It Matters How Things Get Interesting: Against Editorial Sensationalism

In addition to their traditional responsibilities, editors today are increasingly involved in sales and marketing. Kelli Korducki, senior news editor at Brit + Co., says that “the most challenging aspect of being an editor today” is “finding and keeping readers … At the end of the day it’s about producing good stuff, but it’s also about PACKAGING that good stuff in a way that will make people find it” (Bylined).

During our book project, I had the opportunity to consider the ethics surrounding the “packaging” of books about important social issues involving traumatic human experiences, including refugees separated from their families and the epidemic of deaths due to opioid overdose. There are good reasons for our interest in stories like this; trauma “incorporate[s] the essence of human experience—both the adversity and the growth, the horror and the beauty” (Figley xxiii). But I felt uncomfortable strategizing how best to translate an experience of loss or pain into profit, or capitalizing on whatever social issue most recently went viral. And I felt irresponsible when, in order to prioritize sales, I was encouraged to sensationalize content that could influence public opinion about important laws or policies.

If a message is worth publishing, a good editor will deliver it to the broadest possible audience without diluting the spirit of that message, and without misinforming readers about grave social issues. In this paper I argue that, especially when editing stories involving traumatic human experiences, we owe it to authors, readers, and our communities to lift up what is interesting and important in a story without resorting to harmful sensationalist tactics.

 

The Usefulness of Sensationalism?

Because of severe market pressures in publishing, any strategy to increase revenue can mean the difference between folding or living to break even another day. In “Sensationalism and the Economics of News Media,” Patrice Keats discusses how journalists appeal to “voyeuristic tendencies by presenting unexpected or traumatic events … to gain readership. Marketing needs and maintenance of high ratings are a key focus” (605). Keats describes a study that found this type of sensational news was “more often about crime, disaster, and scandal; offered less varied perspectives on the issues but gave more background information; and spent more time being instructive about the issues” (605).

On the other hand, nonsensational news offered “descriptions of processes and context, historical perspectives, or the consequences of events,” presented “judgments about different points of view, gave attributions for credibility, and used multiple sources of information” (Keats 605). Still, the researchers acknowledged the “useful aspects of sensational coverage for ways to inform the public about important issues” (605). After all, “sensationalist techniques could also be used to communicate topics that are normally considered less interesting by the general population” (605). On this view, sensationalism is permissible and useful when it effectively raises awareness of the issue at hand.

The forces that determine what is considered “interesting by the general population” are at the centre of my concern with sensationalism. Public interest not only shapes, but is itself shaped by what is published. If journalism does not prioritize context, history, consequences, different points of view, or credibility, what exactly is left to raise the public’s awareness of? This inherent poverty in sensationalist tactics limits their usefulness in driving public awareness. While “all publicity is good publicity” might be true for sales, “all awareness is good awareness” does not hold for the social issues driving those sales. Sensationalist tactics can distort the public’s perception of the nature of the issue itself.

 

Case Study: Opioid Overdose

Drugs are a prime subject for sensationalism. It is standard to dramatize the gore and the shock, the perceived hopelessness, and the inevitability of death or ruin, all to the effect of distilling a complex societal issue into one about individual failings. The stories emphasize the hopelessness of drug addiction; the public wrings their hands and concludes that only a fool or a morally unworthy person would ever go and use drugs. The stories also emphasize the redemption of abstinence-based recovery or “staying clean.” Dr. Claire D. Clark writes that sensationalist coverage promotes a “crisis-driven mentality” (Clark) toward the opioid overdose emergency that leads to sporadic, short-lived, and cynical support for treatment and other solutions.

Leaving a serious public health emergency in the hands of inexpert public opinion can lead directly to harmful policy. Zoe Dodd, a community health care worker and harm reduction activist, explains:

[W]hen SARS happened, they created networks, they had all these meetings. They didn’t go to the public and say, “We found the solution for stopping SARS is handwashing—let’s hold public consultation for the next 15 days to see how the public feels about handwashing.” But with anything to do with drug users, we have to go through all these things, even in an emergency, to get advice from the public. It slows it down. They got a handle on SARS really quickly. … It makes me so mad because this is about drug users. It’s not just about people who use drugs though—the majority of the people in Vancouver, the proportion is Aboriginal people, homeless people, people who are poor. These are not people the government cares about. (Tierney)

This is the heart of the issue of sensationalizing drug use. It is part of a feedback loop that starts with people who are already isolated and dehumanized in society, and individualizes their stories by emphasizing the drama and individual pain, ignoring the larger contexts of stigma and misinformation and the “boring” laws and policies that led us to this crisis. The result: further isolation, further dehumanization, and no meaningful change.

