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Wax Marketing Blog

Media Sensationalism in a Not-So-Sensational Time

-with Ayanna Mehta

Now that the media has shape shifted into a constant, chaotic news cycle, consumers have to constantly alter their methods for seeking out accurate news and information.  Ever evolving to remain relevant (profitable) media organizations continue to adapt and redefine new ways to get revenue – and media sensationalism is typically at the top of the list.

It’s important to understand how headlines drive media sensationalism that in turns motivates our ADD-induced eyeball action. The more clicks an online news organization gets, the higher its traffic numbers, and the more they can charge for ads. That’s the revenue-generation principle of almost every news online site today, whether it’s a traditional publication or primarily a digital one. The better” the headline, the greater the trigger for us – and the greater the number of clicks.

It’s also a breeding ground for reporting on news that originates in conspiracy theory. (We’re not discussing QAnon here, but the media does need to take responsibility for that.) This past April in a piece on coronavirus conspiracy theories, New York Times’ Max Fisher wrote “..The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.” With actual fact checkers a thing of the past, there’s no mechanism for granting validity – resulting in a perfect storm of disinformation.

From politics to the pandemic, we really don’t know what’s happening in our world, or what will happen tomorrow. Digging into the media feels like a way to regain control, but what you have to realize is that most of the news media is no longer news. In fact, media sensationalism is actually betraying us and making things much, much worse. Mind pollution is only one of the problems. 

People hear what they want to hear. Not only does the media know this, they are making money off of it.

Understanding media sensationalism and its relationship to revenue  is the first step to help cut through the clutter. Not only that, this knowledge can reduce the amount of emotional turbulence you may feel, particularly if you’re prone to doomscrolling. In your search for facts, make sure you’re filtering your information based on these following unfortunate truths about the state of most media today:

  • Facts are exaggerated in the pursuit of clicks. As we mentioned before, media sensationalism is about viewership, metrics, and persuading the reader to align with the publications’ or writers’ opinions. It’s much easier (and profitable) to report superficially on controversial and shocking topics, rather than dig deep and explore the topic with credible research. Even more in depth articles, like the excellent writing over at The Atlantic, are clearly written from a predetermined bias to garner favor (translate clicks+cash) with a left-ish audience.
  • Reporting is often based on baseless claims. The media gives credibility to conspiracy theories and outlandish claims by focusing on the most sensationalist aspect of the story. Some of the “reporting” around abortion falls into this category. A 2019 article in the Dallas News centered around Texas legislation focused on whether doctors should be required to “save infants” after an abortion. Buried deep within the article, after its sensationalist headlines and lead sentences, was the fact that it is extremely rare that an infant would ever be alive in that instance. Few readers probably ever made it to the section of the article that states that these rare cases…”usually occur when the baby is extremely deformed or deemed unable to survive after birth. In such cases, families sometimes decide they want to induce labor so they can spend time with the infant before it dies.”
  • There’s a dearth of unbiased fact checking programs and people. A lot of news publications and social media networks rely on artificial intelligence fact checking tools to slow the rate of fake news. But the problem with this is that AI learns from what it receives. In a Mashable article last June,  Andrew Dudfield, an actual expert in automated fact checking (whose livelihood depends on the adoption of the practice) stated “If you give the system biased information, the output it generates will be biased.” If the people who are running these systems can’t even rely on their objectivity, we’re in a world of hurt when truth-seeking.

Which leads us to our last point, which is this: How many of us really want the actual truth anyway? Or in this environment of fear and uncertainty, do we really want to just feel better about what we believe?  Steve Bannon, in his quest to make Donald Trump President, knew that above all other marketing principles, the law of familiarity is probably the most powerful. There’s a reason we all remember 45’s slogan, yet rarely can we recite Hillary Clinton’s. It’s also called the “mere-exposure effect”. Basically, people develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar. And when you’re reading the news, this means that your brain will tend to seek out stories that you “prefer” (meaning you’re more familiar with them) more frequently.

With a pandemic that’s out of control, an historic election season (to say the least) and continued civil unrest, we are at our most polarized.  People are desperate for answers and not everyone has the tools to separate fact from fiction, especially on heavily engaged and unfiltered platforms. Feeling like you’re in a hurricane with headlines coming at you from every direction at a jillion miles an hour is a normal reaction – or at least it should be after this hell of a year.  However, you can’t let the topics of today’s news desensitize you so much that you become detached from current events or vulnerable to conspiracy.

Understanding that all these tactics are meant to trigger your emotions, gain your support and bring you back to that particular website is the first step in detaching from the current sensationalist media environment – what’s currently being dubbed an “info-demic.” More on fighting that particular virus soon.

This was co-written by Ayanna and Wax Marketing founder Bonnie Harris. It’s the first post in a new series we’re calling Young Voices. If you’re interested in writing for the Wax blog from your perspective as a Gen-Y or Millennial communications, marketing or media professional send us an email with your post idea. 

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