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Factors Affecting Viewers' Perceptions of Sensationalism in Television News: A Survey Study in Taiwan

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national survey data, this study examines factors that affect Taiwanese television viewers' perceptions of sensationalism in TV news. Findings indicate that TV formal features, channel selection, motivations for watching TV news, and viewers' demographics are significant factors that influence viewers' perceptions of sensationalism. Compared to other news topics, "gossip" was identified as the most sensational news topic. Concerning TV news formal features, the more audio, visual, and editing production features in the programs, the more sensational the news was perceived to be. In addition, cable news viewers perceive news content as more sensational than viewers of terrestrial television. Finally, informa-tion-oriented, older, and more highly educated viewers tend to perceive television news as more sensational. This paper further discusses the more universal implications of these findings.
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June2009 125
Issues&Studies©45,no.2(June2009):125-157.
FactorsAffectingViewers'Perceptions
ofSensationalisminTelevisionNews:
ASurveyStudyinTaiwan
TAI-LIWANGAND AKIBAA.COHEN
Using nationalsurvey data, this study examinesfactors thataffect
Taiwanesetelevision viewers'perceptionsofsensationalisminTVnews.
FindingsindicatethatTVformal features,channelselection, motivations
forwatching TVnews, and viewers'demographicsaresignificant factors
that influence viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism.Comparedto other
newstopics,"gossip"wasidentified asthemostsensationalnewstopic.
Concerning TVnewsformal features,themoreaudio, visual, and editing
production featuresintheprograms,themoresensational thenewswas
perceivedto be.In addition, cablenewsviewersperceive newscontentas
moresensational than viewers of terrestrial television. Finally,informa-
tion-oriented, older, and morehighly educatedviewers tend to perceive
television newsasmoresensational.Thispaperfurtherdiscussesthemore
universal implicationsof thesefindings.
KEYWORDS:sensationalism; tabloid news; television news;audience re-
search.
TAI-LIWANG(王泰)isanassociateprofessorintheGraduateInstituteofJournalism,
NationalTaiwanUniversity.Her researchfocusesonsensationalismandtabloidization
in news,television newsand media effects,and webcommunication.ProfessorWang
can bereachedat<tailiw@ntu.edu.tw>.
AKIBAA.COHENisaprofessorintheDepartmentofCommunication,TelAvivUniversity,
Israel.Hismainresearchinterestsareglobal television news,newsand cognition,and
mobiletelephony.ProfessorCohencan bereachedat<akiba@post.tau.ac.il>.
©InstituteofInternationalRelations,NationalChengchiUniversity,Taipei,Taiwan(ROC).
ISSUES&STUDIES
126 June2009
* * *
Forthelastfewdecades,thetopicofsensationalism in newsre-
porting hasarousedfierce publicdebate.1Summarizing from the
previousliterature,thesensationalization ofnewscan bedefined
asthedisplacementofsociallysignificantstoriesby "tabloid"newstopics
and theuseof flamboyantproduction stylesthatoverpowersubstantivein-
formation.Themediaperformademocratizing function incontemporary
societies,becausetheyinform thepublic aboutcommunalaffairsand
providethebasicinformation peopleneedtomake electoraldecisions.
ThisisparticularlyapplicabletoTVnewswhich overthelastfifty years
hasbecometheprimary news source forthegeneralpublic.If sensational
newscontentoccupiestoo muchtimein newsprograms,therewill beless
timeforthesubstantial information a citizen needsto betrulyinformed.
Asa consequence,sensationalism isbelievedto harm themedia'sdemo-
craticfunctionsinsocietiesinwhichthemedia are essentiallymarket-
driven.
According toarecentcontentanalysisofprime-timenewsinTaiwan,
54 percentofthesegmentscontainedsensationalelements.Asforthe
presentation ofthenews,66 percentofthesegmentsfeaturedtheobtrusive
and dramaticvoice ofapresenter.Additionally,80 percentofthesegments
containedemotionalsubtitles,one-third ofwhichwerepresentedinmulti-
colorand animatedforms.2
Media criticsinTaiwan havepointed out that thepursuit ofcom-
mercial interestsisthemajor reason why broadcasters"throwgarbage at
1E.g.:MariaElizabethGrabe etal., "Packaging Television News:TheEffectsofTabloid on
InformationProcessingand EvaluativeResponses,"JournalofBroadcastingandElectronic
Media44,no.4(2000):581-98;MariaElizabethGrabe,ShuhuaZhou,and Brook Barnett,
"Explication SensationalisminTelevision News:Contentand theBellsand Whistlesof
Form,"ibid.45,no.4(2001):635-55;MineGencelBek,"Tabloidization ofNewsMedia:
AnAnalysisofTelevisionNewsinTurkey,"European JournalofCommunication19,no.3
(August2004):371-86;andWangTai-Li,"TheShifting CulturalSpaceofTelevisionNews:
FromPublicAffairstowardEntertainment"(Paperpresentedat theannualconference ofthe
ChineseCommunication Association,NationalTaiwanUniversity,Taipei,July 13-15,
2006).
