Sensationalism in the media.

This article was first published on the online publication THE BIG SMOKE here

The question put to me which initially inspired this article was “Why is sensationalism still so effective in our supposed Enlightened Age?”

With full knowledge of the irony, I became irrationally aggravated at the idea that anyone would be confused as to why sensationalism is effective. To really double down on that irony, I became wildly frustrated with the arrogance I perceived in the concept that our comparatively more educated populace would garner the title of Enlightened.

So the sensationalist headline for this article could be: “Angry psychologist condescends to audience.”

Sensationalism in journalism is best defined for my purposes as the amplification of the aspects of a news story that might elicit an emotional response. This is used to both sell the advertising that will be attached to the story and to draw more popular attention to a cause that is considered worthy by its author. Considering the tsunami of information that floods us every day, journalists (or editors) will use sensationalism in an attempt to have their story stand out from the rest.

This leaves us with the second part of the initial question…why does this sensationalism still work?

Understandably, in this information age, we cannot consume in-depth knowledge about every newsworthy item that passes before us. We will not always have the energy or inclination to pick through the nuance of every world event with which we’re presented. From an evolutionary perspective, our brain still considers any energy we expend as precious (regardless of how much is in the fridge), so if we can find a shortcut by which to navigate the world, we will use it. Thereby, if you make a news headline that is a red rag to the inner bull, it means you have engaged with a shortcut that says to the reader’s brain, “Pay attention.”

It is these shortcuts (very necessary psychological phenomenon) that should remind us that enlightenment is a never-ending pursuit. To some, considering ourselves enlightened is to imagine that we will always be aware of the context of every decision we make. What ruins that utopian goal, is that the most important consideration for any animal is that it is safe. One way to be safe is to know your environment well, to be aware of its dangers. For someone to suggest that we are not aware of our environment is to directly challenge our sense of safety. To base our opinion on our own experiences and emotional reactions will help fill the holes that we will regularly find in our knowledge of the world.

This maintains an illusion of safety.

A good example of our desire for safety is manifest in the idea that there is much emotion involved when considering what is more superior: book-smarts or street-smarts. It is a defence against the scary concept that perhaps what you know is not enough. The more emotional you become when presented with a news story, the more strongly you will feel that your answers are the right ones. This confidence makes us feel safe about the world and will inform our decisions about it, especially our voting decisions. Confidence quickly and haphazardly born from an emotional response can often be a sign that you are desperate to defend assumptions as old as you are.

The older the assumption, the more closely it is tied to many of the ways you have grown up to understand the world around you. Pull at that one thread and it usually unties a number of rules you use every day. It is a scary feeling to consider that a number of assumptions you have based your safety on have been inaccurate or even wrong. It unties your sense of reality. Imagine the horror that you might experience when you wake up one day and your casual racism has been freshly coded as the sign of an obsolete thinker. “Oh, when will this political correctness end!?”, you will scream.

As an adjunct to that horror, there was a recent, somewhat strangely self-reflexive, article on the ABC website that complained of the soft liberal rhetoric of comedians we are all exposed to currently. It referenced everyone from Adam Hills to Tim Minchin, to Charlie Pickering, and proposed that their like were assisting everyone with a sense of left-leaning social justice, or faith in the scientific, to snigger at and shame those who didn’t know better…that this was the new sensationalism, appealing to our sense of self-righteousness, without nuanced discussion. The article itself came across as a fear-of-left-leaning social justice article – especially considering the author opened with the consideration that good comedy helps us challenge our views, but then did little to provide a description of why these specific comedians fell short, aside from being too preachy.

The greater thrust of the article is an interesting one though, because ultimately it points to how the status quo can change via the emotional channels of shaming through humour. That often, regardless of our intentions we are not able to sit our enemies down and help change their minds with a thorough PowerPoint presentation. In my opinion, excellent comedy will introduce nuance to a discussion by exposing us all as frauds – making us all feel unsafe. The outrageous laughter they elicit is to soften the blow that we are all implicit in one crime or another.

Perhaps then the best question anyone can ask themselves is, does this new information leave me truly unsafe?