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Sensationalism in the media: the right to sell or the right to tell?

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Abstract

Sensationalism epitomized by yellow journalism has been an issue of concern since the 20th century. It was during this period that the call for a socially responsible media became intense because the press was seen to be perpetuating a culture of irresponsibility in the face of the freedom they enjoyed when the libertarian philosophy of the press held sway. Yet, a century later, the media is seen to be reverting back to the same unacceptable, unethical practices. The in-thing is now is “market-driven journalism” – giving priority to trivial news items, certain kinds of layout, headline sizes, photo enhancements, flashy colours, irrelevant and lurid photos that attract mass audiences like entertainment while downplaying information. In the light of these, this paper situates this discourse within the media framing and constructivist theories and attempts to pry apart the connecting issues, the trajectories, the ethical dimensions, and the participants in the blame game of sensationalism. It also situates this in the context of Nigeria using some newspaper headlines and common practices. It however advocates that rather than having a media that ‘sells’, a media that is socially responsible is exigent in this age that ethics seems to have gone with the wind.
Sensationalism in the media: the right to sell
or the right to tell?
SUNNY EMMANUEL UDEZE*, Ph.D. AND
CHIKEZIE EMMANUEL UZUEGBUNAM**
Abstract
Sensationalism epitomized by yellow journalism has been an issue of
concern since the 20th century. It was during this period that the call for a
socially responsible media became intense because the press was seen to be
perpetuating a culture of irresponsibility in the face of the freedom they
enjoyed when the libertarian philosophy of the press held sway. Yet, a
century later, the media is seen t o be reverting back to the same
unacceptable, unethical practices. The in-thing is now is market-driven
journalism” – giving priority to trivial news items, certain kinds of layout,
headline sizes, photo enhancements, flashy colours, irrelevant and lurid
photos that attract mass audiences like entertainment while downplaying
information. In the light of these, this paper situates this discourse within
the media framing and constructivist theories and attempts to pry apart the
connecting issues, the trajectories, the ethical dimensions, and the
participants in the blame game of sensationalism. It also situates this in the
context of Nigeria using some newspaper headlines and common practices.
It however advocates that rather than having a media that ‘sells’, a media
that is socially responsible is exigent in this age that ethics seems to have
gone with the wind.
Key Words: Sensationalism, Nigeria, media, ethics, social
responsibility.
Introduction
The call for an ethical media and media practitioners is one of long history. This call
became intense during an era in the history of journalism technically termed “yellow
journalism era”. During this period, this call became fundamental because the press was
seen to be perpetuating a culture of irresponsibility in the face of the freedom they
enjoyed when the libertarian philosophy of the press held sway. This was in 20 th century.
This perhaps is no longer news. The worry is that a century later, the media is seen to be
reverting back to the same unacceptable, unethical practices. This time, the name seems
to have changed with the trend too. The in-thing now is “market-driven journalism”.
Expectedly, the question arises: why is this so? Perhaps the answer may lie in the stinging
statement Tony Blair made on the eve of his departure as a ten -year old Prime Minister of
Great Britain about the media of this century:
*Dr. Sunny Emmanuel Udeze is a Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, Enugu St ate University
of Science and Technology, Enugu, Nigeria.
**Chikezie Emmanuel Uzuegbunam is a Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, Nnamdi Azikiwe
University, Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria.
JCMRJournal of Communication and Media Research, Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2013, 69 - 78
©Delmas Communications Ltd.
70 Journal of Communication and Media Research Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2013
The changing context in which communication takes place in the 21st century, has
led to a more intense form of competition. The result is a media that is increasingly and to
a dangerous degree driven by impact. Impact is all that matters. It is all that can
distinguish, can arise above the clamour, and can get noticed. Impact gives competitive
edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts, but it is secondary to impact (Blair, 2007).
This clamour for impact as Blair pointed out may have risen out of a controversial
media trend called sensationalism or what some scholars think is the other side of
tabloidization; itself a child of yellow journalism.
Historicizing sensationalism
Sensationalism is neither a new word nor a new concept. Agreeably, it has been in the
journalism bad books even before the 20th century. US Journalism Professor, Mitchell
Stephens, in his book “A History of News” writes that,
Sensationalism has been around ever since early humans began telling stories, ones
that invariably 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, 2007).