2Wang,"TheShifting CulturalSpace ofTelevision News,"15.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 127
consumers."3According toLinand Chuang,since 2002 newscastshave
containedexcessive coverageofsensationalstoriesconcerning theprivate
livesofcelebrities.4Some criticsdescribetheirown newswatching ex-
perience as"detached,"astheywitness the"bizarresensationalism"of
newsprogramsand wonderabout therelevance ofentertainers'private
lives.5
Atendencytowardsensationalismhasemergedinseveralothercoun-
triesaswell.IntheUnitedStates,journalisticsensationalismhasprovoked
vehementdebateseversince CarlBernsteincoinedtheterm"idiotcul-
ture."6Moreover,Hallinarguesthat thepressurestowardcommercializa-
tion arestrongest inthe caseoftelevision,although theyaffect theprint
media aswell.7InJapan,commercialnewsbroadcastershave adopted
such production methodsasanimation ordramaticsubtitlesthatwere
originallyseen onlyin varietyshows.Whilesuchentertainment-oriented
presentation ofnewscould havethe effectofattracting theinterestof
viewers,it may decreasethe credibilityand objectivity ofthereporting.8
InsomeEuropeancountries,notablySweden9and Germany,10 increased
competition in newsmarketsdrovebroadcastersincreasinglytosensa-
tionalize thenewsin ordertowin viewerallegiance.IntheNetherlands,
3Chang Bao-yuan,"PoorQualityNewsMediaIsIsolating theCountry,"TaipeiTimes,July
18,2005,8.
4LinYu-hueiandChuangBo-zhong,Dianshixinwenguanjianbaogao(TVnewskeyreport)
(Taipei: Broadcastingand TelevisionDevelopmentFund,2003,2004,and2005).
5See note3above.
6CarlBernstein,""TheIdiotCulture:ReflectionsofPost-WatergateJournalism,"TheNew
Republic,June8,1992,22.
7DanielC.Hallin,"Commercialismand ProfessionalismintheAmericanNewsMedia,"in
Mass MediaandSociety,ed.JamesCurranandMichaelGurevitch,thirdedition(London:
HodderArnold,2000),218-37.
8MatsuharuKawabata,"Audience Reception and VisualPresentationsofTV NewsPro-
gramsinJapan"(Paperpresentedat the conference oftheInternationalAssociation for
Media and CommunicationResearch,Taipei,July 25-27,2005).
9HaÊkanHvitfelt,"TheCommercialization oftheEvening News:ChangesinNarrative
TechniqueofSwedishTV News,"NordicomReview15,no.1(1994):33-41.
10BarbaraPfetsch,"Convergence through Privatization?Changing MediaEnvironmentsand
TelevisedPoliticsinGermany,"EuropeanJournalofCommunication11,no.4(December
1996):427-51.
ISSUES&STUDIES
128 June2009
recentresearchindicatesthat thenewscastsofa commercialbroadcaster
containedmoresensationalcharacteristicsthanthoseofpublicservice
broadcasters.11
Although sensationalism inthenewsmediahasbeenatopicofwide
concern,therelatedacademicresearchtendstofocuson itsmanifestcon-
tent.Littleresearch hasbeen doneinto viewers'ownjudgmentsorpercep-
tionsofsensationalism in newsreporting.From theviewers'perspective,
whatdoes"sensationalism"mean? Whatarethefactorsaffecting their
perception ofsensationalism inTVnews?This study examinesviewers'
perceptionsofsensationalism intelevision news.Specifically,we applied
amodifiedmeasurementproceduredevelopedinthe earlierliteratureon
a currentnationalsampleinTaiwan,whichexploresthefactorsaffecting
television viewers'perceptionsofthisphenomenon.By providing amore
thorough understanding ofthefactorsaffecting publicperceptionscon-
cerning sensationalism,this study will attempt to provide aninsight into
theissueofsensationalismfrom the audience'sown perspective.
Perceptions,Measurement,and Factors InfluencingSensationalism
Defining Sensationalism
Postman hasclaimedthatoneoftheprimaryfactorsinthedevelop-
mentofsensationalnewsistheincreasedcompetition for ratingsbetween
newsorganizations.12 According toEsposito,thismayresult in newsbeing
increasinglystructuredalong themesand informatsoriginallyfound in
entertainmentprograms,thusleading to dramatic,fast-paced,superficial
presentationsand simplistic explanationsthatfocuson personalities,per-
sonalrelationships,physicalappearances,and idiosyncrasies,all aimedat
11PaulHendriksVettehen,KoosNuijten,and JohannesBeentjes,"NewsinanAgeofCom-
petition:TheCaseofSensationalisminDutchTelevision News,1995-2001,"Journalof
Broadcastingand ElectronicMedia49,no.3(2005):282-95.
12Neil Postman,AmusingOurselvestoDeath:PublicDiscourseintheAgeofShowBusiness
(New York:Viking,1985),129-35.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 129
attracting thelargestpossible audience.13
Whileheated discussion hasmountedinavariety ofcountriesre-
garding sensationalism inthenews,no clearand exhaustivedefinition of
sensationalismhasyetbeen offered.Similarly,whileSparksand Tulloch
have attemptedto define"tabloid,"primarilywithreference to newspapers,
they have arguedthat thetabloidismarkedbytwofeatures:itconcentrates
on newstopics suchas scandaland entertainment,and it devotesless at-
tention to politics,economics,and society.They pointout,however,that
suchadefinition ignoresthevisualdimension ofpresentation intabloid
newspapers,suchaslayout,headlinesizes,and useofpictorial material.
Thedefinition ofthetabloid newspaper reflectsthedefinitionsofsensa-
tionalism intelevision newsinat least twoways:news storycontentand
formalfeaturesofthenews.14
Priortothe1990s,sensationalismin newswasprimarilyconceivedin
termsofstorycontent.According toAdams,sensationalismand human-
intereststoriestogether referredto newscoverageof"crime,violence,
naturaldisasters,accidents,and fires,along withamusing,heartwarming,
shocking,orcuriousvignettesaboutpeopleinthe area."15 In otherwords,
Adamsdid notdistinguish betweensensationaland human-intereststories,
regarding bothasrepresenting localAmericanTVnewsthatappealsto
emotion over reason.
