Sensationalism is not a new concept in the media; it can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome with the Acta Diurna, where it served as a means to inform the masses on politics and everyday news.
But now, in our current day and age, sensationalism is dangerous. Through the manipulation of emotion, sensationalist reporting can spark off great movements and further widen cultural rifts within a society, and can even be responsible for perpetuating the most tumultuous controversies of our time.
It can even lead to a moral panic.
To understand the impact of sensationalism one must examine examples of biased coverage that attempts to push a cultural agenda for moral advocacy, the nature of controversies in the media, the exploitative nature of trading objective journalism for a “profit motive”, and how sensational content can damage and ruin the reputation of those involved in a scandal.
Sensationalism and GamerGate: The political agenda to end gamers
“Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers.
“Sensationalism may include reporting about generally insignificant matters and events that don’t influence overall society and biased presentations of newsworthy topics in a trivial or tabloid manner contrary to the standards of professional journalism.” –Wikipedia entry, Sensationalism
Like in past controversies, sensational coverage permeates the landscape of GamerGate, an industry-wide movement that actively scrutinizes and criticizes the collusive, corrupt practices of video games media.
Rather than capture the industry-wide debacle in an objective light, key games media publications such as Gamasutra, Kotaku and Ars Technica took advantage of the situation in order to spin sensationalized content focused on the volatility of any controversy: harassment, socio-political pressures, to name a few.
“‘Gamer’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.” –Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra (Aug. 28, 2014)
These articles brazenly featured such tabloid-esque headlines as “Gamers Don’t Have to be Your Audience, Gamers are Over“,”The Death of the ‘Gamers’ and the Women who ‘Killed’ Them” and “A Guide to Ending ‘Gamers’“, all of which stoked an already-building fire.
In these pieces, the writers — who have large standings within the gaming sphere — argue a clear ideal that “gamers are dead”, a concept that has inflamed its core constituency in an effort to embrace the apparent cultural shift.
The content appeals to the emotions of the reader, presenting certain content in such a way that manipulates the audience’s perspectives to fall in line with their own.
“Some tactics [of sensationalism] include being deliberately obtuse, appealing to emotions, being controversial, intentionally omitting facts and information, being loud and self-centered and acting to obtain attention.”
These outlets capitalized on the major cultural themes of sexism and the growing concerns of misogyny in video games — a concept that has been rigorously argued and spotlighted by Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian — in order to bolster hits and cash in on the controversy.
By portraying GamerGate — and its supporters — in such a way, the media has skewed the debate in a very political way — suggesting a very clear sense of morality that can’t be opposed for fear of being a “misogynist” (or a number of negative cultural identities).
The newest Cracked article, 7 Reasons “Gamergate” Proves Humanity is Doomed, is an excellent example of sensationalism that cashes in on the controversy.
Not so long ago, Cracked allowed Zoe Quinn to write her own piece on the subject of her harassment — a piece that garnered over a million views. Let’s just say that the site has been profiting from this kind of coverage in a rather exploitative manner.
Alleged deflection, collusion and agenda-pushing
Interestingly enough, many GamerGate proponents think that major sites are using sensational content as a means of deflecting the ongoing investigation of corruption in the games journalism field.
By contorting the image that their investigators are “obtuse shitslingers” and “childish internet-arguers”, the general population is pushed toward this conclusion–after all, this is a writer they may like or trust, so it’s easy to take their side.
It has been revealed that many top journos have been using their influence to collude with one another in the Games Journo Pros e-mail list in an effort to control the content that is written and omitted on their sites.
Further evidence of collusion is reinforced by the fact that 14 different websites — from Kotaku to Buzzfeed — published sensationalized GamerGate articles all on the same day.
Mass censorship across 4Chan, Reddit and various key publications is a disconcerting trend that falls right in line with collusive agenda-pushing of the established media base. Certain stories are written with comments turned off by default, effectively provoking emotions without giving those same invoked emotions a platform for discourse.
Moral panic: Storming the (gamer) gates
Key publications serve as entry points to the GamerGate controversy, and when that entry point is full of bias, it spreads to the Internet quite fast. Many readers are making up their minds based on the information skewed by a writer’s personal opinion, consequently being pulled into the argument and pressured to believe the “right side”.
This negative perception of GamerGate proponents, facilitated and nurtured by sensationalized content, shows signs of a small-scale moral panic.
In their book Mass Media (1999), A-level sociology teachers Emma and Marsha Jones define a moral panic as “an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.”
The broader topic of sexism in video games would be the issue at stake, but the behavior of pro-GamerGate followers is being cited as an example as the “misogyny” that’s perpetuated by the video games culture.
Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), says that a moral panic ensues when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.
Wikipedia notes that “those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as folk devils.”
In this case, Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and certain sensationalized publications could be known as the “moral entrepreneurs” and pro-GamerGate followers as “folk devils”.
According to Sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Youda, moral panics have the following consistent characteristics:
- Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.
- Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.
- Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.
- Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
- Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.
Trailing even a small fragment of the GamerGate timeline it becomes evident that these findings are quite relative in the current gaming-centric controversy.