He continued that whatever the time or setting, “sensationalism is unavoidable in
news - because we humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert
to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence”. However, during the 16th
and 17th centuries, it is asserted that sensationalism was used to teach moral lessons.
According to scholars, the concept of sensationalism has a long history. Grabe, Zhou and
Barnett (2001) noted that sensationalism has already been traced in the course of the late
1500s. In 1833, the first successful penny paper, the New York Sun appeared in the
United States. This poor man’s newspaper tended to be highly sensational. This and its
cheapness attracted new kinds of audience for the paper. The focus of the articles was on
local events and on news about violence. Moreover most of the contents were flippant
and trivial (Emery, 1962). After New York Sun came the Herald. These papers and other
penny papers established over the following years adopted a style of journalism that is
believed to be both sensational and aggressive.
A second important landmark in the histor y of sensationalism in newspapers
emerged at the end of the 19 th century with the development of yellow journalism. The
increasing availability of newspapers through lower prices made it necessary to attract the
attention of large number of readers. At the time, yellow journalists tried to make their
newspapers more attractive by emphasizing on crime and social vices, by the use of large
typefaces and by an increasing amount of illustrations and obvious overdramatisation of
events. Sensationalism is further believed by Stephens (2007) to have brought the news to
a new audience. He discusses the heavy use of sensationalism aimed towards the lower
class, as they have less of a need to understand politics and the economy. He argued that
through this, the audience is further educated and encouraged to take more interest in the
news. However, Stephens notes, “when journalists confine themselves to the search for
the violent or the miraculous, not only do they paint a grotesque face on the world, but
they deprive their audiences of the opportunity to examine subtler occurrences with larger
consequences” (Stephens, 2007, p.113). And that is true.
What is sensationalism?
Sensationalism has been a word associated with the tabloids, entertainment-styled
newspapers like our own Daily Sun, Saturday Sun and Sunday Sun newspapers in
Nigeria. For many years, across the world, tabloid newspapers have remained the best
selling in the market, but concerns have been raised over the spill of tabloid style
Sunny Udeze and Chikezie Uzuegbunam: Sensationalism in the media 71
71
journalism into ‘quality’ newspapers (i.e. broadsheets) and broadcast news.
Sensationalism is seen as a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and
topics in news stories are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership figures.
Sensationalism may include reporti ng about generally insignificant or trivial matters and
events that do not influence overall society and biased presentations of newsworthy
topics in a sensationalist, trivial or tabloid manner. This definition has also been
advanced to include reporting even serious issues and events in a sensational manner in
order to attract more audiences. Various scholars have brought their own interpretations
and ideologies into the sensationalism discourse. Postman (1985) has corroborated that
one of the primary factors in the development of sensational news is the increased
competition for ratings between news organizations. According to Esposito (1996), this
may result in news being increasingly structured along themes and in formats originally
found in entertainment programmes, thus leading to dramatic, fast-paced, superficial
presentations and simplistic explanations that focus on personalities, personal
relationships, physical appearances, and idiosyncrasies, all aimed at attracting the largest
possible audience.