Knightdefinedsensationalismbothintermsofstorycontentand
formalfeatures.Accordingly,sensationalstorycontentconsistsofsex,
scandal,crime,orcorruption,whilesensationalstoryformalfeaturesin-
cludefastediting pace,eyewitness cameraperspective,zoom-incamera
lensmovements,re-enactmentofnewsevents,theuseofmusic,and the
toneofthereportervoice-overnarration.Insum,sensationalismrefers
13StevenA.Esposito,"PresumedInnocent?AComparativeAnalysisofNetworkNews',
Prime-TimeNewsMagazines',and TabloidTV'sPretrialCoverageoftheO.J.Simpson
CriminalCase,"Communication andtheLaw18,no.4(1996):50-53.
14ColinSparksandJohnTulloch,TabloidTales:GlobalDebatesoverMediaStandards(New
York:Rowman&Littlefield,2000),10.
15WilliamC.Adams,"LocalPublicAffairsContentofTV News,"Journalism Quarterly55,
no.4(1978):691.
ISSUES&STUDIES
130 June2009
tothepresentation ofnewsas"adelugeofimagesand words."16
Later,Slatteryand Hakanenarguedthatsensationalism may notbe a
dichotomousconcept.Theyreplicateda contentanalysisoflocalTVnews
using Adam'sdefinition ofsensationalism.AnanalysisoftenPennsylva-
niastationsrevealedthatnewsorganizationsdevotedsignificantlymore
timetosensationaland human-intereststories.Inaddition,they discovered
thateven hard news storiescould bedepictedinasensationalway,which
Slatteryand Hakanentermed"embedding sensationalism."17
Along withrapidly developing market-drivenjournalismand digital
communication technologies,anotherconceptualdimension wasadded
tosensationalism: theincreasinglyflashy and lavishformalproduction
featuresaimedatgetting audiencesmoreinvolvedintheviewing process.
ThusGrabe,Zhou,and Barnett call foramore comprehensivemeasure
ofsensationalism that includesboth newscontentand formalfeatures.18
Specifically,sensationalcontentdealswithcrime,accidentsand disasters,
celebrity news,scandal,and sex,and it hasthepotential tostartleorenter-
tain viewers.Formalproduction featuresinvolvevideomaneuvers(e.g.,
zoom movements)and decorative effects(e.g., postproduction audioand
visual manipulations).
In variouscountries,market-drivenjournalismhasbeenidentifiedas
the causeofsensationalized news.19 Sparksand Tulloch have arguedthat
there areseveral marketplacesinwhichmediastandardsaredriven down
inordertoincreasemediaprofits,including theUnitedStates,Britain,Ger-
many,and theScandinaviancountries.20 Davisand McLeod furthercon-
tendedthat thegenerality ofsensationalnewsextendsto placesaswell as
16GrahamKnight,"RealityEffects:TabloidTelevision News,"Queen'sQuarterly96,no.1
(Spring1989):96.
17KarenL.SlatteryandErnestA.Hakanen,"SensationalismversusPublicAffairsContent
ofLocalTV News:PennsylvaniaRevisited,"JournalofBroadcasting and Electronic
Media38,no.2(1994):205-16.
18Grabe,Zhou,and Barnett,"ExplicationSensationalisminTelevision News,"638-39.
19StuartAllan,"Good JournalismIsPopularCulture,"inStuartAllan,NewsCulture(Buck-
ingham:OpenUniversityPress,1999),185-92;and see notes9and 12 above.
20SparksandTulloch,TabloidTales,1-40,63-90,129-46,195-210.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 131
time.21 Afterconsideration and analysisoftheseviewpoints,this study
positsthat the conceptofsensationalism may possess certain universal
features.
Vettenhen,Nuijten,and Beentjeshavesuggestedthatnewscontent
which"appealsto ourbasicneedsand instincts"and tabloid packaging
techniquesthat"automaticallyelicit viewers'orienting responseswith
novelty orchange"may universallyattractviewers'attention.22 Inaddition,
theyadded vividness and proximity ofnewsastwoadditionalcharacteris-
ticsofsensationalism.Vividness refersto vivideffectsgeneratedfrom
"stimulating imagination,attracting and holding attentions,and retaining
betterinmemory."Proximityrefersto geographicproximity(domestic
newsvs.foreign news)and sensualproximity(pictorial information vs.
verbal information).23 Whilethefirst twofeaturesappearto bemoreuni-
versal,thelattertwoaremorelimitedtoculturallyspecific characteristics.
Thusthis study assumesthat these conceptualizationsand definitionsof
sensationalism inTVnews,bothascontentand formalfeatures,tend to
grab viewers'attention and arousetheiremotions.
Perception ofSensationalism
Nearly halfa centuryago,researchersbeganto discuss the emotion-
arousing aspectsofsensationalism.24 Theysuggestedthatsensationalism
notonly"providedthrills"butalsofascinatesina"morbidway."Thus,
sensationalismcan bedefined by itspotential to be emotionallyand psy-
chologicallyarousing.
Grabe and othersdefinedtabloid newsasnewsthat"emphasized
styleoversubstance,"and is"punctuated by structuralfeatures,suchas
quick-pacedediting,dramaticmusic,rapid-firenarration,and extravagant
graphic effects,"incontrast tostandard newsthatfocuseson substance
21Hank Davisand S.LyndsayMcLeod,"Why HumansValueSensationalNews:AnEvo-
lutionaryPerspective,"Evolution and Human Behavior24,no.3(May 2003):208-16.
22Vettehen,Nuijten,andBeentjes,"NewsinanAgeofCompetition,"284.
23Ibid., 285.
24See PercyH.Tannenbaumand MarvinD.Lynch,"Sensationalism:TheConceptand Its
Measurement,"JournalismQuarterly 37,no.2(1960):381-92.
