On Media Sensationalism

May 16, 11 On Media Sensationalism

I hold the opinion that melodramatic segments of African media houses hold too much sway in the industry. I therefore find many headlines, photos and sound bites too over the top to warrant attention. Two incidents in Kenya and South Africa caught my interest mainly for the sensationalism that surrounded them. Besides the fact that the two stories shared the similarity of protagonists appearing in court, I thought of no connection whatsoever. Nevertheless, the degree of rumour mongering and speculation that had circled these events provided me an awareness that led me to build a comparison regarding the nature of hyped news items.

The first incident was Winnie Mandela’s ‘embrace’ of Julius Malema captured in a cheekily titled “PHOTO OF WINNIE KISSING MALEMA” as the latter left court on one of his recent appearances. Expecting a spectacularly scandalous photo I was disappointed to find a snapshot meant to play mind games on whoever stared at it too long. In the second incident, one of Kenya’s leading dailies reported the loss of $10 million by one of the International Criminal Court (ICC) suspects on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi from The Hague. Though the article named no names it was full of innuendo and a spontaneous internet buzz targeted at Uhuru Kenyatta, the son to the country’s first president currently serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance. It was later reported that all that was lost was a bag containing an ipad and cell phones.

I dislike the sensationalism for its deliberate generation of loud attention-seeking, self-centered and theatrical nature. Driven by elaborate corporate structures of media networks, advertising agencies and sponsors, it combines show business, advertising and news. I am averse to the negative effects of the inefficiencies that arise from all three. Considering the almost miraculous power of the media, these influences directly affect society, culture and heritage by encouraging escapism, indifference and insulation from the realities of their contexts.

Mainly by the means of distraction, media sensationalism erodes society’s awareness, media practitioners’ skill and the perseverance needed in the contemplation of critical issues. It creates imbalance by reaching the largest possible audience through the absence of a sustained study of content. Often rash, easily sold, and chronically forgetful, sensationalist information only serves to entertain and amuse as driven by its apologists notions of always giving the public what it wants.
Such notions are obviously contemptuous of the public in both developed and developing pluralistic societies that are more reasonable, restrained and mature than is believed. As Edward R. Murrow pointed out in 1958, this denies the public a presentation of controversial subjects in a fair and calm manner that illuminates rather than agitates within reason and restraint. It doesn’t prick any consciences or value the importance of ideas.

However, on looking at these two stories I began to feel that maybe there is a place for sensationalism. What if, in transmitting this kind of melodrama, the media actually goes beyond frivolity by directing societies to where the hard and demanding truths they must face in order to prosper reside? What if in providing shock value reports, the media actually works in the public interest by providing a tinge of information, which leads individuals onto more important issues? That by depicting Malema’s character and or his antics in a slightly exaggerated way, societies may eventually take a hard and clinical look at issues such as race relations; nationalization; and the politics of the presidency. That by portraying Uhuru Kenyatta as a careless; silver spoon raised politician of ill gotten wealth, a broader awareness on the analysis of the ICC and its relevance to the Kenyan nation and the continent may be achieved.

Ultimately, I hold nothing against the media sales, yet I believe it must go beyond that. As an institution that reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it flourishes; the media must bear responsibility to teach, illuminate and inspire. Therefore if it must use all means within its power to do this, without being libellous, obscene or defamatory, I will just have to stomach it.

Image by Zoetnet