The notion of sensationalism in the news has brought about heated discussions in a
variety of countries – in the United States, in Japan, in India, in parts of Europe and even
in Nigeria and this made it impossible to have a clear and exhaustive definition of
sensationalism. Sparks and Tulloch (2000) have attempted to define the term in the
“tabloid” sense, primarily with reference to newspapers. They defined it as involving a
shift in the priorities within a given medium away from news and information toward an
emphasis on entertainment, or as concerning the shifting boundaries of taste within
different media forms. (Sparks & Tulloch, 2000, pp. 10-11).They argued that the tabloid
is marked by two features: it concentrates on news topics such as scandal a nd
entertainment, and it devotes less attention to politics, economics, and society. They point
out, however, that such a definition ignores the visual dimension of presentation in
tabloid newspapers, such as layout, headline sizes, and use of pictorial material. This
point was buttressed further by Bird (2000) when he writes that in sensationalism, “there
is the growing use of techniques for dramatic appeal, such as photo enhancement,
reenactments and diagrams”. These latest definitions perhaps have helped draw a
distinctive line between sensationalism and its twin concept of tabloidization. These two
concepts have seen each other’s definition run into themselves with only a thin line of
difference. However, they are manifestly different. Toeing this line, Knight (1989) also
defined sensationalism both in terms of story content and formal features. For him,
sensational story content consists of sex, scandal, crime, or corruption, while sensational
story formal features include fast editing pace, eyewitness c amera perspective, zoom-in
camera lens movements, re-enactment of news events, the use of music, and the tone of
the reporter voice-over narration. In sum, sensationalism refers to the focus on ‘soft
news’ where more importance is placed on celebrities, hu man interest stories,
entertainment news and crime than previously seen within the mass media. It devotes
relatively little attention to politics, economics, and society and relatively much to
diversions like sports, scandal, and popular entertainment, the personal and private lives
of people, both celebrities and ordinary people, often presented using sensational
headlines, photos, pictures, lots of colour, other embellishments and others like Knight
(1989) above brought to light, aimed at increasing attention and appeal.
Sensationalism in the media: A theoretical connection
The issue of sensationalism in the media is both an ethical and a theoretical one. How
does one explain the practice whereby the media in devoting attention to ‘serious’ areas
like politics, economics, and society sensationalise the news reports in much the same
way it frames reports on diversions like sports, scandal, and popular entertainment, the
72 Journal of Communication and Media Research Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2013
personal and private lives of people, both celebrities and ordinary people? It all boil s
down to the media framing theory of communication. By selecting particular ge nres of
news and giving them the best ‘treatment’ there is, with the obvious or not-so-obvious
intention of advancing [any] ‘preferred meaning’ and ‘frames of references’, for whatever
reason there are, the media is surreptitiously advancing the framing theory and “a state of
decline in the standard of news media” (Sparre, 2001). News is perhaps seen as a
commodity. Although it is seen by many as ‘the truth’, news is a carefully constructed
media product, going through a series of production processes before broadcast or
publication. This is yet an obvious fact that play s into the discourses of sensationalism in
the media. The media constructivist theory could be another theoretic al explanation to all
of this. Media serve as instruments of socialization and have an important impact on the
staging and communicating of emotions; we learn from the media how to live and how to
die (Langer, 2000). The media are defined as the fourth power in the state. Arguably,
they have the onerous power and ability to mediate real and concrete information about
persons, things and actions to their audience, which through these reports obtain an idea
about what is going on in the world. This power is seen in their ability to construct reality
for their audiences, about the world around them. The media present to them, in any
possible means (sensationalism for one) ideologies about the world, objects and people in
their sphere of influence. A constructivist approach on communication also views the role
of the media this way: media mediate in first place (selected) meanings to meet certain
already existing expectations in their audience. These meanings from media offers certain
perspectives and expectations of the audience are melted together to ideas, images and
schemes of things. In this way, the media establish relations between the expectations on
the part of the audience and those fictional images they produce. They please and satisfy
the cultural expectations of their audience by using cognitive schemes and images they
produce by themselves. Thus as Weber (2002) would point out, media constructivism
“might be thought of as embedded in other macro-trends of increasing media permeation
such as the process of transforming everything into entertainment or fiction, acceleration,
commercialization or economization” etc.
Sensationalism in the Nigerian media scene?
The newspapers and the television that sensationalise aim to please divergent audiences
at different times, by framing their coverage to suit what Yadav (2011) has called these
audiences’ “targeted unproductive, leisure and entertainment proclivities”. Thus it is not
uncommon to sometimes see headlines with ambiguity and pun screaming at the front
page of our national dailies. A brief review of some major national dailies in Nigeria
between January through March 2011, show a stunning dose of sensational major front
page headlines:
The Guardian
Vanguard
Atiku writes Jonathan, faults 2011 election,
Jan. 3
FG floods Delta with Police – Jonathan, Jan. 4
Obasanjo threatens to quit PDP, Jan. 6
NASS bows to Jonathan, Jan. 11
After screening, Jonathan, Atiku head for
showdown, Jan. 12
Jonathan beats Atiku, Jan. 14
Jonathan, Atiku fight for PDP ticket today
amid tight security in Abuja, Jan. 13
Atiku’s camp probes lapses in Jonathan’s
election victory…OBJ taunts him, says “I’m
laughing, Jan. 15
For PDP, it is Jonathan, Jan. 14
Nwodo booted out…Atiku denies him, Jan. 19
Drama of Nwodo’s fall. Jan. 19
Your govt’s too large, Danjuma tells Jonathan,
Jan. 21
NCC descends on unregistered SIM cards
users, Feb. 15.