I briefly considered whether the book was for grieving loved ones or for the general public, but the question is moot; the general public is full of grieving loved ones. The number of people recently affected by opioid overdose has never been higher. How many relatives, partners, friends, and coworkers have become experts? Having lost so many, readers do not need any more “shock” books; consider their awareness raised. It is time to talk about what must be done.

An example both of this current climate, and of the necessity for alternatives to sensationalism, is an op-ed by Lisa Lapointe, Chief Coroner of the BC Coroners Service, in which she strongly condemns fear-based initiatives. “Evidence suggests,” she says, that such initiatives “are not effective in saving lives. Additionally, they tend to increase the stigma surrounding drug use and actually discourage people from seeking help” (Lapointe). She echoes research suggesting that “policy-makers and advertisers focus more on providing their target audiences with a number of strategies to cope with the threat they are trying to address, rather than increasing the level of threat or fear arousal in the advertisements” (Lapointe). Importantly, she specifies that “image-use needs to be very strategic in awareness campaigns. For example, those with lived experience tell us that images featuring drug paraphernalia can act as a trigger, resulting in the desire to use and causing more harm. We also know that periods of abstinence result in reduced tolerance; putting drug users at higher risk for death” (Lapointe).

These fear-based strategies and imagery are excellent examples of the decades-long attempt to raise awareness of drug use with sensationalist strategies that traditionally see abstinence as the only possible positive outcome. In contrast, effective strategies for supporting drug users to survive include “empathy for the lifelong process of recovery” (Clark) and normalizing “the lived experience of recovery” (Clark).

 

The Need for Sensationalism?

Suppose I am right that sensationalism is not always as useful as we think, and that it might sometimes be harmful. Perhaps it is still presumptuous or naïve to demand that editors set aside the tactic of sensationalism, or to think that editors have any control at all over the direction they take. Darren Wershler writes that, especially in literary small presses, “in exchange for retaining some degree of control over the editing and design of your books, you often have to place your own money on the line to run your publishing company yourself. Creating the conditions in which one has access to the full spectrum of editorial work requires a substantial degree of financial and personal risk in order to even presume to have one’s hand on the levers of culture” (Wershler 232). Not everyone has the luxury of foregoing a useful strategy for increasing clicks and engagement. Still, I hope that even if we have to crank up the drama, adhering strongly to high standards for truth and ethics in a world of alternative facts and fake news can only help with our mission.

Furthermore, a continuous ramping up of what it takes to be really sensational can weaken any useful effects of sensationalism we saw in the first place. Back in 1994, Susan D. Moeller wrote in Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, “It takes more and more dramatic coverage to elicit the same level of sympathy as the last catastrophe” (14). The result is “a prior restraint on the media. Editors and producers don’t assign stories and correspondents don’t cover events that they believe will not appeal to their readers and viewers” (Moeller 2). The same limiting effect is true for book publishing and for print and online periodicals today.

Moeller wrote that before smartphones; we can imagine how this fatigue has settled in over the last two decades. Today, compassion fatigue might be just one in a family of various fatigues. Our emotions and attentions are competed for aggressively by an unprecedented amount of information, and some of it comes from people who make the tabloids seem level-headed. Andrew Stroehlein, communications director of the non-profit International Crisis Group, once said that “citizen journalism is like citizen dentistry” (D. Campbell); today’s media landscape is saturated with untrained “citizen journalists” who are not accountable to any standards. It seems more sustainable to opt out of this system, in which clicks are auctioned off individually to the loudest bidder, in favour of pursuing an authorship and readership who are responsive to facts and reason.