ISSUES&STUDIES
132 June2009
overstyle.25 Theyfound thatviewerstendedtoratestandard newsasmore
informative and believablethantabloid news.Inanotherstudy,Grabe,
Lang,and Zhaofound that tabloid production featuresenhancedmemory
forcalm news storiesbuthinderedmemoryforarousing orsensational
news stories.26 Once again,viewerstendedtoratetabloid newsasless
objective and believablethanstorieswithoutsuch dramaticfeatures.
Measuring Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalism
Inthemid-twentiethcentury,Tannenbaumand Lynch developeda
sensationalism indexfornewspapers(Sendex)based on asetofsemantic-
differentialscales.27 Theyassumedthat themoresimilarthe connotative
judgmentsofagivenmessage and sensationalism,thegreaterthedegree
ofsharedconnotative characteristics,hence themoresensational themes-
sageinthenews.Sendex wasbased on twelvebipolaradjectivepairsin
three dimensions:evaluative(accurate/inaccurate,good/bad,responsible/
irresponsible,wise/foolish,acceptable/unacceptable);excitement(colorful/
colorless,interesting/uninteresting,exciting/unexciting,hot/cold);and ac-
tivity(active/passive,agitated/calm,bold/timid).
TwolaterstudiesappliedSendextoidentifycomponentsofMurdoch-
stylenewspapers.Following RupertMurdoch'sacquisition oftheSan
AntonioNewsinthe1970s,Pasadeosdeterminedthe extent towhich
changesmadeinthisdaily'sfrontpage comparedwiththatofitscom-
petitor.28 Results showedthat thepercentageofspace giventosensational
front-pageheadlinesinMurdoch'snewspaper,intermsofgraphicsand
placement,and theproportion ofsensationalstoriesfound on thefrontpage
increasedsignificantly during themid-1970s,indicating thatMurdoch did
indeedsensationalize theSan AntonioNewsafteracquiring it.Perry's
25Grabe etal., "Packaging TelevisionNews,"582.
26MariaElizabethGrabe,AnneLang,and X.Zhao,"NewsContentand Form:Implication
forMemoryand Audience Evaluations."Communication Research30,no.4(2003):387-
413.
27See note24above.
28Yorgo Pasadeos,"Application ofMeasuresofSensationalismtoaMurdoch-OwnedDaily
intheSanAntonioMarket,"NewspaperResearchJournal5,no.2(Summer1984):9-17.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 133
study compared perceptionsofsensationalismbetweenAmericanand
Mexican newspaper readers.29 Thefindings showedthat ineightofthe
twelveoriginalSendex itemsthereweresignificantdifferencesbetweenthe
twocountries.This suggestedthat it mighthavebeen necessarytomodify
Sendex beforeit could be appliedtoany marketotherthanthatofthe
UnitedStates.
In ordertomodifytheSendex scaletomakeit applicablefortelevi-
sion news,astudy using severalfocusgroupswasconductedinTaiwan
withatotalofsixtyadult TVnewsviewers,aged 18-60,who were asked
towatchand then discuss eightTVnews storiesand ratethemon Sen-
dex.30 Onascalefrom1to 10,participantswererequiredtorate eachitem
on theoriginalSendex scaleforitsadequacyin describing viewerpercep-
tionsofthestimulusnewsitems.Three measureswereusedfor rating the
adequacy:concrete/abstract,precise/vague,suitable/unfit.
Results showedthatviewersgaveseven dimensions— good/bad,
wise/foolish,acceptable/unacceptable,colorful/colorless,hot/cold,active/
passive,and bold/timid— belowaveragescores.Ontheotherhand,several
itemswereratedabovethemean on six dimensions:accurate/inaccurate,
responsible/irresponsible,important/unimportant,credible/incredible,
professional/unprofessional,and likely/unlikelytoarouseinterest.In
open-ended probing,73 percentoftheparticipantsaddedtwo dimensions
ofsensationalnewsfeatures: invasion ofprivacyand gossiping about
people.Accordingly,the current modifiedSendex scalefortelevision
newsconsistsofeight items:accurate/inaccurate,responsible/irresponsible,
important/unimportant,credible/incredible,professional/unprofessional,
likely/unlikelytoarouseviewing interest,invading/not invading privacy,
and gossiping/notgossiping aboutpeople.
The addition ofgossiping asadimension ofsensationalismwasalso
based on evolutionary psychology.Davisand McLeod examinedsensa-
tionalfront-pagenewspaperstoriesfromeightcountriesand found twelve
29DavidK.Perry,"PerceptionsofSensationalismamong U.S.andMexicanNewsAudi-
ences,"NewspaperResearchJournal23,no.1(January 2002):82-87.
30Wang,"TheShiftingCulturalSpace ofTelevisionNews."
ISSUES&STUDIES
134 June2009
majorstorycategories.31 These categoriescorrespondedtomajorthemes
inevolutionary psychology that influence humansuccess,including altru-
ism,reputation,cheaterdetection,violence,etc.Mostsignificantly,they
concludedthat the essence ofgossiping wasvirtuallyidentical tothatof
sensationalnews.
Insummary,previousresearch did notdirectlytackletherelationship
between newstopicsand formalfeaturesofTVnewsand viewers'per-
ceptionsofsensationalism.Therefore,thefirstresearch question (RQ1)
probeswhetherornot thereisarelationship betweenwhat thenewsis
about(newstopics)and viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism.The
second research question (RQ2)investigatestherelationship between
howthenewsispackaged(newsforms)and viewers'perception ofsen-
sationalism.
