Sensationalism is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “the presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.“, and is a synonym of phenomenalism. The way Maddow framed the release of President Trump’s 2005 returns holds up this definition, but sensationalism has been a vital organ of journalism since the 16th century.
As much as it may anger people, sensationalism sells, whether it’s papers, clicks, or TV ratings. In it’s earlier days, it was used to sell papers to people in the lower class, people who had less of a need to thoroughly understand political and economic matters. It’s even been used in literature, “Sensation Novels” showing how the publishing industry could capitalize on stories that tackled social anxieties. In 2017, it’s best seen online.
Click-bait and view-bait is all around us. On the surface, the answer as to why is clear. The more views a TV show gets, and the more clicks an article by a major publication gets, the more money it makes. Speaking in terms of the TV news industry, it’s all about the ratings. Maddow tweeting to well over 6.6 million followers that she had Trump tax returns and would be revealing them on her show was a move to get more ratings, something that people on both sides of the political spectrum can recognize. But does that make justify it on the ethical side? The answer to that is not so clear cut.
Many say that Maddow’s actions tonight were a breach of journalistic ethics for the sake of short term ratings, some pointing out that the TV journalism industry cares more about ratings than journalism. View bait as a sacrificial lamb for ratings has become a hot topic in recent times, CNN and coming under fire for discussing the unverified “Golden Showers” leak. While this does not excuse relentless attacks on the media, some criticism is fair. To those on the critical side, nothing should be reported unless it’s is 100% vetted, to deliver the most accurate coverage to the people. Journalists on the other side, a group fairly younger than their critics, argue that truth can emerge through trial and error. The line in the sand between these two groups makes it hard to find a clear answer to what is right and wrong in journalism, but that line may be getting washed away soon, as people on both sides can be found working in the same newsrooms, with the same end goal of delivering accurate news.
Rachel Maddow-gate, which some are comparing to the opening of Al Capone’s vault, is not the first instance of sensationalism being used to push for ratings, and it certainly won’t be the last.