Sensationalism Research Paper

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Certain events, even when reported accurately and without exaggeration, elicit intense reactions. Some such sensational stories—illustrated by O. J. Simpson standing trial in 1995 for a double homicide and R. Gordon Wasson’s description in 1957 of an ancient religious ritual in which psychedelic mushrooms were eaten—are justifiable given the novelty of the phenomena described.

Reports tainted by fraud or disregard for truth deserve censure.

Fraudulent reports are often sensational. For example, a Washington Post reporter, Janet Cooke, won a Pulitzer Prize in April 1981 for her tall tale about “Jimmy,” an eight-year-old boy allegedly addicted to heroin since age five. Cooke’s story aroused considerable pity among readers. Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and other city officials promptly started searching for Jimmy, the innocent victim of a heroin dealer. Before Cooke’s fabricated story was published in the Post on September 28, 1980, Cooke lied to enlist her editors’ sympathy, claiming she could not reveal her “sources” because

she “promised them anonymity and her life was threatened by the drug pushers involved” (Stein 1993, p. 130). Cooke’s credibility was shattered after autobiographical information she supplied to the Pulitzer Prize committee was released—and was proven to be false. Washington Post editors subsequently scrutinized some 145 pages of notes and tape-recorded interviews but discovered no evidence that “she actually interviewed a heroin-addicted child” (Stein 1993, p. 131). Cooke confessed and resigned, at the Post’s request. The Pulitzer Prize was returned, for the first time in its sixty-four-year history.

Mayor Barry, the Pulitzer Prize committee, and Cooke’s colleagues were blinded by their pity for an innocent child, combined perhaps with anger at his mother and the drug dealers blamed for having addicted them. Cooke feigned fear to circumvent her editors’ request that she identify Jimmy and other “sources” for her then unpublished story.

Pity, fear, and anger—powerful emotions Cooke exploited to sell her story—are integral to pathos, an emotionally oriented persuasive device discussed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The Greek word pathos is the root of the English word “pathetic,” a term whose negative connotations imply unjustifiable sensationalism.

Sensational stories often are written by reporters afflicted with excessive pathos, usually arousing the same emotions in their audience that interfered with their own capacity for critical thinking. The “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer is a famous example. Their newspapers’ coverage of Cuban-Spanish conflicts between 1895 and 1898 routinely exaggerated the suffering of Cuban rebels in order to arouse pity for them and anger at allegedly tyrannical Spaniards. Anti-Spanish media propaganda involved some deceit, as well as outrageous yet unverified reports, as when the American battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor in 1898. Many reporters, especially Hearst employees, rushed to judgment, proclaiming that Spain had mined the Maine, killing 260 Americans. Most historians agree that America’s decision to wage war against Spain was partly the result of such careless reporting. Research conducted in the 1970s concluded that an accident caused the Maine’s destruction.

Pathos-driven accounts of breast implants in the 1990s illustrate irresponsible sensationalism without intentional deceit. The journalist John Stossel has explained how and why victims’ anecdotes alleging that silicone breast implants caused cancer and autoimmune disease became fashionable during the 1990s. Scientific facts and evidence were ignored because “the women’s fear and anger were palpable” (Stossel 2004, p. 105). According to doctors, about 1 percent of all women who had breast implants had connective tissue disease. Most reporters saw that as proof of causality, ignoring the fact that 1 percent of all women who had not had transplants also got that disease (Stossel 2004, p. 106). If silicone implants truly cause connective tissue disease, then the percentage of women afflicted by that disease would be significantly higher than the percentage of women who never had breast implants. Media hysteria prompted a federal prohibition on silicone breast implants from 1992 to 2006, unless prescribed for reconstructive surgery following mastectomy.

Anthropologists have been implicated in scandals after publishing controversial claims before diligently attempting to verify their facts. Ashley Montagu, commenting on the anthropologist Robert Zingg’s acceptance of unverified claims about two feral “wolf-children” allegedly found inside a den near a village in India, warned that “no scientist can accept as true any statement … until it has been independently confirmed by others” (quoted in Zingg 2004, p. 233). Zingg’s startling book, Wolf- Children and Feral Man (1942), was abhorrent to most social scientists, for whom verification is indispensable to achieving the primary purpose of scientific research: accumulating accurate information.

Margaret Mead’s sensational declaration that Samoan teenagers enjoyed premarital sexual freedom was welcomed by most social scientists eager for evidence that nurture rather than nature produced adolescent stress. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) was, by the 1960s, the most widely read of all anthropology books (Freeman 1996, p. 105). Mead’s seductive story about Samoan sexuality became indefensible after one of her adolescent female informants confessed in 1987 to Derek Freeman (1996, p. viii) that she and a friend had gleefully concocted anecdotes implying that premarital sex was standard Samoan practice. Mead erred by rushing to endorse—and publish—those hoaxers’ accounts, even though, as Freeman notes, her own research data indicated that at least 60 percent of the adolescent females in her sample were virgins.

More infamous anthropological examples of sensationalism involve outright deception For forty years Piltdown Man, excavated near Sussex, England, was celebrated as the “missing link”; proof that humans evolved from apes. In 1953, scientific tests showed that this sixhundred- year-old skull was spurious; a new orangutan jaw and teeth had been cleverly filed and attached to the human skull. For financial gain, in 1971 Manuel Elizalde fabricated the Tasaday tribe, an allegedly “Stone-Age” people

surviving in the Philippines. Carlos Castaneda’s claim, that he was the apprentice of a Yaqui Indian sorcerer, made him a best-selling author and a doctor in anthropology before he was denounced as a hoaxer. Whatever these tricksters’ motives, they intended to benefit by using deception to persuade people that their astonishing allegations were true.

Preventing or reducing the number of reports that are concocted (e.g., Elizalde, Castaneda) or careless (e.g., Zingg, Mead) probably requires both the enforcement of harsher professional penalties for such malpractice and increasing the rewards for researchers (debunkers) whose critical thinking and adherence to high scholarly standards advance social scientific knowledge. Deterring journalists

from publishing stories infected with unjustified sensationalism, however, will be difficult given America’s deep commitment to freedom of the press and the media’s imperative to sell news. Readers need skepticism and intellectual ability to identify unjustified sensationalism and unverified stories, distinguishing those from honest, verified, and important news or scholarly reports.


  1. Fikes, Jay C. 1993. Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism, and the Psychedelic Sixties. Victoria, B.C.: Millenia.
  2. Fikes, Jay C., and Phil C. Weigand. 2004. “Sensacionalismo y etnografía: El caso de los Huicholes de Jalisco.” Relaciones 25 (98): 50–68.
  3. Freeman, Derek. 1996. Margaret Mead and the Heretic: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books Australia.
  4. Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: Morrow.
  5. Singh, J. A. L., and Robert M. Zingg. 1942. Wolf-Children and Feral Man. New York: Harper.
  6. Stein, Gordon. 1993. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
  7. Stossel, John. 2004. Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media. New York: HarperCollins.
  8. Zingg, Robert M. 2004. Huichol Mythology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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