Why does Sensationalism Sell?

The psychology behind our hunger for bad news.


We often complain about the negativity of the media content and blame the media for distorting actual events. But as we turn the pages of magazines and newspapers and switch between TV channels, why are we attracted to some news while others go unnoticed? Why does news about a murder or kidnapping create a sudden interest in viewers while an item that could actually impact our lives positively remains in the dust?

The term sensationalism refers to media coverage that’s controversial, shocking, attention-grabbing, graphic, appealing to the lowest instincts or focused on superficial details. All sensationalist journalism is essentially designed to arouse strong emotional reactions in readers. So is the media really guilty of sensationalism or is it only giving us what we want?


We believe that our choice of news and other media content involves some kind of a informed decision making process. However, recent psychological researches have brought out several biological explanations behind our hunger for sensational news.

One such study includes that of Shankar Vedantum who tried to explain such an attraction to bad news as an evolution- driven factor. Vedantum analysed news stories all the way from the 1700s to 2001 and found that regardless of the time period news about death, robberies and murder dominated the front page headlines. So why are we so drawn towards sensational news? The following are some theories and studies to explain our fascination towards bad news.

Evolution: the attractive power of violence and misfortunes takes an evolutionary perspective. Through evolution, humans have become physiologically sensitive to information about potentially threatening situations. Media studies show that bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report. Why? The answer may lie in the work of evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists. Humans seek out news of dramatic, negative events. These experts say that our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. So while we no longer defend ourselves against sabre-toothed tigers, our brains have not caught up.

The Dopamine: Viewers are motivated by a pleasure based drive towards emotional arousal. They want to vicariously experience complex and extreme emotional content. (Bryant and Zillmann, 1994, Zuckerman, 1979). There is significant l evidence that the presentation of violent or dark content increases emotional arousal in viewers, as measured by heart rate and blood pressure. Such an arousal releases the dopamine, the primary neurotransmitter involved in reward -processing that has a cascading effect on our attraction and tendencies to seek sensation.

A third explanation relates to the appeal of contents that are generally restricted or socially disvalued. As humans we are aware of both good and evil and since our very beginnings taught to follow the good and not be led astray by evil. However, humans have it in their nature to delve deep into the unknown and restricted. Thus we are curious. We loved to be shocked and what drives this desire is morbid curiosity

Catharsis: Long back, Greek Philosopher Aristotle posited that people were attracted to scary stories and violent dramatic plays because it gave them a chance to purge their negative emotions- a process he called catharsis. This means watching violent news or media content release the pent up feelings of aggression.

Fear: the main culprit in inciting the human brain into fear ridden content is the amygdala; the brain region most associated with fear processing .the real reason why we love to get scared is because we get that adrenaline rush in a completely safe context. We know that the criminals or aliens portrayed in the news or media content are not going to come out and attack us and so we can feel the fear in an absolutely safe environment. Many studies have shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things. Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy. And each time we experience fear we switch on our stress hormones. This has shown up in sociological literature as well. The estimation of a person’s “threat-fullness” is much more finely tuned than a person’s estimation of trustworthiness. I.e. we have finer categorizations of potential enemies than we do known allies.

Is there any good news in all this? According to positive psychologists we can mend our habits, and we can focus on the glass being half-full. When new habits are developed, our brain acquires “mirror neurons” that helps to create a positive vibe that can transmit to other people like a virus. This is no rocket science.it is only about being able to reprogram our brains. It is extremely important to apply this positivity and brain research knowledge to our attitudes and behaviours so that we are able to encourage our news deliverers to present a neutral, true and multi-dimensional point of view. Giving us the bad news, such that our brains are impacted beyond repair into a hard-wired negative state, will just reinforce the prevailing pessimism and negativity in journalism of all kinds. Like someone said, “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook”. Thus, let’s all make an endeavour to transform into informed readers and viewers who know what to keep and what to overlook and bring out the true power  and potential of a journalism that is devoid of any kind of distortions.

By: Lisa Varghese, 1530927, 2HEP

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