Fresh Jos violence, Borno killings heighten
security concerns, Jan. 30
Sunny Udeze and Chikezie Uzuegbunam: Sensationalism in the media 73
73
“How Bode George tricked me to his
Reception, By OBJ. March 5.
I’m ready for negotiation – ATIKU, Feb. 4
INEC blasts Governors over intolerance of
opponents, Mar. 9
Akala in, Chime out. Feb. 15
“Please forgive me”,Daniel pleads with
OBJ, “You’re forgiven”, OBJ replies. Mar.1
Ribadu blasts Ciroma, Feb. 18
Buhari says “Nigeria worst than 12 years
ago”, March 15
Flee when I take over!” – Buhari tells corrupt
elements, Feb. 20.
Govt. dares MEND, Gunmen attacks
Mark’s convoy, Mar. 19
“Daniel begs Obasanjo” (March 12). And in the
next edition, “Obasanjo begs for Daniel” (March
13)
Jega explodes, says “I’m not afraid of my
life”, March 31.
Fear of nuclear meltdown grips the world, Mar.
14
*the italicized words show the sensational words used in the various headlines depicted.
The list is endless. The sampled headlines above are not exhaustive. From the dates,
they were published at the time Nigeria was warming up for her voters’ registration and
the consequent 2011 general elections. The striking thing about these headlines is that
they are framed in a way that could elicit sensations and emotions from the reading
audiences. Such headlines, the editors of these newspapers might believe, will
sufficiently whet the appetite of the public to want to do the one thing that is most
important: “grab a copy!” A careful look at some of the headlines also could educe
laughter, shock, surprise, and even some kind of fear. The answer lies not just in the
issues portrayed or the kind of emotion that is being framed but also in the careful and
articulated language employed. Notice words like “booted out”, “flee”, “showdown” and
verbs like “begs”, “floods”, “explodes”, “grips”, “tricked”, “blasts”, “fight”, “bows”,
“beats”, “taunts”, “descends”, “dares” and so on. Like is the normal parlance in academic
circle, no word is innocent; words used in t he media or anywhere else by anybody is
laden with ideological meanings that go beyond superficial interpretation. The tone of
language in these headlines tells a media literate person that they are used to elicit some
kind of reactions from the public. Consider also this typical headline from Vanguard
February 13th edition, “Deposed Ondo Monarch’s house bombed; wife, 3 children
roasted”. Why choose the word roastedto qualify this human tragedy? Since when has
human beings become mere meat and yams that could be roasted in a fire? This headline
in the strictly professional sense of journalism practice could have read Deposed Ondo
monarch’s house bombed; wife, 3 children feared dead”. In all of this, the more
worrisome issue is that quality papers such as Vanguard and Guardian as shown above
are embracing the publishing format that is typical of tabloids like The Sun newspaper
whose superfluous sensational sins could be easily forgiven.
It is commonplace also to see the splashed picture of a SUN Girl displayed on the
page three of the SUN newspaper and other slanted, unfair, tempting, half nude or almost
nude pictures and inaccurate, provocative stories/news in not just this tabloid but in other
national newspapers. Both print and electronic media are complicit in this, as they are
over anxious with exhibitionism or obscene pictures even when they are in no way
connected with news items published or broadcast. For instance, in Saturday Vanguard of
22 January 2011 edition, the major headline that reads “Atiku’s backers count losses”
was propped by a large photograph of a Nigerian star actress, Rita Dominic with no other
pictures at all on the front page. Interestingly, there was no news on the star actress on the
front page (just a line below the photo that says ‘Rita Dominic at a recent outing in Lagos
recently) or even in the entire paper. Again, in another edition of Vanguard’s weekend
paper (Feb. 5 2011), a close-up picture of a girl, obviously a model, named Zara is shown
with her large boobs almost popping out of her chest. Below the photo, a caption reads:
“You must be big to hold me”. This interestingly is a supporting picture to the front page
74 Journal of Communication and Media Research Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2013
headline of the paper that reads “Parties warm up for INEC Showdown”. What a
sensational headline with a sensational picture to match.
