News in an age of competition: the case of sensationalism in Dutch television news, 1995-2001.

Author:Vettehen, Paul Hendriks
 
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The quality of the mass media performance has been subject of discussion for many decades, not only among media practitioners and their critics but also among media students (McQuail, 1992). One of the main topics in these discussions concerns the impact of market-driven journalism on the quality of the news coverage. Most researchers and critics expect market-driven journalism to have negative effects. They expect it will produce news with a generally low informational level and a homogeneous content, directed primarily at those sections of the population that are most interesting to the advertisers (e.g., Bagdikian, 1985; McManus, 1994; Underwood, 1988). According to others, however, the effects of market-driven journalism are not purely negative. Their main argument is that the pressure of the market urges journalists to take the information needs of the public very seriously (McManus, 1994, pp. 2-3).

Research on market-driven journalism is complicated by many theoretical and analytical problems. Notably, defining the market and its major players is often a difficult task, which involves decisions that are sometimes arbitrary (Albarran, 1996). The conceptualization and measurement of quality is another problematic task, which can be accomplished according to many conceivable but also arbitrary criteria (McQuail, 1992; Schatz & Schulz, 1992). Lastly, developments in technology and journalistic values are concurrent influences on journalistic products, which complicate the analysis of market influences. For instance, a study by Tuggle and Huffman (1999) documented the interplay between technology, journalistic values, and market demands in decisions concerning live reporting. At a more theoretical level, McManus (1994) described how journalistic values may converge with market demands in the coverage of some events but also may conflict with market demands in the coverage of other events.

Researchers have not been discouraged by these problems. They have studied market-driven journalism under various headings. The most prominent examples of these are the concept of diversity (e.g., Coulson & Lacy, 1996; Lacy, 1990) and a concept that might be best described as "sensationalism" (Grabe, Zhou, & Barnett, 2001; Slattery, Doremus, & Marcus, 2001 ; Slattery & Hakanen, 1994). The present study focuses on the latter concept. First, this study aims at expanding a recent conceptualization of sensationalism that is largely based on the limited capacity model of mediated messages (cf. Grabe, Lang, & Zhao, 2003; Grabe et al., 2001 ). Second, it will establish the extent of sensationalism in television news in a setting that recently witnessed an increase in competition between news organizations, that is, the Netherlands between 1995 and 2001.

The Concept of Sensationalism

Traditionally, sensationalism in the news has been conceived mostly in terms of story content, such as stories about crime, violence, natural disasters, accidents, and fires (Adams, 1978; Slattery & Hakanen, 1994). Accordingly, the contribution of sensationalist news to a democratic society has been criticized (e.g., Bernstein, 1992).

Recently, Grabe et al. (2001) suggested a more comprehensive view on the concept. They observed that "a number of scholarly definitions of sensationalism focus on the effects on the human sensory system" (p. 637), notably its potential to be attention grabbing and emotionally arousing. Starting from this observation, they developed a measurement of sensationalism on the basis of research findings that supported the potential of news features to provoke the human senses. The measurement included not only specific content features but also formal features of the news: the "bells and whistles of form," as the title of their article indicated. Some years later, Grabe et al. (2003) embedded this conceptualization of sensationalism in a theoretical perspective: the limited capacity model of mediated messages (cf. Lang, 2000). In the present study, this conceptualization of sensationalism serves as a point of departure.

In the limited capacity model, two categories of stimuli are discerned that elicit orienting responses in viewers. One category includes stimuli that are relevant to the goals and needs of the individual (Lang, 2000, p. 49). Although goals and needs may vary from person to person and from situation to situation, certain categories of message content are expected to automatically elicit orienting responses in every human, and consequently may be considered as sensational. From an evolutionary perspective, content that appeals to our basic needs and instincts has been expected to universally attract the attention (Davis & McLeod, 2003; cf. Shoemaker, 1996). The finding that negative video images tend to increase attention (Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves, 1996) provides some support for this view. In the present study, the label basic needs content is used.

The other category of stimuli that according to the limited capacity model automatically elicit orienting responses in viewers includes stimuli that represent novelty or change in the message content (Lang, 2000, p. 49). Although to some extent the definition of novelty and change could vary from person to person, many aspects of the form and content of television news may be considered as generally indicative of novelty or change, namely cuts, edits, movements of the camera (e.g., zooms, eyewitness camera), sound effects, the onset of background music, and so on. By virtue of their attention-grabbing capacity, such features may be described as tabloid packaging (cf. Grabe et al., 2003).

Although basic needs content and tabloid packaging constitute two broad categories of news features that universally attract attention, we suggest two additional categories of news features that may universally attract attention and that consequently may be considered as sensational. These categories are derived from studies on the concept of vividness. According to Nisbett and Ross (1980):

Information may be described as vivid, that is, as likely to attract and hold our attention and to excite the imagination to the extent that it is (a) emotionally interesting, (b) concrete and imagery-provoking, and (c) proximate in a sensory, temporal, or spatial way. (p. 45) Nisbett and Ross argued that vivid information stimulates imagination, attracts and holds attention, and is better retained in memory than nonvivid (pallid) information. Drawing on theories concerning cognitive heuristics and schemas, they expect vivid information to have a disproportional weight in people's judgments because it is more easily available in memory (Nisbett & Ross, 1980, pp. 55-59).

Over the past decades, experimental studies have resulted in a more differentiated view on vividness effects. In a nutshell, vivid information appeared to have the expected positive effects on information processing (e.g., on message recall) only when it was presented under conditions of low involvement, and only if the vivid elements in a message were congruent with the theme of the message itself (Frey & Eagly, 1993; McGill & Anand, 1989; Smith & Shaffer, 2000; Taylor & Thompson, 1982). In addition, studies on vividness have been criticized for defining the concept partly in terms of effects (notably "emotionally interesting," "imagery provoking"), which inhibits knowledge about relationships between intrinsic message features of vividness and its effects (O'Keefe, 2003). In the present study, vivid information is accordingly defined as concrete or proximate in a spatial, temporal, or sensory way.

Vividness theory has been applied to features of television news. Notably, it has been argued that exemplary case histories in a news story (e.g., "the guy next door" complaining about cuts in his unemployment benefit) are more concrete than the general information (e.g., about cuts in unemployment benefits) that precedes the exemplars (Zillmann & Brosius, 2000). Studies on exemplification in television news (Aust & Zillmann, 1996; Gan, Hill, Pschernig, & Zillmann, 1996; Perry & Gonzenbach, 1997) and other news media (e.g., Brosius & Bathelt, 1994) support the idea that exemplars draw the attention towards them. As a result, exemplars may be considered as sensational elements...

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