Sensationalism: A love-hate relationship between people and the media?

According to Cambridge Dictionary, sensationalism is defined as the following: "The act by newspapers, television, etc. of presenting information in a way that is shocking or exciting".

Many will agree that in today's society, sensationalising news has become the new norm. Shocking stories, attention-gripping headlines, daunting scenarios...But what if these come at the expense of journalistic accuracy?

Today's news coverage sadly often relies on the concept of instant gratification, which is often incompatible with source verification. A study conducted by Columbia University found that only 59% of links shared on social media are never actually clicked.

Media is guilty of publishing unverified news, but readers are guilty for not actually going through the effort of reading the news they share. The result? A lot of misinformation, clickbait, and fake news lacking investigation that roams the internet. But how much of this misinformation is inadvertent and how much is deliberate?

I've been asking myself these questions since I've come across an interview by ABC News with Ukraine's intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov. In the interview, Budanov claims that Putin is terminally ill and "will die very quickly".

What intrigued me was how quick different news outlets were to pick up on the interview and immediately re-share it, without concrete evidence other than the statement made by the Ukrainian official.

After some research, I found out that talks of Putin dying have been around since years. Articles on Putin's health and the hashtag #Putin umer (Putin has died) have been trending in 2015, with memes being redistributed across the internet. Last March 2022, a British tabloid went as far as to claim, as per "intelligence sources", that Putin was already dead and a body double was acting in his stead.

It's interesting how quickly death speculations arise about a person when the power is centralized around them. Death rumors about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have also already appeared countless times in various news outlets.

The belief that some political individuals are irreplaceable goes hand in hand with a certain excitement, but also fear of speculations surrounding their death.

Whether the information is true or false, the curiosity of the eventual consequences are oftentimes more substantial, than the actual news of death itself.

It is no secret that emotions are the main driving force when it comes to grasping the attention of a reader. As a result, journalism has become guilty of perpetrating sensationalism, in order to grow readership and generate news traffic. Stories about wars, natural disasters, or controversial political individuals will always be prioritised in headlines over other less tragic news.

Sadly, what generates audience nowadays is not necessarily what is neutral or good news, but rather negative news. In a study, research showed that there is a "collective hunger" among people to hear bad news. The question is whether people have been conditioned by the media to be more alert to negative words, or whether it's an innate characteristic.

For a few weeks, I've taken it upon myself to write a "Happy News" article on Mondays. It encompassed all the good news that had happened during the preceding week in order to start of the bluesy Monday on a more positive note.

However, I've soon realised after looking at the statistics, that more negative news still prevailed in the top read articles of that day. At the end, the previously mentioned study proved to be accurate. This leaves us pointing the blaming finger both ways: Most people thrive on bad news and media outlets tend to fuel it.

The danger arises when negative and unverified news gets shared around and it becomes a challenge to decipher truth from bias. A perfect example for this have been the US elections in 2016.

According to NYU and Stanford, social media played a large role in sending people to "fake news" sites (more than 40%) as opposed to only 10% visits to US news sites. It's not clear to what extent "fake news" played a role in the elections, but something that is undeniable is how much coverage Trump has received throughout the elections.

According to Facebook, "80,000 posts were published between June 2015 and August 2017" mostly focusing on social and political messages that divided the country. People are also quick to promulgate material that allows them to uphold their political agenda and denigrate the opposing narrative.

Another study showed that "people value partisanship over accuracy", proving that sharing information is not always believing it. The veracity of the information found is not always a priority, especially amidst a heated political atmosphere.

Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves as readers and as journalists, to make sure that the information we spread is to the utmost accuracy.

And to top it off, I will leave you symbolically with a quote that has been often falsely attributed to George Orwell and is actually by a freelance writer, Selwyn Duke: "The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it."