What’s the big deal? – Ethical dimensions to sensationalism
In 1941, Frank Luther Mott named its five main features:
Scare headlines, often on minor junk food news.
Lavish use of photos, pictures, or imaginary drawings.
Fake interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, featuring paid-for-
media “experts.”
Full-color Sunday supplements.
Sympathizing with the underdog against the system, a practice now reversed,
mischaracterizing or wrongfully vilifying people; among many others.
What then could be the implications of this trend of sensationalism? Mann (1995)
and Hartz and Charpell (1997) writing in Ransahoff and Ransahoff (2001) noted that:
Because democracies rely on an informed citizenry to debate and decide
among policy choices, sensationalism may threaten effective involvement
by desensitizing the public to information about salient aspects of society;
through repetitive cycles of excitement and disappointment…the trend may
also drive away readers and viewers…
Similarly, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (2011) agree that sometimes
sensationalism can lead to a lesser focus on objective journalism in favo ur of a profit
motive, in which editorial choices are based upon sensational stories and presentations to
increase advertising revenue. Additionally, advertisers tend to have a preference for their
products or services to be reported positively in mass media, which can contribute to bias
in news reporting in favour of media outlets protecting their profits and revenues, rathe r
than reporting objectively about stated products and services. Yadav (2011) sees the
dawn of the sensationalist news media as an issue of social irresponsibility of the press
when he writes that the entry of the electronic media had changed the dimensio ns of
news coverage and presentation of news. As a result, the coverage has become either
sensationalized or commercialized. Slowly the media is sliding from its social
accountability by giving abnormal coverage to abnormal events and issues”. Peter du
Pont (1998) argues that the effect of this shift to a more entertainment based journalism
style is that the important issues such as health care and education have been “given the
back seat to entertainment.” He goes on to say that, “[the nation] is deprive d of
information vital to reaching sound policy judgments”, and concludes that, “our
perception of society can vary greatly depending on the source of news” . Moreover,
sensational journalism could have a negative effect on the audience. Sometimes, in thei r
use of words, language and other terms of references coupled with pictures to match, they
could trigger in the public an unwarranted and unnecessary cause for alarm and fear
especially at crises times. At such times, rather than dousing tension and panic , the media
could be helping to fan the embers of war from different opposition groups in society.
Is it all bad news?
While we might be quick to condemn the notion of sensationalism in the media, scholars
and critics alike have pointed to the fact that it might not all be bad news after all. Could
sensationalism offer any positive consequence to society? For instance, Stockwell (2004)
argues that one useful diversion in this present discourse is to ask: what do audiences find
useful in these programs? What, to those schooled in traditional journalistic practice,
Sunny Udeze and Chikezie Uzuegbunam: Sensationalism in the media 75
75
might appear as trivial, can be in fact quite important to the audience. Consumer stories,
particularly those using hidden cameras, reveal the shortcomings of commercial practices
and give the audience the opportunity to learn how to overcome them. Paige (1998)
identifies as trivial, stories on plastic surgery, sperm-bank children, husbands who are
deaf to their wives and the health benefits of truth-telling; but all these stories point to
areas of key debate about emerging forms of personal identity and social interaction.
Further, while the use of celebrity swims in sensationalism and its main purpose
appears to be to provide integrated media corporations with the opportunity for cross-
promotion (Corliss 1988), it offers something more to the audience. As traditional
information-oriented news, celebrity coverage on tabloid TV makes little sense, but
understood as ritual, symbol and myth (Langer 1998, p.5), celebrities may be seen as
representing not so much their own individuality but the symbolic cultural and social
meaning the audience attaches to their individuality (Lumby 1999, p.115). The role of
celebrities is the same as the role of any character in any myth: to give the audience the
opportunity to reflect about their own ethical and spiritual condition.
