Sensationalist and biased reporting: media downfall or profitable saviour?
Based on: 29th October 2009, blocking investigation or ensuring truth for clients, John Stonborough
In this essay I intend to examine whether some Investigative journalism is merely a way for the reporter to ‘air his personal views or is really about ensuring the public has all of the relevant information to make an informed judgement about what they are being told. Sensationalist reporting can improve the profitability of various journalistic articles but needn’t necessarily be biased. Having said this can bias be a positive part of journalism? As long as both sides have a chance to place their point, and the audience notified that it is opinion, can bias really do much harm?
The code of conduct is a set of principles created by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) which journalists must agree to adhere to when they join the NUJ. These principles; “Strive to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair”
(http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=174, Date Accessed 10.03.2010).
So how does this relate to both Sensationalist and biased reporting. The use of sensationlist reporting is normally an exaggeration of the facts through the use of terminology and images that are made to extort the ‘WOW’ or shock factor. Using the headlines of today’s newspapers, The Guardian and The Sun (11th March), we can see that the front page story in The Sun was “Tormented to death” shown over a picture of a bunch of flowers outside a house. The same story in The Guardian was on an inside page with the headline “Man found dead at home was ‘tormented’ by youths”.
The prioritisation and placement of the article in the sun gives a clear indication of the editors bias as he chooses where the item should feature within the paper.
An alternative aspect of biased reporting can be said to be the presentation of an unbalanced view of reporting the facts. Claims made in any report should be open to counter claims, yet in his Coventry conversation on the 29th October 2009, John Stonborough cites the case that in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme ‘What’s in Your Breakfast’, aired on 26th October 2009, claims were made that “Kellogg’s cereals had more sugar than a Tesco Jam doughnut.” Kellogg’s’ only got to state their viewpoint by issuing a press release the next day stating that “The reality is a single serving of Frosties or Coco Pops has the same amount of sugar in it as a glass of orange juice or a banana.”
(http://www.kelloggs.co.uk/whatson/pressoffice/News/kelloggs-corporate-news/kelloggs-response-to-channel-4s-dispatches, Date Accessed 10.03.2010)
Bias exists in everything we read, see and hear. Use of terminology, camera angles and headlines can shape our opinions before we have examined the details in full.
Section 5.8 of Ofcom’s regulation surrounding the impartiality of programmes requires “Any personal interest of a reporter or presenter, which would call into question the due impartiality of the programme, must be made clear to the audience.” (http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/ifi/codes/bcode/undue/ Date Accessed 10.03.2010)
It goes on to say that if the presenter or reporter do express their opinions on a subject, alternative viewpoints must be represented in the programme or in the series of programmes as a whole, and yet if we are not told how can we be sure this regulation is adhered to. How can we tell that the programme on the screen or the radio broadcast we are listening to is being presented by those who do not have an alternative agenda? Are we simply being ‘drip fed’ a series of personal opinions or can we truly believe that which we are being told?
When a consumer chooses to buy a paper they have a good idea of the political leanings of the publication. Political bias underpins the very fabric of society and helps to shape our value systems. We, as consumers, will gravitate towards those publications we believe share our ethical and political viewpoint. Unfortunately we have less control over what we see and hear. When presented with a programme, either radio or television, we generally have no signpost as to which side of the political fence the producers adhere. Subconsciously journalists may put their own political standpoint into an article without realising it. Their version of the facts may become less factual and more of a proposition of their own values.
So are facts that important? According to Stuart Price in Media Studies: Second Edition “facts are often regarded as less important than ‘stories’…We could argue that all newspapers regard facts as subsidiary to the ‘narratives’ that they produce”
(Media Studies: Second Edition, 1998 pp.430)
The Sensationalisation of media ‘stories’ are there to sustain the appeal and stir public interest; putting the facts into context substantiates the article, making it more appealing to a wider audience than just the reporting of the facts alone. In a documentary on Channel five, Revealed: Jack the Ripper: Tabloid Killer aired on 10th March 2010; Kelvin Mckenzie examines the role the press had in making ‘Jack the Ripper’ a media sensation. In 1888, The Star was a new publication which rapidly became a phenomenon with the rise of the Whitechapel murders. The editor, Thomas Powell O’ Connor realised that the more ‘Jack the Ripper’ was placed on the front page, the higher the papers circulation. The Star adapted a style of reporting which Victorians called ‘new journalism’; this was the beginnings of ‘tabloid’ press. It dramatised events, detailing the brutality of the victims in an attempt to attract more readers.
This method of reporting still exists today, with headlines being one the main attraction to readers. Using the cliché ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ journalists will focus on the most shocking part of the story and use that to entice readers. Renee Ordway, Journalist for The Bangor Daily News, claimed that most of her stories ended up on the front page “not because the writing was spectacular, but because the subject matter was”
(http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/137284.html, Date Accessed 10.03.10)
Sensationalisation is used as a lure, making the media artefact more interesting by embellishing the facts encourages the audience and creates a unique selling point. The shock factor can be used as a positive reinforcement such as in the “Say no to drugs” campaign. When 21 year old Rachael Whitear died from a heroin overdose, her parents allowed pictures of her, dead with the needle still in her hand, to be released to the public. They hoped that the coverage of her death would prevent drug abuse; as a result the pictures are now used in an anti-drug campaign shown in schools across England.
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/2000287.stm Date Accessed 11.03.10)
The negative connotations of Sensationalisation are that you start to lose trust in what you are reading or viewing. How do you know what is fact and what is glamourised for entertainment? ‘Reality’ documentaries such as “16 and Pregnant” or “Supersize vs. Superskinny” only show the extremes of the problem; often showing the most entertaining or shocking events rather than the full story.
In conclusion we can see that it is not so much what is reported but that which is not reported that provides us with our greatest source of biased reporting. The Journalist who chooses to report that Glasgow now has the greatest number of heart problems in the UK and also mentions that it coincides with the lengthening of pub opening hours is the one who finds that both the sensationalist and biased viewpoint may get him a printed article. What he fails to report is the fact that Glasgow also has the highest rate of unemployment in the UK which means that typically it’s inhabitants are having to survive on Government handouts and therefore eat the type of food that contains the highest levels of fat and salt because it is the only way that these individuals can feed their families.
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/337109.stm, Date Accessed 11.03.10)
In answer to my opening question, the evidence suggests sensationalisation and bias in the media keeps the audience enthralled and increases profitability. If all publications or broadcasts only presented the facts with no embellishment or angle, news would present no alternative viewpoint. Although not all the facts are made available in a single journalistic item, through the reading or viewing of mixed media, the public will receive enough information to make an informed decision.
The evidence shows that this form of reporting is not a recent development, but rather a continuation and progression of past theories. Publications, websites or news reports have to have a distinctive quality to keep their audience interested.
Bias in reporting is what fuels debate amongst the audience, and ensures that those discussions that occur everyday in the home, classroom or workplace have originated from the variety of sources that ensure a balanced view is gleaned.
Sensationalist reporting; when done emotively, enrages, impassions and inflames us. It can incite us to stand up for our own beliefs, help others or highlight the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. Whatever methods they use to wow or shock us, it is necessary in order that it makes us consider and reflect what we are being told.