DYNAMICS OF SENSATIONALISM

Why do human beings need to be jarred out of their daily engrossment? Why do television and other media need to become persuasive to get our attention? Why do different people like different news be it financial, technology, business, sports, movies, politics, medical, art yet when it comes to hilarity there is unison and everyone wants to laugh out loud. Michael McIntyre is the present funny man in the UK. He jumps, runs, skips, squeals on stage and his content is riotously hilarious and brilliantly elicited from day to day observations that everyone can relate to. His shows are oversubscribed and fans queue up to snap up the tickets.

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The tremendous need to take our bodies to a place (live shows or couch television) to invoke laughter bouts and trigger its recurrence takes center stage. Nothing wrong here and laughing is healthy. Doctors equate intense laughing to internal jogging but we also seem to be a generation who are hell bent on shocking ourselves with news about accidents, deaths, murder, arson, war, terrorism, kidnapping, fighting, robberies, celebrity holidays, gossip, crime, sex, etc. It is understandable if we are in the circle of influence and doing something about these to render some service to the community but merely remaining in the circle of concern, expressing anger & frustration and remaining confined in our own life and work doesn’t quite justify the time spent in shocking ourselves. Perhaps newspapers through sensationalism, is appealing to our collective consciousness to take action.

In London the morning ‘Metro’ and afternoon ‘Evening Standard’ are freesheet newspapers and in conjunction with other tabloids, disperse sensationalist content mixed with value adding facts in return for a tacit consent from the readers that they will allow themselves to be subjected to messages and display advertisements. Why there is such a hankering for sensationalism? Why do Television, newspapers, Internet, Radio or any media for that matter embrace sensationalism to ensure customer retention? Does the media in order to sell more, pursue a sensationalist approach or do we inherently demand it. Arousing people’s emotions is key. Why don’t newspapers appeal to people’s intellect and instead aim for their emotion. Why is information about dieting, mental health and news about wellbeing subservient to deaths, killings, litigious cases and accidents when it comes to the front page?

BOREDOM

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It all started with boredom. Prior to 1766 the dictionary didn’t have a word for boredom. With the onset of industrial revolution, mechanization, urbanization, computerization, automation, rapidity of life, accelerated pace, bombardment of media, television, advent of Internet devices etc., consumers transcended mundane news and unconsciously sought disquieting news. Investigative journalism takes time, effort and money instead it is more convenient to replace it with yellow journalism to insure against a precipitous drop in circulation. Investigative journalism is about deeper investigation into crimes, political corruption, corporate irregularities etc. In contrast yellow journalism is neither factual nor well researched but brazenly uses eye-catching captions and headlines and here are a few examples

  • Hubby’s Bad Breath Kills His Wife
  • Half-Man Half-Dog Baffles Doctors
  • Man’s 174-mph Sneeze Blows Wife’s Hair Off
  • Dolphin Grows Human Arms
  • Nazi UFOs to Attack U.S.
  • Man’s Head Explodes in Barber’s Chair

Even the most perceptive of the lot, after an exacting day at work, fall victim to yellow journalism and craves for the evening newspaper. Such is the power in its headlines that exploits, distorts and exaggerates information to create sensationalism. Human beings are hardwired for stimulation including a baby in the womb. Amongst all the sensory stimuli coming to a baby in the womb, sound is the most distinct one hence the mother sings to the baby or even exposes it to music. Newborns respond to familiar sounds heard in the womb during the 9th month. Prolonged exposure to music in the womb will not increase the proclivity of a newborn baby to become a music crackerjack but it forms part of growth stimulation for a child. Boredom sets in when one is under-stimulated. Introduce any game or challenge to a child and with passage of time, as the child gets adept at it, the game starts to get boring. This is the same with animals, birds and human beings. Novelty is a compulsion if one intends to stimulate a child and prevent boredom and this primal instinct continues throughout life. Adults too manifest this juvenile curiosity only the subject matter differs.

SUBLIMINAL TREATMENTS APPLIED BY MEDIA

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Media (Internet, Television, Radio, Print) is a very aggressive and competitive commercial endeavour. Product placement, advertisements, political intent, government propaganda, scientific progress, all these form tacit and explicit agenda for them. Boredom, monotony and public apathy are their chief enemies and keeping viewers and readers stimulated is their mission. Journalistic objectivity stipulates fairness, factuality and nonpartisanship but mundane content or headlines make them lose TRP’s (target rating points) in terms of consumer viewership, which is disastrous for an advertisement revenue generated model of sustenance. To keep the consumers perked up, media uses hyperbole and coupled with cognitive distortions as listed below, inveigles viewers and readers into thoughts and emotions that otherwise wouldn’t have been invoked. Of course not all newspapers are about yellow journalism or hyperbole, many newspapers add deep research and incisive analysis to their repertoire and is a delight to read.

What  is sensationalism? In addition to an amount of truth, the media overhypes events and intentionally omits or skews facts to create curiosity and over-speculation thereby retaining viewer’s interest in the newspaper or media channel. E.g. Monica Lewinsky scandal, OJ Simpson murder case, Oscar Pistorius trial and innumerable others. Sensationalism is not the sole prerogative of media, such communication patterns are seen in selling, corporates communicating to analysts, even a small child when he/she gets back from school loves to galvanise parents attention and attempts sensationalism (of course with non malicious intent). Let us delve into a few of these subliminal treatments applied by media.