 

Healing Potential of Stories

When possible, editors should seek to elevate the potential for individual and collective healing, and for hope of positive social change. Anna B. Baranowsky explains some of the reasons many Holocaust survivors wrote extensively about their experiences:

The therapeutic use of oral histories has been linked to [an] early need to expose Nazi brutality, to put one’s life in order, to break the vacuum of silence that survivors often succumb to, and to commit memories to a public format in order to facilitate the mourning process. This procedure also ensures that family and friends who were lost regain their names and personalities rather than simply remaining a statistic—one of the 6 million who were murdered. (148)

Baranowsky also discusses “the importance of the creation of coherent episodes out of chaotic events as a means of reestablishing a sense of identity as well as gaining some control over feelings of helplessness” (Baranowsky 148). This creation of meaning through a careful consideration and exchange of ideas is what draws me to the practice of editing.

Interior Salish scholar, children’s author and poet Nicola I. Campbell has been influential in my understanding of the relationship between the stories we tell and our responsibilities to our communities. She writes that the

continual retelling of stories that depict the most shattered, colonized and fragmented version of ourselves as Indigenous people without showing our transformational opposite—our best selves: our healing, joy, and achievements, and especially our journey to transformation—is a form of narrative violence that validates erroneous and incomplete truths. (N. Campbell 1)

Instead, in her storywork, she explores how traditions of Indigenous narrative can be used to see and to show this healing, joy, and achievements. Focusing on resurgence in present-day Indigenous storytelling (N. Campbell 1), she prioritizes giving hope to the youth of our communities. Campbell’s writing, as well as Dr. Greg Younging’s concept of reclamation vs. extraction in Indigenous literature (Cariou), have influenced my understanding of exactly how sensationalism can work to produce real harm in communities. But more importantly, Campbell and Younging’s ideas, and my experiences as an editor and a reader, have helped me to see the transformational power we have to bring hope and light to the world by the stories we choose to tell and how we tell them.

 

 

Works Cited

Baranowsky, Anna B. “Conspiracy of Silence.” Encyclopedia of Trauma, edited by Charles R. Figley, SAGE Publications, 2012, Thousand Oaks CA.

“Bylined: Women in Journalism: Kelli Korducki.” SheDoesTheCity.com, 29 March 2016, http://www.shedoesthecity.com/bylined-women-in-journalism-kelli-korducki

Campbell, Deborah. “The Most Hated Name in News.” TheWalrus.ca, 12 October 2009, The Walrus Foundation, https://thewalrus.ca/the-most-hated-name-in-news/

Campbell, Nicola I. “Spilaxem: Resurgence and Transformation in Present-Day Indigenous Storytelling.” Unpublished PhD diss., UBC Okanagan, 2017.

Cariou, Warren, Karen Clark, Marc Coté, Joann Gerber, Margie Wolf, Greg Younging. “Best Practices in Indigenous Publishing.” Indigenous Editing Circle / Editing Indigenous Manuscripts Workshops, 2017, Humber College, Etobicoke, ON.

Clark, Claire D. “How Sensationalism Compounds the Opioid Crisis.” WashingtonPost.com, 5 July 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/07/05/how-sensationalism-compounds-the-opioid-crisis/?utm_term=.6ac7d2e9cebc

Figley, Charles R. “Introduction.” Encyclopedia of Trauma, edited by Charles R. Figley, SAGE Publications, 2012, Thousand Oaks CA (xxiii).

Keats, Patrice A. “Sensationalism and the Economics of News Media.” Encyclopedia of Trauma, edited by Charles R. Figley, SAGE Publications, 2012, Thousand Oaks CA.

Lapointe, Lisa. “Scare Tactics Less Effective in Overdose Crisis.” BC Gov News, Public Safety and Solicitor General, 2 December 2017, https://news.gov.bc.ca/factsheets/scare-tactics-less-effective-in-overdose-crisis

Moeller, Susan D. “Introduction.” Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, Routledge, 1999, New York (2). ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sfu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=180279

Tierney, Allison. “Meet the Harm Reduction Worker Who Called Out Trudeau on the Opioid Crisis.” Vice.com, 25 April 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/ez3m5a/meet-the-harm-reduction-worker-who-called-out-trudeau-on-the-opioid-crisis

Wershler, Darren. “The Ethically Incomplete Editor.” Editing as Cultural Practice in Canada, edited by Dean Irvine and Smaro Kamboureli, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2016, Waterloo, ON (225-38).

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