about everything, so we choose what news events we think are important, and we stick to them. And the News merely follows that.

It has to be what you call "sensational", because really, would we want to care about a boring news story? If the newscaster doesn't actually think the news item he is reporting is really that important, then why should I bother listenting to him? Sensationalism is needed otherwise you lose the interest of the viewer. Though, if you guys don't like how the news cares about Paris Hilton, why not be a little sensational about the War in Congo or any other very important news events? Cause enough fear, and you'll be sure to get the TV sets on. We're not robots you know. We're governed by emotions.

Achilles
08-03-2007, 02:41 PM
Is this a trick question? :p I'm one who definitely subscribes to the concept of taking responsibility for one's own actions so I have to say we have only ourselves to blame. The media feeds it to the general public and the general public apparently loves it and wants more, judging by ratings, readership, etc. When people lose interest in something and the ratings/readership drops then the media will try other things in an effort to get ratings/readership to increase again. You of course know this so that is why I asked if this was a trick question. It was quasi-rhetorical. I was hoping it would at least provide some food for thought or cause for introspection.

I think the problem is that most people aren't aware or unwilling to do what is necessary to make the change. And that's only referring to the people that care or even recognize that it might be a problem.

Meh.

Anyways, I thought this (http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070803/en_nm/celebrities_dc) was humorous. I wonder how many of those 87% would be willing to turn off their television and, I don't know, read a book.

Char Ell
08-04-2007, 04:18 PM
Hmmm... So maybe it's the media that gets carried away and because they print/televise it people read/watch it, even if they think a particular story is oversensationalized?

The article you linked to mentioned the media coverage for Anna Nicole Smith's death and I have an anecdotal experience with that event. When news of her death broke I was at work. I didn't find out the news on my own but had 3 different co-workers ask me if I had heard that Anna Nicole Smith had died. Now if it had been the president or some other "significant" person I wouldn't have been surprised but I was puzzled by these 3 people who thought her death was important enough to go out of their way to tell their fellow co-workers that she had passed away. It's not that I was happy that she had died and I realize that her death was a tragic event for her loved ones and I'm not belittling that. It's just that I couldn't understand why her death was that important to these three people who only knew her through what they saw on TV and in print.

Achilles
08-04-2007, 04:30 PM
This might be a little bit of an inside reference, considering that you and I are both from the valley, but a few of the local "news" stations are doing something very similar with the Pat Tillman story.

If the emphasis was on the alleged cover-up, then great. However a lot of it seems to be focused on what a hero he was and how tragic his death was. More tragic than the other 3000+ that have died? I don't get it.

Media outlets are paid by advertisers. If issues don't sell or viewers don't tune in, then marketing dollars are lost. Therefore there is a tremendous amount of pressure on media sources to be "catchy". I think this comes at a loss of journalistic integrity, especially in today's world of 24 hour cable news channels.

John Galt
08-05-2007, 03:12 AM
Sometimes I wonder if most of the celebrity/pop-culture "news" is put out there just to keep peoples' minds off important things...

But I just bought 6 more books today, including a copy of the 9/11 Comission Report, so I'm not overly concerned at the moment. :)

Achilles
08-05-2007, 04:16 AM
But I just bought 6 more books today, including a copy of the 9/11 Comission Report, so I'm not overly concerned at the moment. :) I actually picked up my copy through audible.com a few months ago. Haven't gotten around to listening to it yet, as I suspect it will frustrate me more than anything else.

TK-8252
08-05-2007, 05:33 AM
The media aren't the ones with the problem. It's the people who watch their programs. If people stopped watching CNN because they did too much Paris Hilton coverage, guess what, CNN would stop doing Paris Hilton stories as much. The media just gives people what they want to see.

I think that, besides Faux News, the rest of the mainstream media really doesn't have an agenda, besides making money like any other business. It used to be that there was a so-called "liberal media" which doesn't exist today in the form of mainstream media anymore. Now, it's all about ratings, and more importantly, money.

stoffe
08-05-2007, 06:53 AM
The media aren't the ones with the problem. It's the people who watch their programs. If people stopped watching CNN because they did too much Paris Hilton coverage, guess what, CNN would stop doing Paris Hilton stories as much. The media just gives people what they want to see.


In some ways "what the people wants to see" might be a self-fulfilling prophecy though. Most of the people I know are not exactly thrilled or attracted by sensationalism and banal news coverage, but they watch the news anyway since it's pretty much the same at its core no matter which source of news they choose. So they just stick with what they usually watch, not because they approve of the content and want more, they more or less endure it to keep informed about the more important things that happens due to a lack of as easily accessible alternatives.