The other side of sensationalism

Note. This is from a presentation I did in February 2005 at the University of the Philippines. My thoughts were very simple, if not naive, but they might be of use to some. If not, this might still be a better use of your 5 minutes instead of playing angry birds.

There is probably a correlation between reading tabloids and watching television news programs and believing that the average Pinoy is a war-freak. If you monitor the news, there is no way you can escape crime stories. Some areas in the metropolis have even acquired the reputation of being crime capitals.  That is, if you walk on a certain street, you’ll probably end up with a knife on your back.

Perhaps people are interested in these stories because some of them had fallen preys to street robbers themselves.  Or they are also concerned with their own safety.  But also maybe because the video clips are entertaining: real people slapping real suspects. Or the headlines are printed in the largest font size possible that it’s impossible not to read them even if you were looking at a newsstand from a bus.

Is it the story?  Or the way the story is told?

No doubt, crime sells.  It is a tested formula to increase readership or improve ratings. And since newspapers and broadcast companies are businesses, ratings and circulation matter. So we see tabloids with screaming headlines about murders and rape cases.  And the victims are not just stabbed or shot, they are tinarakan, grinipuhan or tinadtad ng bala. Newsreaders don’t just read.  They scream at us—and we enjoy it.

Many crime stories are legitimate stories.  People need to know that there is a serial killer in a particular area.  But most often violence is presented like entertainment—when it should be taken seriously.

It is not surprising that the news media is rightly accused of sensationalism. But while there is a tendency to exaggerate crime stories, there is also the risk of undervaluing many of them. Those harping on media sensationalism miss this other side.

A college student is killed when he refused to give his cell phone.  Many would just treat it as an ordinary story.  But the student will be graduating a few months from now.  He had big dreams.  And he is not the first victim on that street.  You call the barangay hall and officials tell you the street is notorious for street crimes.  It has no streetlights.

Then you are giving your readers not only what they want, but what they need to know.  You give the story the importance it deserves.  You do not only report about violence but you are helping a community by calling attention to an otherwise simple problem.

We bombard viewers with images of violence without providing context and they miss the whole point.  Readers and viewers will just dismiss the story as just another story about guns and dead people and so let’s just move on to thinking about Angel Locsin’s lovelife.

Not that I am underestimating news consumers.  I am just recognizing the power of the media.

Crime stories are important.  But they should serve better purposes than just attracting readers or viewers.

Reported accurately, complete with context and given the proper importance, crime stories will not only entertain but also empower readers.

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