TerrestrialNewsvs.CableNews
TheTVnewsmarket inTaiwan hasundergone a bigtransformation
since the1990s.Withtheliftingofmartiallawin 1988,aswellasthelegal-
ization ofcabletelevision in 1993,Taiwan'sTVnewsmarkethasentered
aneraof fierce competition.Atpresent there aresixcablenewschannels
providing 24-hournewsinaddition tofivenetworksthatairnewsduring
primetime.Relativetoitspopulation of23 million,Taiwan'sextraordi-
narily high density ofTVnewshasinevitablyresultedinaratingswarover
thelimitedaudience share.
Productdifferentiation and price leadershiparetwo primarystrate-
giesthat may be employedinasituationofcompetition.32 Since price com-
petition inTaiwan'smulti-channel media environment israre,thevarious
channelsneedto differentiatetheirproductfrom thatoftheircompetitors.
Sensationalizing thenewshasbecomeoneofthemostefficient meansfor
newcomersto differentiatetheirproductsfrom thoseofexisting broad-
casters.Indeed,since thederegulation ofcableTV,sensationalstories
31See note21above.
32MichelE.Porter,Competitive Strategy:TechniquesforAnalyzing IndustriesandCompeti-
tors (New York:TheFree Press,1980).
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 135
and imageshavegradually becometheselling pointformany TVnews
programs.33
IntheUnitedStates,according toIbelema and Powell,cabletele-
vision newsisgenerally viewedasamore crediblenews source thanter-
restrialnews.34 Ontheotherhand,localnewsintheU.S.marketstendsto
emphasize tabloid news,suchascelebrityand gossip-drivensoftnews,a
trend thathasapowerful influence on news.35
Cabletelevision newsinTaiwanenteredthe country'smediamarket
inasimilarfashiontolocalnewsintheAmericanmarket.Sensationalizing
thenewswasusedasabusiness strategy by cable companiestoenable
them tocompetewiththe existing terrestrialnews.Thisisakintothede-
velopmentofsensationalism intheDutchmediamarket inthemid-1990s,
withanewly-airedcommercialnewscastgrowing moresensational than
two otherexisting newscasts,particularlyintermsoftabloid packaging
techniques.36
Inaddition tocompetitiveforces,Taiwan'sterrestrialnewsisregu-
lated by astricterlaw,theBroadcasting Radioand Television Act,thanare
the cablestationswhichcomeundertheCableRadioand Television Act.
Thisisbecauseterrestrialnewsisairedmorefreelyand consideredto be
moreofapublicinformation carrierthancablenews.Accordingly,the
thirdresearch question (RQ3)querieswhetherthereisarelationship be-
tween viewers'selection ofnewschannelsand theirperceptionsofsensa-
tionalism in news.
DifferentMotivationsforNewsViewing
Studiesbasedonthe"usesand gratifications"paradigmhaveshown
thatpeoplehavedifferent motivationsand needsthat leadthem toexpose
33Cheung Yiu,"CTVRedefinesWhatItConsiders'News',"TaipeiTimes,September29,
2004,4.
34MineabereIbelema andLarryPowell,"CableTelevisionNewsViewedasMostCredible,"
NewspaperResearchJournal22,no.1(January 2001):41-52.
35SteveMichaelBarkin,American TelevisionNews:TheMediaMarketplace andthePublic
Interest(Armonk,N.Y.:M.E.Sharpe,2002),61-78.
36Vettehen,Nuijten,andBeentjes,"NewsinanAgeofCompetition,"283.
ISSUES&STUDIES
136 June2009
themselvesto different media contents.Since the early 1970s,researchin
thistradition hasproducedstudiesofmediausein orderto gratifythe
audience's socialand psychologicalneeds.37 Thiskind of research de-
velopedtypologiesforaudience gratification withregardtotelevision
content,including surveillance (themotivation toacquirenewsand in-
formation aboutwhat ishappening intheworld),interpersonalutility(the
motivation ofachieving companionship orsocialutilitythrough inter-
personaldiscussion ofevents),and diversion (themotivation toachieve
escapeoremotionalreleasefromsuchevents).38 Thesethree dimensions
are alsothefocusofthepresentstudy.
ItappearsthatTVnewspackagedinstandard ortabloidformatspro-
videsdifferentkindsofgratification forviewers,withtheformerproviding
moreinformation-oriented gratification and thelatterproviding more
entertainment-oriented gratification.Grabe,Lang,and Zhao haveshown
that the application ofentertaining,attention-grabbing production tech-
niquesmakesnewscontent more entertaining and ultimately givesviewers
more enjoyment.39 However,intermsofevaluating thequality ofthe
news,viewerstendedtoratestandard newsasmoreinformative and be-
lievablethantabloid news.
This study,therefore,suggestsafourthresearch question (RQ4),to
explorewhetherthemotivation forwatching TVnewsisanadditional
factoraffecting the audience'sperceptionsofsensationalism.
Ageand Education and thePerception ofSensationalism
Verylittle empirical literatureisavailableon theimpactofdemo-
graphicfactorson viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism in news.Regard-
ing therelationship betweenaudience age and theuseofthenewsmedia,
37AlanM.Rubin,"MediaUsesand Effects:A Uses-and-GratificationsPerspective,"in
MediaEffects:AdvancesinTheoryand Research,edited by JenningsBryantand Dolf
Zillmann (Hillsdale,N.J.:Lawrence Erlbaum,1994),417-36.
38RichardC.Vincentand MikeD.Basil,"CollegeStudents'NewsGratifications,MediaUse,
and CurrentEventsKnowledge,"JournalofBroadcastingand ElectronicMedia41,no.3
(1997):380-93.