Media

  • Rhetoric: This is defined as the art of effective and persuasive speaking or writing and exploits figures of speech and other compositional techniques. Nations use and step up angry rhetoric to indicate tough warning to their aggressive neighbours. North & South Korea does it. In recent times  Russia has stepped up its rhetoric against Ukraine’s new Western-leaning leadership. During war ‘annihilationist and exterminationalist rhetoric’ is used as a strategy to intimidate opponents.
  • Exaggeration: Representation of anything in an excessive manner to create effect, hype, propaganda. It is the  presentation of stories, incidents or facts in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy. For example :
  • This bag weighs a ton
  • I am going to collapse of hunger
  • Weapons of mass destruction
  • Double dip recession going to wipe out all our savings and so forth.
  • Minimisation: A kind of deceit involving denial and rationalization when a total denial is difficult. This is opposite of exaggeration. It is one of the ways to placate feelings of guilt e.g. ‘its not such a big deal’. Basically playing down a scenario to strip it of its dire consequences.
  • Dead Air: It is an unintended interruption in a radio broadcast during which no sound is transmitted and is a technical irregularity. From a behavior manipulation angle, dead air denotes more of an elicitation strategy to get some more truth that reporters use to create sensation. In a conversation the listener just keeps looking at you after you finished talking. Most people are uncomfortable with silence and will indulge further to keep filling it and there is a propensity to reveal some damaging aspects or truth on the subject matter which reporters exploit.
  • Disinformation: Deliberate attempt to manipulate the audience by creating an agglomeration of false inferences, conflicting data, a little truth or revealing part of the truth and incongruous interpretations. The idea is to garner viewer’s emotions.

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  • Alarmism: Excessive or exaggerated alarm about a real or imagined threat for instance ‘Salmonella outbreak creates mass mayhem’ or ‘Our nation’s education system is in tatters’ etc.
  • Dumbing down: Lowering or trivializing the general level of intelligence in education, cinema, art, news, culture, literature etc. to keep the people at a low-level of awareness in order to avoid any coup, uprising etc. As the society/community get educated and awareness spreads, people with vested interests feel dilution in their power and stance hence they dumb down the masses. This approach is also used in certain schools ‘ weakening of a school course curriculum’ where academic requisites are made less challenging, a kind of attenuation in rigour so that children pass tests.
  • Impelling: The initial interview will be gentle, rapport building, even paced and midway the tempo accelerates with the interviewer impelling the speaker with a barrage of quick questions to create time pressure and test coherence between arguments to elicit the truth. Untrained speakers to preserve the rapport, attempt to diffuse the stress and in doing so sometimes caves into the pace.
  • Loaded language: Purely intended to inspire emotion (both negative and positive). Example ‘Do you actually want to engage with such people’. It is used to gain support, sway opinions, political slam at opposition etc. Usage of expletives such as fantastic, wonderful, phenomenon, remarkable, superb, totally worthwhile and so forth can embellish mundane performance.
  • Misinformation: Note the distinction; Disinformation is intentionally spreading incorrect information aiming to mislead whilst misinformation is false or inaccurate information but perhaps published or broadcast by mistake. It may have the same calamitous effect as disinformation but is not done intentionally. In 2011 UK riots, rumour spread on Twitter that looters had attacked a children’s hospital and due to ongoing looting in other areas it alarmed people but Twitter community quickly deflated the rumour and prevented anxiety.
  • Media Styling: Media is powerful enough to make or break a case, facilitate the perception of innocence or guilt, decimate reputation or enhance it and prior to court hearing can totally change the architecture of facts and its interpretative significance. In the movie Chicago Richard Gere (plays Billy Flynn) is one such lawyer who uses all the manipulative behaviours. As the trial begins, Billy creates the media razzle-dazzle thereby feeding the sensationalist reporters precisely what story he wanted them to report. Prior to actual trial in the court there is media styling and in high-profile cases it is important to perceive one’s position w.r.t media.
  • Censorship: This is opposite of sensationalism and is suppression of viewing, speech or any form of public communication deemed objectionable, politically incorrect, obscene and harmful due to it affecting national security, security of children, religious position, attempting to falsely vilify someone etc. Majority of governments in the Middle East censor the media to prevent a spark off of a probable rebellion.

CONCLUSION:

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We are bombarded with extensive content from myriad sources. Whether these disparate pieces of information are verified, pure conjecture, outright figment of someone’s imagination, blatant lie engineered to manipulate, developing story (for want of facts) or absolute truth, are information pieces to be parked in the brain’s cache memory. The idea is not to get immediately influenced. Once we understand that such sensationalism is intended to elicit our emotion for viewing sustenance, we must regulate our indulgence. This hankering for sensationalist news will never cease but it can be contained thereby inducing maturity amongst media fraternity to come out with facts and truth.

Though irrelevant, many a times it is good to know important happenings around the world and a 30 minute dosage of news is healthy but to spend inordinate amount of time discussing the alarming aspect of any news would be wastage of precious bandwidth unless life is so boring that one need to be jolted with such news. Instead of passive forms of receiving news, a transition to active forms of hunting for relevant news through Google Alerts, Yahoo alerts, mobile phone apps etc. is an option. Distill the content that we are being exposed to and become aware of the cognitive aspects associated with information interpretation.

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