Grand headlines and empty words: on sensationalism and its implications

By Iris Raith

Big bold letters, catchy phrases and personal pictures – this is what can be seen when one chooses to go through the tabloid press. Newspapers that fall under this category employ sensationalism in order to maximize their revenue and instant readership. More often than not, fact-checking and respect for victims and people whose fates are analysed are features that seem to be purposefully neglected by the so-called journalists of the tabloids. This has led to the development of a very ugly side of journalism that cannot be underestimated and ignored – especially with the advent of social media and the internet. 

Eurovision Song Contest (Rotterdam) 2021 – during the presentation of the final voting results the camera goes through the Green Room, showing the artists’ excited faces. At one moment, it flips to the Italian contestants where the lead singer of the band Måneskin is slightly bent over the table in front of him. After two seconds, the camera flips to the next contestant. A minute later, Twitter and news portals fill up with videos of these few seconds, claiming the Italian singer was doing cocaine on live TV. During the press conference where the Italian winners are interviewed, journalists demand explanations from the lead singer. He vehemently denies having ever done drugs and offers to do a test as soon as possible. Two days later, his test comes out negative and the European broadcaster (EBU) publishes photos of the Italian corner in the Green Room where a glass had been broken. The latter confirmed the band’s explanation that the lead singer was bent over the table in order to pick up the broken glass. 

Olympic Games (Atlanta) 1996 – A security guard at the Centennial Park in Atlanta discovers a suspicious backpack. A few moments later, it is confirmed that the bag contains a bomb and the Park is immediately evacuated. Thanks to the guard’s observant eye, only one person dies due to the explosion. At first, Richard Jewell, the security guard, is hailed a hero by government officials and the press. But a few days after the bombing, the FBI starts to see him as a possible suspect and this quickly spreads to the media. From then on, Jewell is constantly scrutinized and terrorised by the American press. He loses his job and cannot leave his house, which is surrounded day and night by numerous media outlets. After having undergone a highly traumatising “trial by media”, he is finally exonerated as a “person of interest” in October 1996. The real culprit, Eric R. Rudolph, is only arrested in 2003

These two examples are only a fragment of what has been going on in the media for decades, if not longer. They illustrate how false, baseless claims can influence and shape public opinion, while effectively damaging – sometimes even destroying – a person’s life and reputation. 

Two European examples: The Sun & BILD

In the United Kingdom, newspapers such as The Sun, which belongs to the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, have been able to establish themselves as strong press outlets with very high and constant readership. However, The Sun’s reporting is far from high-standard journalism. A single look at its cover page confirms that: big, bold, white letters which promise exclusive insights into a recent scandal or tragedy, often concerning famous people. Until 2015, the paper even included a daily feature including a photograph of a topless woman covering an entire page. 

The same pattern of reporting is being used by the German BILD, which belongs to the media empire of the Axel Springer publishing house. Provocative and sensational language is used to tell the stories of “scandals” and tragedies – solely in order to promote the paper amongst its readership. The picture of topless women was also a feature of the BILD cover page until women, led by the feminist policy-maker Kristina Lunz, started a campaign to abolish this sexist “tradition”. 

Both these newspapers are illustrative examples of how sensationalism is used in the daily press, making their readers addicted to this type of reporting. They aim to shape public opinion, mostly in the right-wing and populist direction. This can be especially observed in the last decade when looking at the reporting of the refugee crisis and migrants. The tactics used by tabloid papers include over-reporting on crimes allegedly committed by migrants, while under-reporting or not mentioning nationalities when crimes are committed by citizens of the host country. This has resulted in strong anti-refugees/anti-foreigners sentiments. Moreover, stories are torn and one-sidedly reported on, so that the newspapers only report on the aspect of the story that serves their interest. An example from the BILD is from March 2019 (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 135-136), when it reported on a Kindergarten which presumably forbade children from wearing costumes of native Americans for carnival. In reality, this Kindergarten only sent out an e-mail to parents, explaining that for reasons of culture appropriation it would be appreciated, if children could refrain from wearing native American costumes ((Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 135-136). However, children still wishing to wear them would of course be welcome to the Kindergarden. Nevertheless, the BILD chose to distort the story and make it appear as though “this is only the beginning of prohibition”, that more pre-schools would follow and that children would be limited in their “innocent childish” way of living. Stories like this are published on a daily basis and public opinion is actively shaped by exaggerations and, more often than not, intentional false claims, leading to the phenomenon of fake news

Tragedies for profit

Another common and cruel feature of papers like these is the shameless exploitation of people’s personal tragedies. The tactics employed to get “the inside scoop” have been repeatedly reported on and they include harassment of loved ones, neighbours and acquaintances of people that have tragically died (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 221-233). An example being the school shooting in Winnenden, Germany in 2009, where the BILD pushed family and friends of deceased children to given them information on the private lives and characters of the departed without respecting their grief and request for privacy (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 229-230). Similar tactics were used after the crash of a Germanwings plane in 2015 with school children on board. Reports emerged where children claimed to have found hidden cameras in the flowers in front of the school that were supposed to “catch the grieving community” on camera (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 239). 