39Grabe,Lang,andZhao,"NewsContentandForm,"408.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 137
young adultswerefound to bemore attractedtoentertainmentnews
content than hard newscontent.40 Anotherstudy suggestedthatcollege
students'overall mediause and surveillance needsincreasedwith
age.41 Comparedto youngerstudents,olderstudents showedmoresur-
veillance needand sought less entertainmentgratification fromnews.
In otherwords,agewasfound to benegativelyassociatedwithsurveil-
lance needs,butpositivelyassociatedwithentertainmentgratification.
Youngerviewerswerefurther found to bemore attractedtoflam-
boyant television newsproduction techniquescomparedwithmoresenior
viewers.42 Consequently,thefifthresearch question (RQ5)addresses
whetherolderviewersperceiveTVnewsasmoresensational than younger
viewers.
Moreover,research on media credibility43 suggestsanassociation
betweenage and education and the assessmentofnewscredibility.Gen-
erally,olderand more educatedindividualstend to bemore criticalof
themedia,whileyoungerand less educated newsconsumersaremore
likelytoacceptnewscoverage and toevaluatethemedia ascredible.
Itwasalsofound thatsophistication,life experience,and knowledgeof
themechanismsusedbythepress combinetomakeviewersmoreskeptical
ofthenightly news.44
Therefore,thesixthresearch question (RQ6)inthe currentstudy in-
vestigateswhetherornotviewers'educational levelsaffect theirpercep-
tionsofsensationalism inTVnews.
40KevinG.Barnhurstand EllenWartella,"Newspapersand Citizenship:YoungAdults'Sub-
jectiveExperience ofNewspapers,"CriticalStudiesinMass Communication8,no.2(June
1991):195-209.
41See note38 above.
42SteveMcClellanand KenKerschbaumer,"Tickersand Bugs:HasTV GottenWayToo
Graphic?"Broadcasting&Cable131,no.50 (December3,2001):16-20.
43ErikP.Bucy,"MediaCredibilityReconsidered:SynergyEffectsbetweenOn-Airand On-
lineNews,"Journalismand Mass Communication Quarterly80,no.2(Summer2003):
247-64.
44MichaelJ.Robinson and Andrew Kohut,"Believabilityand thePress,"PublicOpinion
Quarterly52,no.2(1988):174-89.
ISSUES&STUDIES
138 June2009
Genderand thePerception ofSensationalism
Much oftheresearch on overall interest in newstopics suggeststhat
differencesexistbetweenthesexes.45 Mills suggeststhatalthough the
generalassumption aboutgenderdifferenceswithregardto newsprefer-
encesmay bequestionable,newspreferencesamong women generallyin-
cludethefour"F's":family,food,fashion,and furnishing.46 Also,Klein
found thatwomen,regardless oftheirage,wereless interestedin violent
television newscontent.47
Furthermore,astudy examining therelationshipsbetweensensation-
seeking and gender roleorientationsfound that menreported higherlevels
ofoverall sensation-seeking thanwomen.48 Sensation-seeking hasbeen
conceptualizedasinvolving self-exposureto variousnoveland complex
sensationsand experiencesand thewillingness totakephysicaland social
riskstoengageinthem.49 Sensation-seeking scalescontainfivedimen-
sions,including thrill and adventureseeking,disinhibition,experience
seeking,and susceptibilityto boredom.Moreover,Scourfield,Stevens,
and Merikangasfound thatgenderwasanimportantpredictoroflifetime
sensation-seeking and that menweremorelikelytoengageinsensation-
seeking behaviorthanwomen.50
Although empiricalstudieshaveyet toestablishrelationshipsbe-
tweensensation seeking and theTVnewsviewing experience,research
suggeststhathigh sensation seekersprefermediathat includeahigh level
45CoryL.Armstrong,"WritingaboutWomen:AnExamination ofHowContentforWomen
IsDeterminedinNewspapers,"Mass Communicationand Society9,no.4(January2006):
447-60.
46KayMills,A PlaceintheNews:FromtheWomen'sPagestotheFrontPages(New York:
Dodd,Mead,1990),1-20.
47RogerD.Klein,"Audience ReactionstoLocalTV News,"American BehavioralScientist
46,no.12 (August2003):1661-72.
48DemetE.Öngen,"TheRelationshipsbetweenSensation Seeking andGenderRoleOrien-
tationsamongTurkishUniversityStudents,"Sex Roles57,no.1-2(July2007):111-18.
49MarvinZuckerman,SensationSeeking:Beyond theOptimalLevelofArousal(Hillsdale,
N.J.:Lawrence Erlbaum,1979).
50JonathanScourfield,D.E.Stevens,and K.R.Merikangas,"Substance Abuse,Comor-
bidity,and Sensation Seeking:GenderDifferences,"Comprehensive Psychiatry37,no.
3(1996):384-92.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 139
ofarousing content.51 This study arguesthatsensationalpresentation in
TVnewsmightbeviewedasakind ofsensualwatching experience.Thus
ifmen generallytend to bemoreorientedtowardsensation-seeking,they
may bemorelikelyto becomeinsensitivetoeithersensationalnewstopics
orlavish newspresentation techniquesand be consequentlymorelikelyto
perceivelowerlevelsofsensationalisminTVnews.Therefore,theseventh
research question (RQ7)examinestherelationship between viewers'gen-
derand theirperception ofsensationalism.
Insummary,the aforementionedsevenresearch questionsexplore
factorsthat mayaffectviewers'perceptionsofsensationalism inTVnews.
Thestudy will go furtherby asking aneighthresearch question (RQ8):
What istherelativestrength ofeachfactorin predicting viewers'percep-
tionsofsensationalism?
