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Sensationalism may be defined as a concept that encompasses those features of news stories that journalists use to attract the attention of the audience. In the literature, a number of sensationalist news categories have been distinguished.
The oldest and most heavily investigated category includes audio, visual, and verbal news content that may be considered as attentiongrabbing because of its reference to basic human needs; e.g., stories about sex, violence, or disasters. A second category includes formal features that represent unexpected or changing information, and that consequently elicit attention responses (e.g., Grabe et al. 2003). In television news, transitions between scenes or camera perspectives are the most obvious examples, but also sudden camera movements and uncommon editing techniques. In newspapers and news-sites, extraordinarily large headlines or pictures are examples. Finally, some studies have included a category of sensationalist storytelling features, which because of their vividness are expected to be attention grabbing (e.g., Hendriks Vettehen et al. 2012). Examples of vivid storytelling are the insertion of soundbites by lay persons in news reports, or the insertion of an individual case history.
Although sensationalist news has been defended as an appropriate response to the evolutionarily developed human habit of attending to information that increases the chances of survival and reproduction, it has also raised many criticisms. First, it has been considered as a product of market- driven journalism. This view has received support in both longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, although the evidence so far cannot completely rule out alternative influences, such as technological innovations, or trends in journalists’ role perceptions. Second, sensationalism has been accused of being at odds with the informative function of news. Studies on this issue show that sensationalist features increases attentiveness during the viewing process, but an unrestricted use of sensationalist devices induces cognitive overload. Moreover, sensational features may draw attention to the sensational parts of the story, thus evoking distorted comprehension and judgments.
- Grabe, M. E., Lang, A., & Zhao, X. (2003). News content and form: Implications for memory and audience evaluations. Communication Research, 30(4), 387–413.
- Hendriks Vettehen, P. G. J., Zhou, S., Kleemans, M., d’Haenens, L., & Lin, T. C. (2012). Competitive pressure and arousing television news: A cross-cultural study. Asian Journal of Communication, 22(2), 179–196.