You're already here, so the headline already got your attention and drew you in. First I have a confession to make: The headline was not fully truthful. On some level, I wanted you to click it, but on another level I did not. Why not? The answer lies in how I feel about sensationalism. I included a less-than-truthful headline, a form of exaggeration, in order to draw in readers.
The part of me that did not want you to click the headline did not want you to because I do not want people to be swayed by sensationalistic headlines. In my ideal world, I would like people to be immune to these sorts of headlines. Below, I explain why I think this would make the world a better place, and how you can help to advance this goal.
What is sensationalism?
Wikipedia has a rather spotty and incomplete article on sensationalism, which, although the article as a whole could use some improvement, I think hits the nail on the head with its initial definition:
Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers.
This definition cites a page about sensationalism on the website of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing media bias and censorship.
Sensationalism causes problems in the tea world:
I want to visit some topics that I have heard people in the tea community complain about frequently:
- Inaccurate public impression of science - My recent post about the tea and prostate cancer headline is an example of how even very mild sensationalism can have a powerfully negative impact on public perception of scientific knowledge.
- Tea and weight loss fads - Tea, particularly green tea and oolong tea, and to some degree Pu-erh and white tea as well, have become associated in American society with weight loss fads. There are numerous negative impacts to this association, from people being put off from green tea because they try bad green tea sold as a weight-loss product, to negative body image issues promoted by marketing aimed at women. And most importantly, this whole approach takes away from people focusing on the quality and taste of their tea, and enjoying tea and the process of drinking it. And lastly, sites promoting tea as a weight loss product are not particularly truthful; for a more truthful approach I recommend reading Gingko's post on the slimming effect of tea.
- Myths and falsehoods circulating about tea - A lot of the myths about tea surround the caffeine content of tea, such as the myth that white tea is lowest in caffeine among teas. A lot of other myths pertain to unsubstantiated health claims, which can range from the mundane to the absurd. Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there committed to ending these myths, including such people as Michael J. Coffee who runs Tea Geek, or Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha, who also administers WikiCha and is one of the numerous contributors to TeaDrunk, another great place to get solid info that breaks through myths and misconceptions. I also appreciate the casual skepticism expressed by bloggers like Lahikmajoe, or Nicole in her post Health Benefits Schmealth Benefits. And it's also worth noting the ATB (Association of Tea Bloggers) Criteria, point 6, also get at this issue; another thing I love about the ATB.
I think there are numerous things you can do to curb sensationalism in news, especially in how you read news online, and how you participate in social media and various online communities. Some of my recommendations:
- Slow down - Sensationalism thrives on speed. Sensationalism flourishes and sensationalistic headlines are rewarded in an environment where people act on snap judgments, rather than thinking deeply, which leads into the next points.
- Read deeply - Do not just skim pieces. Read them in their entirety and take time to think about them. Does this seem like more work? This leads into my next point.
- Read less - Be more selective of what you read. As you read more deeply, you may reach a point like I did, where I realized that an overwhelming majority of what I was reading was remarkably low-quality, in that it communicated little new information, or was hastily thrown together, or it cited no sources, or that it was presenting opinions or mere assertions as fact or objective truth. These realizations are a good thing; they will help you to cut out whole media outlets, blogs, and websites. You will also get a better idea of what sorts of topics you wish to read on which sites. You may subscribe to a blog that posts almost daily, like this one, but you may find that only a small portion of the posts interest you enough to actually read them. This is a good thing! When you have less to read, you will be able to read more deeply.
- Think carefully before sharing - Never share or re-share a post without reading it. Put some thought into what pieces you decide to share or re-share on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, social bookmarking sites, or through linking to from your blog or website. Think about what effect you are having by sharing a work or webpage. Is the work truthful? What effect will it have on the world for you to share it?