Method
TheSample
Theresearch questionsweretested using datafromarandomly-
selected nationwidetelephonesurveysampleofTaiwanese adults.After
eliminating business numbers,disconnected phones,and non-responses,
1,868 phone callsweremadewitharesponserateof66.1 percent,thus
yielding 1,235 valid questionnaires.
Basedonafilterquestion thateliminatedrespondentswho reported
watching fewerthantwo hoursofnewsduring thepreviousweek,894
respondentsremainedinthestudy.Thesample consisted of464 men(52
percent)and 430 women(48 percent).Ofthesample,41.4 percenthad
a college education,33.9 percenthadcompleted high school,and 24.5
percenthadcompleted onlyjuniorhigh schoolorless.Thesampleranged
inagefrom18 to86withamean of forty-fouryears.Otherthan being
51MargaretUshaDsilva,"IndividualDifferencesand Choice of Information Source:Sensa-
tionSeekinginDrugAbusePrevention,"Communication Reports12,no.1(Winter1999):
51-57.
ISSUES&STUDIES
140 June2009
somewhatskewedintermsofhighereducation,thesamplewasquiterep-
resentativeofthe adult population.
Theinterviewswere conductedbyaTaipei-based professionalsurvey
researchcenterinMarchand April 2006 following apre-testoftheques-
tionnaire.The averageinterviewlastedtwelveminutes.
Measuresof theVariables
Perception ofsensationalisminTVnews:Therespondentswerefirst
askedtoindicatehowmuchtimethey devotetowatching thenewsinan
averageweekand to nametheirpreferredtelevision channelfornews.
Theywerethenaskedtorank seven newscategoriesthataretypically pre-
sentedinarelativelysensational manner:crime and conflicts,accidents
and disasters,sexand scandals,gossipaboutcelebrities,bizarre events,en-
tertainmentnews,and newsabout theoccult orsuperstition.
Next,therespondentswere askedtoindicateon a5-pointscalethe
extent towhichthey believedthateightfeaturesofTVnewsaccuracy,
responsibility,importance,credibility,professionalism,arousing viewer
interest,invading privacy,andgossiping— areinherent inthenotion ofsen-
sationalism.52 TheCronbachAlpha coefficientfortherevised 8-itemscale
rosetoasatisfactory=0.75.
Afactoranalysisusing Varimaxrotation wasconductedand thisin-
dicatedthatall eight itemsweregroupedintoasinglefactorwithan
eigenvaluegreaterthan 1.00,explaining 44.5 percentofthevariance.A
meanscoreofthe eight itemswascalculatedtocreate an overall measure
ofviewerperception ofsensationalism inTVnews.
52Regarding thefivedimensionsofviewers'perceptions,respondentswereaskedtowhatex-
tentnewsitemsare accurate,responsible,important,credible,andprofessional.Response
categoriesrangedfrom1indicating thatalmostall ofthenewsitemsare accurate,respon-
sible,etc., to 5 indicating thatalmostnoneofthenewsitemsare accurate,responsible,etc.
Thehigherthenumber,thestrongertheviewers'perceptionofsensationalisminthenews.
Theotherthree dimensionsofviewers'perceptionswereinterest-arousing,invading peo-
ple'sprivacy,and gossiping aboutpeople.Thesameresponse categorieswereused but
inthereverseorder; that is,aresponseof1indicatedthatrespondents stronglyagree that
noneofthenewsitemsareinterest-arousing,invadingpeople'sprivacy orgossipingabout
people,and5indicatedthatrespondentsbelievedthatalmostall ofthenewsitemsarein-
terest-arousing,etc.Thehigherthenumber,thestrongertheviewers'perception ofsensa-
tionalisminthenews.
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 141
Newstopics:Based on previous studies,this study identifiedseven
categoriesofnewsthataretypically presentedinasensational manner:
crime and conflicts,accidentsand disasters,sexand scandals,gossipabout
celebrities,bizarre events,entertainmentnews,and newsabout theoccult
orsuperstition.
Newsproduction features:Thestudy identifiedsevenTVnewspro-
duction featuresthat mayimpactupon viewers'perceptionsofsensational-
ism,including background music,news subtitles,graphics,specialediting
effects,editing pace,repetition ofpictures,and reporting tone.There-
spondentswere askedtoindicateon a5-pointscalehowtheyevaluatedthe
perceivedleveloftheseproduction featuresastheyappearinthenews.53
Afactoranalysisusing Varimaxrotation showedthat thesevenitems
weregroupedintothree factorswitheigenvaluesgreaterthan 1.00.The
firstfactor,whichconsisted ofmusic and tone,referredtoas"audiofea-
tures,"explained 24.6 percentofthevariance.Thesecond factor,which
consisted ofsubtitles,graphics,and specialeffects,termed"visualfea-
tures,"explainedanadditional16.4 percentofthevariance.Thethird
factorwhichconsisted oftherepetition ofpicturesand editing pace,and
wasreferredtoas"editing features,"explainedanadditional14.2 percent
ofthevariance.
Motivationsforwatching TVnews:Therespondentswere alsoasked
toratesixmotivationsforwatching TVnewson a5-pointscale: learning
aboutsocial issues,obtaining information formaking dailylifedecisions,
being entertained,helping to kill time,having interesting topicstotalk
about,and knowing whatotherpeople aredoing.54
53Theperceptionofproductionfeaturesinsensationalnewsitemswasdeterminedbyasking
aseriesofseven questions,oneforeachofthefeatures.Foreachquestion,a5-pointscale
wasused.Theresponseswerescoredfromlowto high,and ineachcasewereorderedso
thatascoreof1wouldindicate a lowlevelofsensationalismand ascoreof5wouldin-
dicateahigh levelofsensationalism.