This disgusting and far from professional behaviour also extends to the portrayal and information sharing of suspects and persons of interest whose guilt has not yet been determined by the competent justice system. The tabloid press regularly publishes names, pictures of persons of interest and interviews with people who allegedly know “the perpetrator” (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 150-152). They even mistakenly publish profile pictures of the wrong person found on social media due to their neglect of fact-based research (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 234). Hereby, they create a fake narrative without serious proof and consent, and thereby they condemn someone who might not be found guilty by a court. Nevertheless, these people’s lives face tremendous consequences due to this “trial by media” and some don’t recover from it. 

The problematic portrayal of women

A group which faces constant demeanour from the sensational press are women. The photographs of topless women have already been mentioned but the problem goes further than that. The portrayal of women is extremely problematic when it comes to the articles that are being written. In the United Kingdom, this could especially be observed when Meghan Markle became the wife of Prince Harry and then faced regular bashing by the British press. This example is particularly striking since it also included blatant racism. When comparing the reporting being done on Meghan Markle and the one done on Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William, very clear differences can be seen: pieces about Middleton are generally positive and enthusiastic, while articles on Markle are mostly negative and judgy

Another British example is the 2020 reporting on the domestic abuse JK Rowling endured from her now-divorced husband. The Sun came especially under scrutiny when it published an interview with the ex-husband entitled “I slapped JK and I’m not sorry”. Offering a platform to perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse is extremely problematic and should not be done under any circumstances, especially when the sole motive is for a newspaper to gain more readers and subsequently more financial means. The 21st century is promising to become the ultimate liberation century for women and their portrayal in the media is of utmost importance when it comes to changing the narrative, offering women a real voice and, most importantly, actually listening to what they have to say. Not least, women have to take up places in the journalistic world so that toxic and sexist work environments disappear. This is especially important since recent statistics show that women are tremendously under-represented in editorial positions (only 23% for 200 media outlets worldwide)  across the spectrum of journalism. For the German BILD, a recent study has shown that only 23% of editorial positions are filled by women as of January 2020. In the UK, 65% of all articles are written by men

Way forward

This type of journalism creates narratives which have a huge impact on election results, public opinion and  society behaviour. Thus, things need to change in order to oust this damaging reporting and take back the narrative.  First and foremost, constant monitoring of the tabloid press has to be enhanced. Independent fact-checking teams need to regularly check the stories these outlets are getting out. Unnamed/unattributable sources and stories solely based on hearsay cannot keep being published. Journalists have to be transparent about their sources, only keeping them confidential if justified dangers threaten the publication of names. Furthermore, the legal, appropriate and consent-based use of pictures has to actively be controlled. Numerous outlets take advantage of the vast pool of photographs available on social media, assuming they can pick and choose as they please. However, these private pictures of people cannot be freely used and this needs to be properly monitored. 

Secondly, real accountability needs to take place in order to keep this type of media outlets in check. Higher fines that are able to seriously hurt big media empires such as that of Murdoch or Springer must be implemented. At the moment, fines in Germany are around a couple of thousand euro when a newspaper publishes a false story or pictures without consent (Schönauer & Tschermak, 2021, p. 246). Big papers such as the BILD simply pay the fine and only publish a small note of rectification somewhere in the ‘Readers’ letters’ section of the newspaper and then continue with their shameless reporting. This is simply not enough, especially when it comes to online reporting since ‘everything written on the internet, stays on the internet’ and through the ‘sharing’ function on social media it is extremely difficult to trace them.  

 Public independent authorities already in place, such as the German Presserat or the British Audit Bureau of Circulations who can reprimand the press, need to obtain more power to effectively implement concrete sanctions against breaches of journalistic standards. Of course, these recommended measures are not aimed at ‘silencing the press’ or limiting the ‘freedom of the press’. But the latter should stop being used as an excuse to allow unfiltered reporting on anything and everything. In my opinion, ‘Freedom of the press’ is meant to ensure the protection of professional journalism that intends to report on what is happening around the world for matters of transparency, governments’ accountability and societal development. It is certainly not meant to cover the publication of lies and distorted stories that are being written by the tabloids, since the publication of false information can lead to the media being sued.

Last but not least, the educational systems around the globe need tremendous improvement and important government spending has to be invested in that sector. In the long term, this will lead to all groups of society being more educated. Thus, it will be less likely to fall into the traps set by sensational media outlets. The development of critical thinking skills is essential in order to allow people to not believe everything they come across in the media and actively question it, rather than accepting it as a fact. That way, the sensationalist press won’t have the power to easily cloud people’s ability to obtain fact-based information. 

People have to go further than the headline and the media has to report in order to inform and educate, not to primarily make profit. Valuable information should not keep being displaced by sensationalism and society has to re-evaluate what the main aim of using the media should be. 

Further resources, if you’re interested: 

Edited by Marina Giacosa Esnal, artwork by Chira Tudoran