While it is easy to criticize particular infotainment programmes as light-weight, in its
variety of ways and to the sum of its programmes’ audiences, it might offer better
information than traditional news formats do to their supposed audience of all citizens.
Sensationalism also serves a function by promoting the spread of information to less -
literate audiences and strengthening the social fabric (Stephens, 2007).
Is it all the media’s fault? – The other side of the story
Today, media critics argue that the old cherished standards of journalism practice has
dwindled so much in the last few decades owing to the rise of 24/7 cable news and the
Internet. They never stop to reminiscence about the supposed ‘golden age of journalism’,
believing that nowadays, real news are being left out. These critics of sensationalism
have always claimed that when there is a limited amount of space available for news,
those news that are deemed serious and national invariably get shoved aside when more
lurid stuffs come along. But, Stewart (2012) asks “does it really make sense in an age
when, with the click of a mouse, it's possible to call up news from literally every corner
of the globe, from newspapers, blogs a nd news sites too numerous to count?” The answer
might be as stunning as you might not expect it to.
There's another point to be made about sensational news stories: we love them.
Buttressing this, Stewart (2012) continued that,
Sensational stories are the junk food of our news diet, the ice cream sundae
that you eagerly gobble up. You know it's bad for you but it's delicious.
And you can always have a salad tomorrow. It's the same with news.
Sometimes there's nothing better than poring over the sober pa ges of The
New York Times, but other times it's a treat to peruse the Daily News (or if
you want to get really tabloidy, the Post.) And despite what high-minded
critics might say, there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an interest in the
sensational seems to be, if nothing else, an all-too human quality.
A justifiable question arises from the evaluation of all these aspects: if the news
organizations aim to please their audiences and simply respond to their needs, what
exactly urges the members of the p ublic to favour gossip, violence and destruction over
serious news? One of the answers might lie in what the Uses-and-gratifications theory of
media proposes it focuses on what media users do with media. This theory builds from
the assumption that individuals take an active role in the communication process and are
goal directed in their media behaviour. This approach also assumes that the needs or
motives of an individual can be gratified by alternative media choices .
76 Journal of Communication and Media Research Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2013
The uses and gratifications theory researchers have proven that there is a strong
correlation between the gratifications the audience members seek and those they actually
receive. What this theory basically proves is that, given that the media industry operates
in ways similar to those of every other profit-seeking business, the laws of demand and
supply can be applied to the news organizations in terms of journalists catering to the
needs of the public, and thus providing material that will undoubtedly be consumed. As
Sparks (2000) suggests, “people are much more interested in sport and entertainment and
sexual scandal than in knowing about the world of politics simply because political and
economic power in a stable bourgeois democracy is so far removed from the real lives of
the mass of the population that they have no interest, in either sense, in monitoring its
disposal”. As for sensationalism in a television environment, news editors suggest that
‘every television station is the victim of the viewers’ dictatorship’, and that ‘television
news is a game where everyone is an accomplice, both journalists and the members of the
audience’.
Another side of this story is the cultural context in which communication is relayed.
The message being communicated must conform to this cultural context in order to be
meaningful to the audience. For instance, the current newspaper culture in Nigeria is such
that certain sensational words and modes of expression have become the “norm” that
when they are not used in certain situations, the “proper” messages ma y appear not to
have been conveyed. Words that educe emotions, that ‘colour’ people, events and simply
entertain. (See the Table on Nigeria media scene and sensationalism).
The right to sell or the right to tell? : A call for social responsibility
The social responsibility theory is one of the normative theories that came on the heels of
yellow journalism the practice of sensational journalism, by the twentieth century.
Historically, this theory was borne out of the belief that the press had abused the extreme
freedom it had been enjoying for centuries under the libertarian theory. This theory
advocates that media practitioners should be free to perform their journalistic duties, but
that this freedom should be exercised with responsibility. Moreover, part of the basic
tenets of this theory is that the press should put in place certain laid down self regulatory
measures that should guide them. This is clearly where the notion of ethics in journalism
came about.
