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Yellow journalism, read all over

I made a pact with myself this year to read actively and more widely about the news. This may be surprising for someone who has both written and worked for The Observer since my freshman year at Notre Dame. However, I found myself barely being able to keep up with my seminar readings, rooted in the classical world, and failed to acquaint myself with contemporary and global issues.

I think my reluctance to engage in current events wasn’t a matter of apathy or a jaded reception to political reporting, but rather, fatigue from the saturation of varying media content. Headlines and infographics with attention-grabbing statistics filled my news feeds and social media. Instead of viewing articles as an informational resource, I found myself gauging the calculated colors, fonts and word choice that enticed readers to click. As a marketing major, I understand that marketing is all about changing the perception of a concept or idea. But to what extent can the perceptions change before it alters the integrity of the content?

Lindsay Juarez is the Director of Irrational Labs, an organization that uses behavioral science insights to drive innovation and growth. She presented her research to my Consumer and Organizational Buyer Behavior class, demonstrating how behavioral science was used to reduce the spread of misinformation on TikTok.

TikTok came to the lab believing it had a responsibility to reduce the spread of misinformation. Prompts were placed on content that was not able to be verified by fact-checkers, and they were flagged as “unsubstantiated content.” As such, users would be given three seconds of the pop-up to move forward with sharing the content even though it was unverified. The implementation of prompts “reduced shares by 24% when compared to a control group.” 

They explained the behavioral science behind the phenomenon, using layman’s terms exploring humans’ “hot” and “cold” states. Media platforms such as TikTok play a role in activating users’ hot states, in which they are overwhelmed by the “power of emotion” and quickly interpret and share content. By placing prompts that indicated that content was unverifiable, TikTok was able to slow down this “hot state” and allow people to become more logical and deliberate with reposting content.

The phenomenon of inciting emotions and “hot states” in behavioral science reminds me of the yellow journalism movement, noted for its emphasis on sensationalism and exaggeration. It is particularly notable in its instrumental use of inciting public sentiment against the Spanish right before the start of the Spanish-American War.

Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used this style of journalism by “accentuating the harshness of Spanish rule” or even printing false stories that drove adversarial attitudes. The result was an increase in sales of the papers and a furthering of the combative climate surrounding U.S. expansion.

The peak of this phenomenon was in 1898 when the USS Maine, a battleship sunk in the Havana harbor. While the origins of the explosion were unknown, newspapers in the U.S. published rumors that enemies had plotted to sink the ship.

Although yellow journalism did not create anti-Spanish sentiment, it certainly fanned the flames of international tension. Though the term is most associated with political movements in the late 19th century, sensationalism in journalism and media is still prevalent.

The Observer’s mantra is “to uncover the truth, and report it accurately.” The commitment to accuracy in reporting is essential to the world of journalism, but, at the same time, media channels are businesses. And attractive headlines and enticing titles sell.

Sensationalism in journalism in modern times may not always be as extreme as it was previously, due to more rigorous fact-checking and more credibility within certain publishers. But the implicit biases that sway our perceptions of certain issues remain. I don’t think these biases are inherently bad; they are a part of human nature and simply reveal our inclinations and desires. However, it’s important to recognize and analyze the origins of the pieces with which we interact, acknowledging the crucial human thought that creates differences in the perceptions and reporting of a single event. These variations can be presented in a two-fold manner: the content itself, and the way we market and present the content to readers.

Instant gratification is ever-present in public media channels that are targeted toward younger demographics, such as social media. However, research by Irrational Labs and other behavioral scientists encourages me to consider the importance of the content and media that I consume and share. Sensationalism is not merely spread by bad intentions, but rather, built upon biases or quick inferences that may not be supported. Taking a step back when evaluating a resource, particularly when not attached to an accredited site, requires effort and time, but makes us better-informed consumers of information.

I think it’s easy to dismiss our posts and retweets as a lack of personal significance. We think that the words we share and the things we declare have little-to-no weight. However, if I’ve learned anything from having a column, it’s that we implicitly share a responsibility to secure accuracy and intentionality in the things we publish and reshare.

From the comments and emails that I’ve received from professors and students alike, I’ve realized that my reach is far greater than my inner circle. It encompasses an invisible thread of connections I could have never predicted. While this is an exciting byproduct of the nomadic nature of words, at the same time, it means I have a further responsibility to make sure the things I share represent both honest intentions and truthful findings.

I’m not trying to inflate my role in democratic discourse. I know that there’s very little chance that people are hanging on to my words by an invisible thread. However, I believe that intentionality and attentiveness, no matter the grandeur or impact, is integral to this discussion. If every time we post, we pause beforehand and take a moment to reflect, maybe we’ll foster an environment for better-informed citizens. Maybe if we examine the content we consume and share a little deeper, we’ll learn more about the world, and inevitability, about ourselves.

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out to eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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