54Theperception ofthemotivationsforwatching thenewswasdeterminedbyaseriesof
questionsrelating tothree motivationssurveillance,entertainment,and interpersonal
utility— withtwoitemspermotivation.Eachquestionwasprefacedby"Towhatextentdo
you agree thatyou watchTVnewsin order...": tolearnaboutcurrentsocial issues; to get
necessaryinformation formaking decisionsinlife; to be entertained; to help kill time; to
ISSUES&STUDIES
142 June2009
AthirdfactoranalysisthatemployedVarimaxrotation revealedthat
thesixitemsweregroupedintwofactorswitheigenvaluesgreaterthan
1.00.Thefirstfactor,consisting ofentertainment,killing time,having
topicstotalkabout,and knowing whatotherpeople aredoing,explained
30.6 percentofthevariance and wastermed"entertainment/interpersonal
motivations."Thesecond factor,consisting oflearning aboutsocial
issuesand information fordailylifedecisions,explainedanadditional
22.1 percentofthevariance and wasreferredtoas"social/information
motivations."
Thequestionnaire alsoaskedabout therespondents'favoritenews
channeland askedthem torank sevenspecificsensationalnewstopics,
including crime and conflicts,accidentsand disasters,sexand scandals,
gossipaboutcelebrities,bizarre events,entertainmentnews,and news
about theoccult orsuperstition.Finally,demographicinformation wasob-
tained,including gender,age,education,employment,and familyincome.
Findings
Intermsofviewing habits,40.3 percentoftherespondents spent two
tofourhoursperweekwatching TVnews,23.5 percentspentfivetoseven
hoursperweek,and 21 percentwatched newsforoverten hoursperweek,
whiletheremaining 15.2 percentwatchedeight toten hoursperweek.
Inaddition,56.8 percentoftherespondentspreferredcablenewsastheir
primaryTVnewschannelscomparedwith 43.2 percentwho still relied on
broadcast terrestrialnews.
Asforthesevensensationalnewscategories,24.7 percentofthe
respondentsrated gossip newsasthemostsensationalnewstopic,fol-
lowedbycrimenews(21.5 percent),accidentsand disasters(16 percent),
scandals(13.4 percent),occult news(7.8 percent),and entertainmentnews
provideinteresting topicstotalkaboutwithfamilymembersand friends;and to know
whatotherpeople aredoing.Foreach question therespondentscouldchoosebetween
fivepossibleresponsesranging from"stronglyagree"to"strongly disagree."
Viewers'PerceptionsofSensationalisminTelevision News
June2009 143
(3.8 percent).It isnoteworthy that12.7 percentoftherespondentscould
notprovide a ranking or refusedto do so.
The currentstudy includesvariousresearch questionsprobing seven
independentfactorsaffecting viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism in
TVnews.Thefollowing analysesusePearson correlationstoexamine
relationshipsbetweensensationalismand newstopics(RQ1),TVnews
productionfeatures(RQ2),and viewers'motivationsforwatching TVnews
(RQ4).Forcategoricalfactors suchaschannelselections(RQ3)and gen-
der (RQ7),t-test isusedtoexaminethesevariables'relationshipswithsen-
sationalism.For factorsthatcan begroupedintomorethantwocategories,
suchasage(RQ5)and education (RQ7),ANOVA isusedtoexaminenot
onlytheir relationshipswithsensationalismbutalso howagegroupsor
education groupsdifferintheir relationshipswithsensationalism.Finally,
ahierarchicalregression analysisiscarried out to determine eachfactor's
strengthinaffecting viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism(RQ8).
Thefirstresearch question examinestherelationship betweensensa-
tionalnewstopicsand viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism inTVnews.
ThePearson correlation between newstopicsand viewers'perceptions
ofsensationalismwasr=.03 (p>.05),suggesting sensationalnewstopics
appeared not toinfluence viewers'judgments.
Thesecond research question investigatestherelationship between
TVnewsproduction featuresand viewers'perceptionsofsensationalism
inTVnews.ThePearson correlation betweentheperceivedamountof
audio production featuresinthenewsand theperception ofsensationalism
wasr=.33 (p<.01); the correlation betweentheperceivedamountofvideo
production featuresand theperception ofsensationalismwasr=.09
(p<.05);and the correlation betweentheperceivedamountofediting pro-
duction featuresand perceivedsensationalismwasr=.26 (p<.01).
Thethirdresearch question focusedonwhetherthereisarelationship
between viewers'selection ofnewschannelsand theirperceptionsofsen-
sationalism in news.At-testbetweencable and terrestrialviewerswas
significant(t=2.36;p<.05)withagreateramountofsensationalismper-
ceivedtoexiston cable channels(M=3.32,SD=0.64)thanonterrestrial
channels(M=3.00,SD=0.59).
ISSUES&STUDIES
144 June2009
Thefourthresearch question exploreswhethermotivationsfor
watching TVnewsare anadditionalfactoraffecting the audience'sper-
ceptionsofsensationalism.Pearson correlationsindicatedthat therela-
tionship betweenentertainment/interpersonal motivationsforwatching
newsand perceptionsofsensationalismwasr=-.17 (p<.01),whilefor
social/informational motivationsthe correlation wasr=.13 (p<.01).
Thefifthresearch question considerstherelationship between view-
ers'age and theirperceptionsofsensationalism inTVnews.Therespond-
entswere codedaccording tothree agegroups:18 to 39 (n=308);40 to 59
(n=448);and 60 yearsand above(n=138).Aone-wayANOVA revealeda
significantdifference among themeansofthethree agegroups(F=8.92,
df=2,892,p<.001).Theyoungerviewerstendedto perceiveTVnewsas
significa