Today, over a century later, the press for which this theory was propounded to help
guide its professional practice, is arguably reverting back to that same factor that
necessitated the social responsibility theory in the first instance. Perhaps, the in-thing is
now what scholars call “market-driven or commercial media” (Yadav, 2011, Kleemans &
Hendricks, 2009, Omenugha & Oji, 2008, Sparks and Tulloch). The media today face
many pressures from various fronts including governments, businesses, and advertisers as
well as modern and selfish motives, social and cultural interests. This commercial
journalism gives priority to news items along with irrelevant, lurid photos that attract
mass audiences like entertainment while downplaying information. This is because
entertainment and sports articles can att ract big audiences that the newspaper needs to
sell to advertisers. Advertisers are important because they provide financial support to the
newspaper. In Nigeria, where democracy is in its embryonic stage, a socially responsible
media that knows that public information is necessary not only for citizens to make
rational decisions but that it is needed also to spur economic and social development, is
an urgent need. The Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists is explicit on this issue.
Article 1 on Accuracy and Fairness insists that journalists should refrain from publishing
inaccurate and misleading information and must strive to separate facts from conjecture
and comment. In addition, Article 5 on Decency articulates that journalists should refrain
from using offensive, abusive or vulgar language; journalists should not present lurid
Sunny Udeze and Chikezie Uzuegbunam: Sensationalism in the media 77
77
details either in words or picture, of violence, sexual acts and abhorrent or horrid scenes.
How much media practitioners in Nigeria remain faithful to this code of professional
practice remains questionable.
The norm should never be the right to ‘sell’ the media itself, the owners themselves,
the ideologies they favour, or the people they ‘market’. It rather should be the right to
'tell’ – telling the public the truth of every event, issue and situation and not allowing any
flowering to come in the way. It is not about using sensational techniques to try to make
the most “impact” more than the next media, which Tony Blair earlier remarked makes
accuracy of a story secondary rather than primary. In the short run, the notion of
sensationalism might help the media advance whatever interest they might wish to, today.
However, in the long run,
When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is
redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public
conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become
an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds
itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.(Postman, 1985, p.161
Amusing Ourselves to Death).
Conclusion
No matter the reasons for sensationalizing news, no matter who takes the blame in the
blame game, the issue of sensationalism cannot be discussed without taking into account
the views currently gathering momentum that news is a construction; a frame, packaged
by news producers and journalists to advance one kind of interest and another or one
ideology or the other. In all these, the issue of ethics which from all knowledge and
understanding is and should be media practitioners’ way of judging the rightness or
wrongness of any journalistic action or performance, is at greater stake here. Omenugha
and Oji (2008) remind that “how Nigerian media institutions and journalists are to be
judged depends upon how much they are seen as credible before the eyes of the public”.
Ethics cannot be allowed, no matter the cost, to become an unwanted child of business.
It’s all the media practitioners have got to keep them in line and not rubbish the
profession by growing number of interests emerging in this ever changing world. We
must not lose our sense of responsibility. It’s already bad enough that we are tagged the
watchdogs that no one watches. We must not lose our sense of responsibility. It is what
our profession hangs on.
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What happens when media and politics become forms of entertainment? In the season of Trump and Hillary, Neil's Postman's essential guide to the modern media is more relevant than ever.Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media, so that they can serve our highest goals."It's unlikely that Trump has ever read Amusing Ourselves to Death, but his ascent would not have surprised Postman.” -CNN
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Based on samples of network evening news broadcasts from each presidential election from 1968 through 1988, this article shows that the average sound bite has declined from 43 to 9 seconds. This change is interpreted as part of a general shift in the style of television news toward a more mediated, journalist-centered form of journalism. Three factors help explain this change: (a) the evolution of television “know-how,” (b) the weakening of political consensus and authority during the last 20 years, and (c) changes in the economics of the industry. This change has significant consequences for journalism in the 1990s.
The news: From serious to celebrity
  • Du Pont
Du Pont P. (1998).The news: From serious to celebrity. April 2, Available at: http://wwwrohan.sdsu.edu/~digger/305/analysiseg_tabloid.htm.
Gotcha: Life in a tabloid world
  • C Lumby
Lumby, C. (1999). Gotcha: Life in a tabloid world. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin.