Sensationalism may be defined as a theoretical concept that encompasses those features of journalistic products that are capable of attracting the attention of the audience. Since the early days of newspapers, complaints about sensationalism have recurrently emerged in public discussions about the quality of journalistic products. In a nutshell, these complaints pictured sensationalist news as a journalistic device being designed merely to attract the attention of large audiences at the expense of informing them properly about socially significant events. In its defense, it has been argued that sensationalist news is an appropriate response to the evolutionarily developed human habit of attending to information that increases the chances of survival and reproduction.
Traditionally, sensationalism in the news has been conceived of mainly in terms of story content. Stories about topics such as crime, violence, natural disasters, accidents, and fires were considered as sensational. However, this definition of sensationalism provided no theoretical basis to explain why sensationalism would attract the attention. It also provided no theoretical basis for the negative effects sensationalism is often accused of. Against this background, the concept of sensationalism gradually evolved in the late 1990s. Notably, Grabe et al. (2001) and Hendriks Vettehen et al. (2005) provided a foundation of the concept in psychological theories of information processing, more specifically in the notion that certain types of stimuli elicit automatic attentive processes. In the context of news processing, these stimuli are referred to as sensationalist features.
Three categories of sensationalist features may be distinguished: basic needs content, tabloid packaging, and vivid storytelling (cf. Hendriks Vettehen et al. 2005). Basic needs content includes audio, visual, and verbal news content that may be considered as important to every person because of its reference to basic human needs; e.g., stories about sex, violence, criminality, disasters, or famines. Tabloid packaging refers to formal features in news reports that represent unexpected or changing information. In television news, it includes transitions between scenes or camera shots as the most obvious examples, but also camera movements, uncommon editing techniques, and decorative techniques such as the insertion of music. In newspapers, extraordinarily large headlines or pictures may be considered as examples. Vivid storytelling refers to the inclusion in news stories of information that is either concrete or proximate to the audience. Well-known examples of vivid storytelling are the insertion of brief comments by lay persons on an issue in news reports, or the insertion of a report on an individual case history.
In journalistic as well as scientific discourse, sensationalism has been theoretically linked to the mechanisms of market-driven journalism. The central hypothesis concerning sensationalism holds that an increasing competition puts pressure on news producers and owners to capture the attention of the audience. Sensationalism in the news is considered a successful way of achieving this. In line with this view, several studies have provided indications of trends toward more sensationalist television news, both in the U.S. (e.g., Slattery et al. 2001) and in Europe (e.g., Hendriks Vettehen et al. 2005). However, the evidence is correlative, implying that increases in sensationalism may be attributed to developments that coincide with increasing competition, e.g., technological innovations, or trends in journalists’ role perceptions.
Because the concept of sensationalism is based on theories of information processing, predictions about cognitive processing of more or less sensationalist news could be tested. Notably, some studies have shown that the use of sensationalist features in news stories increases attentiveness during the viewing process, but that an unrestricted use of sensationalist devices (e.g., the tabloid packaging of a news topic with basic needs content) will induce cognitive overload, which will harm the storage of the news messages (e.g., Lang et al. 1999; Grabe et al. 2003). Moreover, other studies have shown that a vivid way of storytelling differentially draws attention to the vivid parts of the informational content, which can lead to distorted comprehension and judgments (for an overview, Zillmann & Brosius 2000).
Although knowledge concerning the antecedents of sensationalism and the cognitive processing of sensationalism is accumulating, less is known about audience preferences for sensationalism. Future studies might focus on the relation between the presence of sensationalism in journalism and audience preferences for sensationalism. In addition, it might focus on audience variables that may relate to preferences for sensationalism, notably the sensation seeking personality trait.
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