Sensationalism: The Real Mind Killer

Sensationalism is nothing new. It has existed since the dawn of news and has thrived simply because it often sells. Nothing gets people paying attention like fear, tragedy and the fall of the “big guy.” For those reasons we are often barraged by local and national news about things that are likely to kill us, maim us, poison us, steal our jobs, hate our country, ruin our way of life or generally just anger us. In between stories about murders, rapes and Paris Hilton (or Chelsea Clinton, if you prefer) we are barraged with advertising that we often have no choice but to pay attention to, and thus the cycle repeats.

Yet while sensationalism typically sits in the isle of entertainment, sometimes it crosses over to the serious side, attempting to secretly jettison dangerous “facts” into the territory of legitimacy. Fear is an easy motivator and when used to political ends it can be devastating to the truth, despite who it tramples in the process. Take the recent case of Shirley Sherrod.

I’ll save you a deep explanation, but here is the short version: Sherrod was the Georgia state director for the US Department of Agriculture. She was forced to resign after clips of an address she gave at an NAACP event made her to look “racist” in the eyes of conservative bloggers. This information was parroted by smaller news organizations until major ones started picking it up and running with it. It was a golden goose — everyone was suddenly paying attention to it and simply saying the name brought in plenty of traffic (or viewers, if you prefer). The only problem? It was all bogus. The video was edited to show a certain point of view. Despite this, the circus ran for weeks.

Still — mistakes sometime happen, right? No big deal?

The problem here lies with the fact that no one decided to sit down and check the source, something that every journalism student learns to do in a 101 class. Not doing such things and taking things for granted simply blows all ethics out of the water — as well as all trust for the “journalists” for running such a story without doing the research for themselves. Don’t be fooled, though — the motivation here wasn’t simply laziness — it was advertising dollars. In order to keep viewers glued to their televisions networks (and their journalists) had to run the same story as their peers as fast as possible, as to not look “slow” in this age of instant journalism. Not only that, but the story had to be sensationalized in order to sell — it was tagged with words like racism, hate and hypocrisy. There was no accountability. There was no “fact checking.” There was only the dollar and the possibility of losing it, so everyone looked the other way.

Truth be damned. The story of nothing was lit on fire and paraded through the streets — and a new generation got a front row seat to yellow journalism in its purest form.

The story isn’t always political, though. Sometimes it is just a love for the big guy to fall. It’s some secret human desire we all seem to have — we all love to see the big -whatever- fall and crumble at our feet. It doesn’t matter if it is a Hollywood star, a major corporation or any sort of public figure whatsoever. We are aware that everyone makes mistakes and everyone is human — but when someone who isn’t us trips up, we can’t wait to sit and feast like vultures. Enter Google.

This morning the giant was picked at by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and others.

Google, with their motto of “don’t be evil” have always been a favorite of internet and technology geeks everywhere. We love their search engine, their browser, their phone OS and pretty much everything that they put out. They seem to be a legitimate company who is honest, something rare in today’s age. In addition, they stand behind one of the biggest pillars of the internet generation — net neutrality. They have always been an adamant supporter of the concept. They aren’t exactly secret about it either — they have a whole category for it right on their blog!

Yet according to the previous articles by the NYT and WSJ, everything crumbled this morning. The hero was in contract with the corporate villain of Verizon! They were in talks to apparently push net neutrality to the side, to sign a contract ignoring their own principles. Or… were they?

Google immediately issued a tweet against the NYT:

@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.

Gizmodo, the technology blog, also managed to receive communication from VZW stating that the articles released by the NYT and WSJ were false. So where is the truth here? Apparently the story was so flimsy that Gizmodo removed their own article on the subject after only a few hours. Now tech news sites such as PC Mag are questioning the validity of the root articles. How is it that technology magazines and their readership — arguably the ones who brought in (and embraced) digital, fast news — are the ones being patient and picking stories apart rather than their major news counterparts who are supposed to be the experts at this sort of thing?

Did the NYT or WSJ even consider the impact of their articles? Or did they just know how much traffic and interest they would pull in and knew that they weren’t reporting the facts 100%?

Even though the Google news “slip” is far cry from the media circus caused by Shirley Sharrod, they certainty have some things in common. The focus on “breaking the story” for the sake of traffic, readership and viewer-ship is for sure a dangerous one — and as consumers of news, we all need to be aware of it, or else we will fall for the sensationalism and have our minds melt into the proverbial soup of junk journalism.

Still, this sort of thing really isn’t anything new — it is just becoming more obvious now-a-days. Luckily enough for us we live in a digital age were information is everywhere. While the truth is sometimes buried deep within that information, scattered about and covered in muck, it is apparent that we stand a much better chance of finding it with our own hands instead of waiting on the news conglomerate to find it for us.


The Gizmodo article is back up ( and seems to have another couple comments. With more details coming out the story seems less nefarious, as I anticipated. It seems like the NYT and WSJ are also updating their articles as well — which is great, except it is hours after the rebuttal. Wouldn’t have been smarter to report the story as “talks” between both companies and then expand on that later?

Oh, of course. That isn’t interesting enough.

3 thoughts on “Sensationalism: The Real Mind Killer

  1. I am not certain what I like more, your disgust at the lack of integrity surrounding us or the fact that you’re clear-eyed enough to see it in the first place.

    Good article.

  2. Pingback: The Googocolypse? Not quite…

  3. Sensationalism at it’s worst: O’Keefe, pimp. The whole video scandal was fake, of course, but the damage was already done. The whole thing could have just been a shitty YouTube video your racist grandfather might send you in an e-mail, but FOX picked it up and all of a sudden O’Keefe was been paraded around as the prodigal son, doing what professional journalists and the rest of the mainstream media couldn’t.

    These articles are awesome, you are awesome. :C

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