The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The disadvantage of sensationalism in the media

The role of media coverage during tragedies

For many of us, consuming news has become an activity as unconscious as breathing. On television, we watch live updates and interviews. In class, we discuss issues with our peers. On our phones, we scroll past political updates on social media as we watch Tasty videos or retweet a funny meme. We passively absorb another scandal about a politician, another natural disaster or another victim of gun violence.

When a sensationalized story arises though, we also eagerly scour the internet for more information and more updates. Our lives become centered around the latest news, until we’ve taken in all of the details that we can and the story slowly fades away. This obsession walks the line between journalistic news and a source of entertainment for curious desires.

We were in the midst of midterms and our anticipation for fall break when 58 people were killed and 489 people were injured in the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. The media coverage of the shooting followed a cycle that has unfortunately become highly routine. In the first minutes following the event, news disseminated from eye witnesses who tweeted out videos, pictures or rumors about the state of Las Vegas.

In the next hours, we heard better verified information from local news sources and briefings from law enforcement in the area. By the day after the event, most of the facts have been confirmed, but the media coverage persists.

In the days and weeks following breaking news events, the media finds other ways to look at these stories. We consider the politics of a scandal, we search for motives of the shooter or we consider the human impact of a tragedy. While it’s important not to carelessly drop a story after the initial shock, we wonder about the value of such prolonged analyses during the aftermath.

Our staff, as a news organization, believes it is especially important to consider the role and effect of the media in processing national tragedies, scandals or otherwise breaking stories. News organizations have a responsibility to consider what an ethical approach to covering the news looks like in practice. Citizens rely on the press to act as a reliable informant. The media, including The Hawk, needs to live up to that expectation.

When people want answers, they look to the news. At what point do obsessive analyses become unnecessary and unproductive though? While delving into every aspect of a perpetrator’s life, family, hobbies, personality traits, illnesses and motivations, we simultaneously lose some of the humanity of the tragedy. It becomes a popular psychoanalysis rather than a recognition of tragedy.

Media organizations need to be cautious of taking advantage of such tragedies. Stretching out an individual story only gives notoriety to perpetrators, and in the case of mass gun violence, may encourage emulators. It’s important not to focus all of our energy on one story, because breaking news should not overshadow other important events.

As consumers though, we all too often unwittingly eat up the wealth of information offered to us. But some of the information we absorb may not be reliable because of this new emphasis on quantity of news over quality. If the media is not always reliable, we need to be able to discern facts from false rumors that can spread immediately after a story breaks.

New York’s public radio station, WNYC offers a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook to warn people about untrustworthy information spread in the immediate aftermath of a story breaking. These tips call us to look closely at phrases used by the media. As WNYC puts it, “‘We are seeking confirmation’…means they don’t have it.” In immediate coverage of stories, organizations often rely on speculation over facts. We understand that consumers crave knowledge during periods of uncertainty and in the wake of tragedies, but that leaves many vulnerable to deceit.

Consumers have a responsibility to be cautious and not to spread false information during the early coverage phase. It may be tempting to retweet an astonishing update or spread new updates to others, but verifying facts with other media outlets and reliable sources should be part of our news habits, even if we aren’t writing the stories.

This responsibility is a two-way street in that the media also needs to show more concern about disseminating inaccurate theories. Journalistic ethics call for journalists to take responsibility for the accuracy of reported pieces. Competition between news outlets for viewers encourages media organizations to sensationalize information and be the first to break a story. We have to ask if sacrificing accuracy is worth the immediate coverage and speculations.

Problems in the media tend to take a backseat to the very news the media continues to sensationalize. We need to recognize the importance of demanding journalistic ethics as part of our work in addressing other societal problems.

We have to decide to make reforming news and improving media consumption a priority. Faltering journalistic ethics aren’t necessarily problems that we can fix through science or policy. We need to work towards less sensationalized media by discouraging an irresponsible breaking news cycle, from both the media and consumer perspective.

Together we ought to choose to confront these issues, accept responsibility and disrupt problematic patterns in media. If we don’t stop to consider the ethics of sensationalizing news, then news will only continue to feed our entertainment desires rather than our information needs. As a rising generation, it’s on us to determine what we’re going to do about our own complicity in the sensationalism in the news media which threatens our most basic values as a country.

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