Sensationalism: Is it ever justified?


A while back I was talking to a friend of mine who is obsessed with journalism. Like most journalists, she lives, speaks, and breathes controversy and through quick responses, emotional arguments, and sometimes (knowingly or unknowingly) dishonest statements she brings herself to the forefront of the conversation. In general, I like to share my opinion on any topics in the news, but with this person I felt like I could not accurately portray my opinion without it being twisted into something it was not. During one late night of a heated-debate I confronted her about her argument style describing it as “sensationalist”. She admitted to knowing that some of the things she said were not 100% true, but that she believed that it is okay to use arguments with more impact to get a point across. After all, there is no future for a journalist that doesn’t rouse support, and gather followers.This brought me to my understanding of the only truth behind media and journalism: The truth doesn’t sell.

For issues like the Apple, FOXCONN case, we want the answers be black and white. However, the truth is almost always grey, and the further dug into the story (with an open mind), the more complicated it becomes. The reality is that it would be impossible to convey the complexity of any issue in a podcast/report that would allow the audience to develop an informed decision. It then becomes the responsibility of the journalist 1. Create a short “snapshot” of the issue as a whole. 2. Create a story that will sell (which for most audiences is a sensationalist story they can repeat back to others) and 3. Represent the issue in a way that is (if fabricated) ethically justified.

I want to draw particular attention to the podcast titled 460: Retraction (found here http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction), where Rob Schmitz, an award winning journalist, refutes the emotionally-driving fabricated story “The Agony and Ectasy of Steve Jobs” as told by author/actor Mike Daisey. Rob Schmitz refutes some key points from Mike Daisey’s monologue; for example, FOXCONN does not have armed gaurds outside the factory, the percentage of underage workers is likely under 1% of the total workforce, and in general conditions are not quite as bad as he had made them seem.

I don’t want to go into analyzing which argument is correct, but rather point out the potential flaws in the reporting of both Rob Schmitz and Mike Daisey. Firstly, Mike Daisey has obviously fabricated many details in his monologue which, in my opinon, allowed the story to hit mainstream attention. I think that people should question whether his visit to FOXCONN really caused him to feel strongly about the treatment of workers, or whether he saw the opportunity to hit it big with a emotionally-appealing story. As for Rob Schmitz, I wonder what motivates him to cut down a movement to bring attention to work conditions. There are still many unsolved problems that globalization has caused, that need the attention and emotional rallying of a majority of people to create change. The bottom line question: When issues are never black and white, is it ever justified to sensationalize them into greater media attention?

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2 thoughts on “Sensationalism: Is it ever justified?”

  1. I think sensationalism can be justified to an extent. However, once someone moves past sensationalizing an event that actually happened to making up stories and presenting them as truths to grab the attention of their audience, that is where I believe all justification is lost.

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  2. I really liked how you took an even broader perspective on the issue and looked at the motivations of the people who presented different sides of a story. You brought up a very valid point that many times, very different stories can be told without actually lying by just focusing on different aspects, depending on the interest that the person telling the story has.

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