Sensational Journalism isn’t the Best Way to tell a Story

by Rachel Baker on December 3, 2014

I live in the area where Tyler Hadley lived and murdered his parents. Rolling Stone did an article on that tragedy. When the article came out, I was appalled by what I was reading. Here’s the thing, I know a few facts: 1. the author talked to people over the age of 21; 2. the author gave an unfair few of the community and the surrounding areas; and 3. as someone who was born and raised in the area, the picture dude painted about the area was not completely accurate at all – and if nothing else, that’s why there were no quotes by anyone over the age of 21 – his story would have been null and void. Trust me, I know what some of the business people he spoke to said and shared with him in regards to the towns and county.

I bring this up because this morning, while going through my morning news articles, I ran across this article in the NYTimes about the reporting methods of the Rolling Stone article titled, A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.

The NYTimes article made me think about the Tyler Hadley article. I read several articles by Rolling Stones today that always had a bit of sensationalism to them. Each article had statements that can’t possibly be verified:

From A Rape on Campus

If Dean Eramo was surprised at Jackie’s story of gang rape, it didn’t show. A short woman with curly dark hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, Eramo surely has among the most difficult jobs at UVA.

Rolling Stone didn’t even talk to Dean Eramo. Saying Dean Eramo didn’t show surprise about Jacie’s story of gang rape is…well, sensationalizing. And there are many other statements in the article that attempts to build trust with readers in the same pseudo-definitive manner. And, really, who cares that she is a short woman or that she has curly dark hair… again, its not like they actually interviewed her.

In the Tyler Hadley story, he is described as “nearly cadaverous” – really? because that’s not how I would have described him, nor would I have put all those other emotions in his drug and alcohol-riddled eyes – and there’s the description that Port St. Lucie is named after the patron saint of eye problems…which sounds way better in a dramatic way than being named after the patron saint of the blind. Then there are odd things like this (ps. Sophie is one of the Hadley dogs):

Sophie was nowhere to be found but the beagle was hiding in the bedroom that had belonged to Tyler’s older brother, Ryan, who had moved to North Carolina six weeks earlier to attend college. The party was only several hours old, but the room looked as if it had been ransacked by thieves. Clothes and bedding were scattered across the floor and the bed frame was cracked. The beagle cowered under the bed.

First, who did this information come from? Not the cops, because they came way later than when “the party was only several hours old”. The only reason to mention the dogs and assume they were no where to be found and cowering under the bed the whole time, was to use an intimate detail like this as a way to make people think the story is COMPLETELY believable.

I read another article about Camden, NJ that did a lot of the same things – making intimate and vaguely knowledgeable statements from interviews to support the view the writer is trying to create, so that no one questions the story but everyone wants to read it.

In each of these articles, commenters call out Rolling Stone for the sensationalistic nature of said articles. The big problem is this is Rolling Stone – people look to Rolling Stone for information about cultural icons. Young people believe everything magazines like Rolling Stone say, and they quote for truth when having conversations about said topics. Rolling Stone has a responsibility to get it right.

From a journalistic publication standpoint, though, the issues always comes back to money. More page views, more advertising, more money. Its a bad, disingenuous way to conduct journalism. And while the UVA rape case is an interesting story, it would be way more interested if all sides had been written about. I’m a woman and it pains me incredibly to say this, but…if you are going to tell a story with incredible accusations that are a few years old, you MUST tell the whole story. You really can’t just publish one side. You really can’t just interject a bunch of mood statements to make the argument for your story being accurate and unquestionable.

Here’s another example of a sensationalism story that was written by someone who wants pageviews: Sidewalk counselor banished after ‘stalking’ claim. The subtitle on this one is “Pro-lifer was once on same road as abortion worker”. Really?! How much more misogynistic can the article be when the subtitle is designed to make the woman in question look like a weak, stupid woman. Mr. Unruh is too savvy to not know what he was doing by writing this article the way he did – and he should be ashamed of himself. The woman’s concerns are completely not unreasonable, and Mr. Unruh, to help increase page views, wrote an article in a manner in which he ridicules the woman. And I know exactly where this is at and based on the people that do actually protest out there, she’s probably right to be a little concerned when one of them is behind her in a car for several miles.

There are a whole lot of news outlets that love the sensationalist stories. They thrive off of them, and they do it because they know these stories will increase their page views. The organization will make money, if by no other means than, in the comment sections where tempers will inevitably flair.

I hate this type of “journalism” and I really wish we’d find a better more ethical way to tell our stories and document the world around us.

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