Sensationalism in the News

The disinformation superhighway

A cover story about the murder of a Catholic priest appeared in The Capital Times, a daily newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin, on March 6, 1998. It looked like any hard news story, particularly newsworthy not only because a murder occurred, but also because of the victim's profession. The story dealt in particular with the large amount, and unusual nature, of the rumors that were being spread around the community concerning the priest's demise. The editors decided to print some of those rumors.

The rumors as printed were:

  • A cult responsible for the mutilation of a calf in Lodi on Tuesday night broke into St. Michael's school and slit Kunz's (the victim's name) throat as part of a pagan ritual.
  • A nun murdered Kunz because of his unyielding adherence to Catholic dogma--despite the fact that no nuns were employed at St. Michael's at the time.
  • A man was seen fleeing the murder scene with blood on his hands shortly before Kunz's body was discovered.
  • A suspect is in secret police custody after being found hiding at the scene of the crime.

    The decision to print the rumors instead of merely reporting that rumors were floating around is evidence of an alarming trend in the news media: sensationalism.

    Sensationalism in the media is nothing new. Remember the Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta, or the women gymnasts valiant efforts to capture gold for the U.S. that same year? Remember CNN's coverage of the LA riots earlier in the decade?

    Today is no different.

    There is the Clinton sex scandal:

  • "Clinton wins machismo prize" (Reuters)
  • "Penthouse offers Lewinsky $2 million" (Reuters)
  • "Lewinsky's mother to wed N.Y. man" (Associated Press)
  • "Jack still thinks Bill is great" (Reuters)

    Oprah Winfrey has been in the news lately, too:

  • Oprah overview" (Amarillo Globe-News)

    The networks are not immune to sensationalism either:

  • ABC
  • CBS
  • NBC
  • FOX News
  • MSNBC -- The Brokaw Report
  • CNN

    Newspapers sometimes engage in sensationalism, as well:

  • The Arizona Republic
  • Boston Globe
  • The Chicago Tribune
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • The Seattle Times
  • USA Today -- life section
  • The Washington Post
  • The National Enquirer


  • People
  • Time

    What does all this sensationalism in the news mean? Sex, money and violence, especially when associated with high profile figures, makes money. Obviously. But does it mean more?

    Judy Woodruff poses this question in a May 1990 issue of the USA Today: "Can the world's best democracy (the United States) survive given the way our free press sometimes functions?"

    Her argument is that traditionally the news media have functioned to inform voters of current events so that they can make educated choices in their social and public lives. This is becoming less of a priority, she said. How long can Americans, especially voters, make the educated choices they need to make in order to keep our political and social system stable and viable if the news media is becoming increasingly likely to cater only to the sensational?

    Granted, many of the sources on this page supply hard news and can be relied on for accurate information, but these same sources also have a tendency to gravitate toward the sensational. Woodruff goes on, saying, "Some of us in the media...have gotten caught up in the size of our audience, the profits to be made, catering to short attention spans, and seeking the sensational. Consequently, we seem to have forgotten something basic -- that we are here to serve the public, to bring them informed judgments about their community, the nation, and the planet."

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    NorthernNotes from Northern Illinois University

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