The Science of Journalism? Why Sensational Sells

By | Posted September 15, 2008
Posted in: Life Science Blog
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As we flip through newspaper and magazine pages, blogs and TV channels, why are we attracted to some stories and not others? Why does the story about a young woman missing in Aruba dominate the 24-hour cable news channels when an item that could really impact our everyday lives gets left in the dust?

We tend to think that what we choose to read or view is part of some conscious decision-making process. But a blogger for the Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam, recently wrote about a possible biological, evolution-driven reason that explains our hunger for “sensational stories.”

Vedantam dug up a psychological study from 2003 that analyzed front-page news stories dating from the 1700s all the way on up to 2001. The study found that regardless of the time period, stories about death, injury, robberies and murder dominated the front-page headlines.

The study author,  Hank Davis, posits the following reason for our attraction to “sensational” stories:

“From an evolutionary point of view, the emotional impact of these stories makes sense. Our ancestors would likely have increased their reproductive success by gaining certain kinds of information about the world around them. Thus, stories about animal attacks, deadly parasites and tainted food sources remain salient topics, even millions of years after their likelihood of occurrence has become marginal in industrialized nations.”

But there may be limits to how much “emotional impact” an audience can take.  A Dutch study from June appearing in the journal Communication Research had volunteers watch sensational TV news stories and found that they only seemed to like those that packed a limited emotional wallop. In other words, their study suggests that the degree to which we like stories drops off when they are too emotionally charged.

The challenge for journalists trying to write a “hit” story may be in finding a sweet spot, one that arouses peoples’ emotions but not to the point that it overwhelms the audience and they no longer wish to keep reading or viewing.

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Some sensational stories on Scienceline:

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What do tasers do to the body?

Can you die from a broken heart?

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