We are living in an increasingly sensationalist world. With things like clickbait (a news story with an enticing headline that often has no relevance to the article that follows it) and misreporting by the media becoming a standard part of our everyday lives, we think it's important to investigate what the new trend for sensationalism means for communication professionals in Australia.
What exactly is sensationalism?
Sensationalism involves garnering public interest by using shocking or provocative stories and language, almost always at the expense of accuracy and truth. In particular, sensationalism involves selectivity with the facts, being deliberately obtuse, causing controversy, appealing to emotions (when done in a negative or false way), and drawing unnecessary or unwarranted amounts of attention. Often, even when a news organisation recognises that it was reporting something inaccurately, their apology doesn't reach anywhere near as many people as the original story, meaning sensationalism has the potential to be very damaging.
Recent examples of sensationalism in the Australian media include the way the press reported the 2014 Sydney siege. Many news outlets immediately linked the siege to Islamic State even though this had not been established. Some reporters also got the number of hostages wrong.
Another important example comes from the Brexit campaign in the UK, which used many of the criteria of sensationalism, particularly omitting facts. For instance, one of the campaign's central claims was that £350 million a week goes to the EU. However, due to the rebate system and the money that Britain gets back from the EU, the UK actually only pays around £160 million a week, according to The Telegraph.
Hi @Waterstones I've been locked inside of your Trafalgar Square bookstore for 2 hours now. Please let me out.
— David Willis (@DWill_) October 16, 2014
We're pleased to announce that @DWill_ is a free man once more. Thanks for your concern and tweets!
— Waterstones (@Waterstones) October 16, 2014
What can communication professionals do to tackle sensationalism?
- Investigate – If you get wind of a sensationalist story about your organisation, you first need to check if there's actually any substance to the story. Essential to this is putting yourself in the customer or complainant's shoes. Though whatever your company may have done might not seem so bad in your eyes, as a customer, it might constitute a serious breach of loyalty or trust. If there is any substance to the claim, investigate it thoroughly and issue an informed apology or explanation.
- Use humour and be nice – Many PR professionals use humour to diffuse potentially negative stories. This is particularly the case on Twitter. For example, when UK book store Waterstones accidentally locked a customer in their Trafalgar Square store, they used humour to stop any negativity, which translated to the way the story was reported in the media. Being nice and being funny is seriously underrated when it comes to communication.
- Don't use clickbait – It may be tempting to get your web page traffic up, but in the long run, your audience will be aware you're using clickbait and won't fall for it again.
- Be sure to educate your audience and the media – As soon as you get even so much as a whiff of a potentially sensationalist story, educate both your audience and the news organisation that's been reporting it, so that they are aware of the facts and can both retract the story and make an apology. Doing this will hopefully stop journalists from writing similar stories about your organisation in the future.
There you have it, some simple steps to ensure your communication work doesn't get damaged by sensationalist news stories. For more communication news and trends, visit our Insights page.