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Thursday, July 26, 2012


A little background before I get rolling about news and sensationalism. I graduated from the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism. My major was advertising copywriting, but I started in broadcast news before changing areas, and because of my education, I tend to analyze and look at the news and how it's presented in a different way than the general public.

The second thing I'll mention is that one of the reasons I became interested in journalism was reading an old, beat up copy of All the President's Men by Woodward and Bernstein as a young teenager. I think this is why I have a bias toward what journalism should and can be. It also explains why I'm pretty disillusioned by what we're seeing now, but that's a whole other post.

I probably don't have tell you the big story that got me going on this topic--the shooting in Colorado. I do understand the around the clock coverage and I actually agree with it. People will tune in at various times to find out the latest and it was big. My problem came when they started trotting out the experts when no one knew anything and they speculated. Then the speculation, which had pretty much no foundation, is talked about as if it's fact.

This isn't what had me aggravated, though. What triggered this post was an ESPN opinion piece about the NCAA sanctions on Penn State.

I'm not going to link to the article. You'll find out why in a few paragraphs.

The ESPN article referred to the NCAA president as a "generalissimo" and continued on with the South American dictator theme throughout--the inflammatory tone was definitely on purpose. You probably guessed already that the author's opinion was that the sanctions against PSU were wrong.

The NCAA sanction announcement was scheduled for 9am eastern time and the ESPN piece would have been written after that. By the time I read it at lunch break, comments had exploded through the stratosphere. The vast majority of the people were irate--understandably so. I didn't look at the number of tweets and Facebook sharing involved, but I'm betting it was in line with the volume of comments.

And this is exactly what the author wanted. He wanted the comments, he wanted the tweets with a link to the article, he wanted people to link via Facebook to his article. This is why I'm not linking to the article.

You see, the author of this opinion piece could have made his point in a way that people would have read without going ballistic. He could have said something like: "I don't condone child abuse in anyway and clearly the Penn State football program was out of control, but I believe the NCAA acted improperly for these reasons."

If he'd started out in a rational and reasonable manner, most people would have read his article with a more open mind, and even if they disagreed with him, there wouldn't be this avalanche of people calling for him to be fired or calling him a moron.

The author wasn't a moron and ESPN is not going to fire him. No way. He just generated an incredible amount of hits to their website with his inflammatory post.

This is why he wrote the post this way. He doesn't care whether or not anyone saw his point or understood his position. Nope, all he cared about was hyping up the language enough to anger people. He sensationalized his article, doing everything he could to guarantee the kind of reaction he received. It was done well, too. Despite the way I analyze news, it took me until the next day to see what he did and why. It also took me that long to figure out what, exactly, his opinion had been.

Because the language and imagery he used inflamed my emotions, too. He played me and everyone else. All in the name of ratings. Or in this case, hits.

This is what's wrong with news coverage. As big conglomerates bought the news outlets--TV, newspapers, web, radio, etc--it became all about the ratings, about selling copies and not about reporting the news. In fact, there is world news that is important and garners maybe a 15 second mention on US broadcasts--if it's reported at all. These are stories that won't pull in ratings or hits.

I seriously long for the world of journalism that I saw in All the President's Men. I'm not sure it ever really existed outside my imagination, but I still want it to be like that. Instead, we're beyond Don Henley's song Dirty Laundry. Well beyond.