The Ethics of Promoting “Media Splashes”

newspapers yellow

Posted By: Linley Sanders

Some people seek fifteen minutes of fame through news organizations—that’s nothing new. But unfortunately, this attention-seeking leads the way to sensationalized stories, and many reporters fall for these traps—hook, line, and sinker. 

This was seen most recently in the coverage of the “Craigslist Killer” where 19-year-old Miranda Barbour, who is accused of killing a man she met through Craigslist, told a local newspaper that she killed 22 additional people. 

Without proof, facts, (or a consideration that no other bodies had been found), many newspapers ran with the story.  Through this, Barbour entered our headlines and conversations once again. She gained public attention—the very thing she hoped to accomplish—with pleas that satanism was the reason she committed murder.

A spokesperson for the Satanic Temple quickly rebutted this claim, and a USA Today article reported that, “Miranda Barbour wants to make a media splash. And he says she is using Satanism to distance herself from the horror of murder.

Sadly, many media outlets fell into this trap. USA Today covered the story with the headline “Accused Craigslist Killer Claims More Slayings” and TMZ went with, “Satanic Murderer Miranda Barbour—’I’ve killed less than 100.'” Other news sources reported the story a little more cautiously, citing officials who doubted the legitimacy of the claim, but the sensationalized headlines stayed.

With “exciting” stories, it’s easy to fall into sensational journalism and get caught up in the soap opera effect of certain news pieces. This was seen with the coverage of Casey Anthony during the trial for her alleged murder of her daughter. It was called the “trial of the century” and the world tuned in to watch.

The more appropriate way to report these news pieces is to only give it the legitimate news attention that is deserves. Don’t make it the top story if the news content does not justify that position, and if you do, make the headline reflect the illegitimacy of the claim.

As journalists, our job is to filter through events and claims and present the credible, investigated ones to the public. If we stop doing that, we simply become reporters of yellow journalism.

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5 responses to “The Ethics of Promoting “Media Splashes”

  1. Jennifer Gardner

    Absolutely! Nothing frustrates me more than watching the media turn a story into a bigger deal than it should have been. I think that it’s a common trap that reporters fall into because of the rush to get the biggest scoop or the first headline. Unfortunately, they sell more newspapers and magazines when there are sensationalized headlines, but I don’t believe it’s responsible journalism.

  2. I usually rely on the headlines to a news story to let me know what I’m getting ready to read. If it reads with a specific “truth,” I am going to expect to read an article surrounding the truth of that headline. I would really hope that journalists hold themselves to the standard of reporting what the reader needs and should know. No more and no less.

  3. First off, I’d like to compliment you on this blog post! It’s very well-written, Linley. This is something I never really considered outside of tabloid journalism, but is clearly prevalent in our media. I must admit, however that it would be hard to turn away from such an intriguing story. I guess that goes along with what we’ve been taught; good journalists know to always question what they hear. Never jump on a story based on a rumor unless you are going to investigate it further.

  4. There is a very fine line, (and a quicksand filled pit beneath it), between sensationalism and responsibility as a journalist. Will this sell? and Is this accurate? go back and forth in a journalist’s mind, as they always have. I don’t see these things going away as long as their is a free and open press, but journalists must be conscious of their existence and must ultimately make the ethical decision.

  5. Linley, you took the words right out of my mouth with this one. I do not think that the journalists that write these articles are thinking about the bigger picture and ethics that go along with being a writer. I often shake my head as I read headlines and witness this sort of topic being blown out of proportion way too often. It is depressing and many people (readers) unfortunately eat up every word. I agree with Avery that these things most likely will not be going away anytime soon.

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