Sensationalism Explained

Woman Reading Newspaper


AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

What is sensationalism?

Sensationalism is defined as, especially in journalism, "the presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy," according to the Oxford Dictionary. It's synonymous with phenomenalism.

Essentially, sensationalism is an editorial bias mostly practiced in the mass media to overhype events and news topics, which, oftentimes, manipulates the truth of stories and, ultimately, contradicts the standards of professional journalism. 

What is sensationalism in the media?

Sensationalism in the media is not to be confused with sensationalism in psychology. What is sensationalism in psychology? Psychological sensationalism refers to "a form of Empiricism that limits experience as a source of knowledge to sensation or sense perceptions — [it's] a consequence of the notion of the mind as a tabula rasa, or 'clean slate,'" according to the Britannica Encyclopedia.
In the media, sensationalism is different — but it still plays on sense perceptions. And it happens all the time in the media to make trivial, controversial and even irrelevant news seem more important, pressing, concerning or shocking in some way than it actually is. Journalists will use sensationalism to appeal to readers' and listeners' emotions, presumably so as to garner reads and listens when, in reality, the subject matter doesn't necessarily affect neither the lives of the masses nor society in general.

Journalism that is based upon sensationalism is sometimes referred to "yellow journalism," as well. The "yellow press" is an American term for journalism and associated publications that present little to no legitimate, credible or well-researched actual news.
So why is sensationalism an issue? In essence, sensationalism defies the central tenets of objective journalism in favor of a profit motive, as heavily trafficked stories can increase advertising revenue. Most journalists (barring some like opinions columnists, for example) have a duty to report objectively — or, rather, most journalists are expectated to meet ethical standards of objective reporting.
That said, sometimes, journalists may mistakenly relay false information from unreliable sources who intentionally use the mass media as a vehicle for defamation, retaliation, victim or witness tampering and personal gains — though, of course, it's a journalist's job to find and interview credible sources.
On a similar note, some journalists are wrongly accused of using sensationalism, especially when investigating and reporting on political scandals, for example, that can make public figures feel uncomfortable. In other words, sensationalism may sometimes be objectively obvious to media consumers while, at other times, it may be subjective. News organizations, after all, are not obliged to avoid stories that'll make public figures uncomfortable; in fact, some might argue that they're ethically obliged not to avoid such stories.

What is an example of sensationalism?

It's not hard to spot sensationalism is the headlines, though it's also sprinkled throughout some stories. Sensationalism can refer to the deliberate use of lurid language to induce shock, among other emotions. It may also refer to the intentional omitting of information to obscure the truth, as well as misrepresented or exaggerated facts taken out of context. Likewise, sensationalism refers to zealots, doomsayers and junk science used in the media.

As an example, in the 19th, circulation wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst became famous, as both media titans were accused of sensationalizing the news in an attemp to sell more papers.
"The peak of yellow journalism, in terms of both intensity and influence, came in early 1898, when a U.S. battleship, the Maine, sunk in Havana harbor," according to the Office of the Historian. "The naval vessel had been sent there not long before in a display of U.S. power and, in conjunction with the planned visit of a Spanish ship to New York, an effort to defuse growing tensions between the United States and Spain. On the night of February 15, an explosion tore through the ship’s hull, and the Maine went down. Sober observers and an initial report by the colonial government of Cuba concluded that the explosion had occurred on board, but Hearst and Pulitzer, who had for several years been selling papers by fanning anti-Spanish public opinion in the United States, published rumors of plots to sink the ship."
Shortly after a U.S. naval investigation had ultimately stated that the explosion had come from a mine in the harbor, the Spanish-American War had begun. As such, yellow journalism is largely credited to creating a climate conducive to the outbreak of international conflict, though it alone didn't actually inflect the war.

What is the history of sensationalism?

Sensationalism dates back ages. Mitchell Stephens, author of A History of News and New York University journalism professor, suggests that sensationalism has been around since early humans began telling stories — and it has almost always focused on sex and conflict.
"I have never found a time when there wasn't a form for the exchange of news that included sensationalism — and this goes back to anthropological accounts of preliterate societies, when news raced up and down the beach that a man had fallen into a rain barrel while trying to visit his lover," Stephens reportedly wrote in an email, according to ThoughtCo.
In his book, Stephens suggests that sensationalism can be found as far back as the Ancient Roman Acta Diurna, which refers to the official notices and announcements that were presented on public message boards on the daily in order to reach illiterate societies. Stephens reports that the Roman philosopher Cicero had explored the Acta Diurna, realizing that these notices neglected "real news" and, instead, focused on the latest gossip on gladiators.
But while sensationalism has been used for as long as time, it was first intentionally aimed at the lower class who were deemed to have less of a need to accurately understand politics and the economy, Stephens explains. Through sensationalism, he explains, that lower class audience became further educated and encouraged to take interest in the news.
More modern forms of sensationalism, however, developed in the nineteenth century as print culture in industrialized nations expanded. 
Stephens also explains that sensationalism has been used in books in the 16th and 17th century. And, by the 1860s, a genre of British literature, "sensation novels," became popular. The London-based magazine Belgravia was even edited by the popular sensation novel author Mary Elizabeth Braddon between 1867 and 1876. The attention-grabbing techniques that were used in sensation fiction were then employed in articles on every topic, from science to finance to technology. 
In today's digital world, sensationalism is often likened to "clickbait journalism." There's ever more discourse surrounding sensational journalism, especially with the rise of "fake news" in today's world in which it's undeniably easy for false information to spread like wildfire.

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up!

AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog,, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.