The nature of controversies, scandals and the media
Controversial topics remain one of the most solid and lucrative points of coverage in the media. In a way, journalists are taught to “sniff” out the news the same way bloodhounds follow a fox’s trail–they are trained to identify potential breaking stories and exclusives.
This often leads to some of the most sensationalized mass media content that can have a significant effect on a person or group as well as society as a while. Notable examples include the Clinton/Lewinski scandal, the Casey Anthony Trial and even the Elian Gonzalez affair.
To understand why controversies and scandals are so popular, we have to take a quick look at human nature. Why do people want to read about the most gruesome and terrible things? Why does coverage of racism, sexism, murder, religion and other tales of human woe sell so well?
Newspapers, magazines and online content allow everyday people to traverse the world in the comfort of their own home. It might be something like seeing a scary movie, where people can subject themselves to a vicarious thrill without being subjected to the actual repercussions of an event.
Why are these publications doing this? What could they hope to gain?
“One presumed goal of sensational reporting is to increase or sustain viewership or readership, from which media outlets can price their advertising higher to increase their profits based on higher numbers of viewers and/or readers.”
“Sometimes this can lead to a lesser focus on objective journalism in favor of a profit motive, in which editorial choices are based upon sensational stories and presentations to increase advertising revenue.”
Reporting on scandals is a lucrative enterprise that’s encouraged simply for its gains in profit. For many online-based mediums, more hits means more ad revenue, and that means more cash flow for the company or publication. This kind of ruthless take on generating views has some very real consequences, and is often a dual-edged sword.
In the written form, sensationalism offers a unique opportunity for a writer to marry their personal beliefs with their professional medium. Writers can easily spin a narrative that falls in line with a popular agenda and then reap the rewards that come with being on the “right side”.
The problem with sensationalism, though, is that it severely lowers the credibility of publications. Tabloids have sold millions of copies of sensationalist content throughout the years, but as a result it compromises their integrity and reputation.
The National Enquirer, for example, will never be known for objective newsworthy content–it’ll always be known for its reporting on Bigfoot, botched alien autopsies, and other ridiculous–if not entertaining–notions.
The ethical implications of sensationalism
If the past has taught us anything, its that biased and sensational coverage can jeopardizes the safety and reputation of those surrounded by controversial events.
This sensationalism introduces and keeps focus on the center of a scandal while pushing an agenda–which in turn invites provocation, both negative (fighting, dissent) and positive (attracting new “followers”).
The continued harassment of Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian has a causal link to sensationalist reporting, as it directly sparks emotion and perpetuates a skewed perspective of the controversy. That angst is then vetted on the perceived targets of the scandals themselves — much the same way the content in question targets GamerGate users who have yet to insult anyone.
“…public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.
“Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
–Preamble to Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists
This dangerous circle is an end result of the effect of moral panic as well as the sensationalism that occurs when professional and personal ethics are blurred together.
Furthermore controversial figures are elevated to a risky level of fame, and as such, its the media’s responsibility to carefully tread on the side of objectivity and non-partial reporting.
All journalists are encouraged to practice the principle of “limitation of harm”, one of the major tenants in the Standards and Ethics of Journalism.
“Limitation of harm” calls for the exclusion of certain details–names of crime victims or witnesses, minor children–that can cause harm to one’s reputation. These details can safely be omitted when they aren’t materially related to news coverage and put a figure or group at unnecessary risk of personal or professional harm.
Not doing so can not only put the publication at needless jeopardy by alienating a core constituency, but also making an unintentional target for one side to fight against. This in turn puts those involved at risk of peril on a professional or personal level.
The reticence of covering of The Zoe Post back when the news broke in August may have been a practice of “limitations of harm” on the part of journalists, however the Games Journo Pros logs point to a general air of favor rather than impartial neutrality.
The content is encouraged to be omitted when defamatory, and the reluctance (and outright dismissive attitude) of key journos to cover the scandalous links between Quinn and Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson points to a sense of cronyism and collusion rather than professional ethics.
Further biased coverage inflames the opposition, thus making the entire debacle even more strenuous and serious, provoking the continuation of the struggle. If the media is profiting from the struggle, however, it’s far less likely sensationalist reporting will stop.
This kind of coverage seems to be wholly counter-intuitive to the equal-rights agenda that many of these publications are embracing (arguing against sexism in gaming, etc) simply because they are unaware that their actions are inadvertently provoking retaliation to the very figure they’re trying to defend.
Bias and sensationalism are incredibly potent forces in the media, but with this kind of power, comes a very real responsibility. This kind of coverage can stir up an entire society and lead to disastrous groupthink mobs that will stop at nothing to extinguish a perceived threat.
The last few weeks have shown that the games journalism media needs to take more care in the content it curates, and to reflect a higher standard of journalistic integrity. The public, and the readers, are calling for accountability and reform, and GamerGate has become a revolt on a consumer level.
Sensationalism may be lucrative, but that cost comes at a price; and right now it looks as if the publications are being prompted to pay their debts in full.