“Sensationalism does not mean distorting the truth… It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact on the minds of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language, and the wide use of illustration by cartoons and photographs. Every great problem facing us… will only be understood by the ordinary man busy with his daily tasks if he is hit hard and hit often with the facts. Sensational treatment is the answer, whatever the sober and ‘superior’ readers of other journals may prefer. No doubt we shall make mistakes, but at least we are alive.
Silvester Bolam, Editor – Daily Mirror, 1948 – 1953
The above is a sterling defence of sensationalism from a time when the term was not one of the media’s dirty words. I came across it in Andrew Marr’s excellent My Trade, which charts the history of the British media.
Bolam’s defence is simple, honest and quite fair. Why shouldn’t verbal red-tape be removed from the facts? What is wrong with painting an event vividly? Why is simple language less powerful or trustworthy than any other type?
The truth is, sensationalism is not the problem – it is the way it has been abused that is. If you strip away the pre-determined definition you have come to for the word you’ll see that the bias, the spin, the panic-educing garbage; none of that is implied in the word sensationalism.
A story can be sensational or it can be sensationally painted without it being overblown, oversold or distorted. The problem is that sensational language can make it easier to do all of these things to a topic and over the years journalists and editors, out of laziness or calculated intention, have used it as a tool to sell their stories and papers.
However, in the hand of an able and honest writer the style is no more harmful than the straight-faced fact used in other newspapers. The fact that it might get more people to read about the issues that effect them is just a nice bonus.
I’ve spoken before about the perception certain media terms have gained through the ages, specifically the word ‘tabloid’. In Ireland and Britain (amongst other places, I’m sure), a tabloid newspaper is one that contains little hard news, next to no political coverage, “celebrity” pap-shots and trivia, huge pun headlines and slang terms in the actual reporting. It is the home of page three girls, over-whelming sports coverage and a healthy dollop of bias and lazy reporting.
The reality of ‘tabloid’ is quite different. The word is in no way a reference to the content of a newspaper, just its format. A tabloid newspaper could be hard-hitting and intellectual, or it could be all the ills described above – it didn’t matter as long as the format was right.
The same applies to the word broadsheet – seen by many as a comment on the target audience, style of reportage or topics covered it is again just a reference to the size of the publication. But I digress…
Sensationalism is now a dirty word in media and you’d be hard pushed to find any newspaper editor gladly describe what they do as sensational, and defend it with the same aplomb (or ability) as Mr. Bolam did 50-odd years ago. There are plenty of other terms that enjoy the same distortion from their original intention.
The origin of the word paparazzi is interesting, for example – it’s Italian for mosquitos and was the surname given to a photographer in La Dolce Vita, stemming from director Fellini’s memory of a boy he knew as a child who was given the nickname due to his fast speech and movements. Now, of course, the image is far less endearing, if anything it is vilified (despite the work they conduct being lapped up by millions on a daily basis).
Etomology always fascinates me, and a big part of that fascination is the evolution of language. Quite often, the origin of a word is a mile away from the use it currently enjoys – sometimes the journey hasn’t distorted that meaning quite so much.
I think it’s important, for the sake of accuracy, to know that sensationalism isn’t bad by nature, nor is tabloid media – we in Ireland just happened to get a few bad examples to sour the relationship somewhat. The tabloid market in Ireland just happens to have plenty of trashy publications in it and out of those that use sensationalism the majority abuse it.
With that in mind, it might be time to reassess some publications you judged on the basis of their size or headline – they might be doing honest work in a way that will attract as many as possible. Then again they may not be – only one way to find out, I guess.