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Sensationalism in Mass Media: The Public Enemy

By: Seraph Solana

Cartoon by: Cassius Klai C. Francisco

Informing the public is the first and foremost value of journalism. However, currently, the nature of news has been reworked to cater to our interests. The answer to short attention spans has become intriguing headlines that may or may not hang the truth by a thread.

While there is entertainment journalism, it seems that the tactics used here have now crossed over to news journalism, becoming a double-edged sword. As media practitioners carry the power to wield this sword to carve the truth to the public, they may also use this weapon to slander the integrity of reliable and truthful reports all at the same time. While it is the media's job to inform the public of newsworthy events, today’s definition of ‘newsworthy’ is as vague as something that interests the public or sparks clamor.

‘Hook, line, and sinker’ is the tagline of sensationalism. And every day, we are baited to bite onto this type of editorial tactic that feeds on reactions and emotions instead of providing facts. Under sensationalism, most headlines promise more than they can deliver – such as using controversial phrases to draw in the reader – also well known as clickbait. Clickbait strategy is not necessarily negative; however, if it is paired with content that do not strongly support what was promised in the headlines, this can be a serious problem.

A concrete example of this was shown in a short documentary produced by Journeyman Pictures in 1996 entitled "Media High Life" which tackled the sensationalist nature of the Philippine media after being free from the restraints of Martial Law. The documentary followed Gus Abergara (now known as Gus Abelgas), a field reporter from the notorious news program TV Patrol, who was tailing two stories that day. The first story was about then-incarcerated action star Robin Padilla, who was convicted to serve 14 years in jail for the illegal possession of firearms and the second being an inmate from Camp Crame who was shot dead by prison guards after allegedly running amuck.

As the day concluded, Abergara chose to feature Padilla's story instead. Why? Simple: it is a headline that Filipinos would consume right away.

During that time, TV Patrol was consumed by almost 60 percent of the nation’s viewers. Their reach and influence reached far and beyond. In order to maintain a hold on that statistic, flashy headlines and over-sensationalized news were the way to go. The choice Abergara made still translates into today's journalism, wherein if a story fails to pique a viewer's interest within seconds, it is deemed un-newsworthy and then it fades away from public discourse.

As a result, stories that may be considered tabloid-style or not based on facts are thrust to the front of the news cycle for general consumption while articles that tackle social issues are shelved into the furthest back of the drawer.

The 'stolen' Mall of Asia (MOA) Globe, a publicity stunt in November 2021, is another example of this tabloid-style journalism. Last November 13, a netizen posted a video of the infamous globe under cover of tall scaffoldings at the height of the night. News outlets, even major ones such as CNN and Rappler, were quick to report on the incident. Although Rappler used the hashtag #BrandRap – signifying the news story was for a brand's marketing – the public was swayed to believe that it was true. The MOA Globe was not actually stolen nor was it attempted to be. Hence, the report can be categorized as 'fake news’.

When news sites decide to participate in native advertising or sponsored content then tag or report on it as if it were news, it creates a gateway for misinformation or for trolls to take advantage of the precedent and brand their opinion as the truth. Considering that election season had also started to take place back then, it was more important than ever to eradicate misinformation in the digital space.

As we approach the history-defining #Halalan2022, voters must hold their news sources responsible. Furthermore, every voter should learn to educate themselves and to interpret news reports with caution. Individual research should be conducted and each person should establish their own viewpoint without relying on the opinions of others.

With the current political situation, Filipinos have been left to depend on the closest available resources closest regardless of their reliability. The onset of social media in our society has left our nation’s history and present vulnerable to revisionist attempts. The Philippines is now at a crossroads in its contemporary history. Sparks of political comments online only fuel the fires of hatred, evolving into an even broader gap between Filipinos of opposing beliefs. Media disinformation and partisan politics only further this occurrence.

For our nation to truly progress as a society, we must become educated consumers and hold our media outlets responsible. We should all keep the media in check rather than let the media direct their ideas and opinions so that our country can thrive politically and socially.

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