The print journalists interviewed for this paper suggested that their medium's strengths lie in giving context, not in breaking the news first. "Our strength is providing context," said the newspaper editor, "answering the WHY and WHO CARES questions and telling readers how they can act on what we tell them." 1

The newspaper reporter offered some elaboration: "Newspapers have a huge advantage over TV and radio in that they can provide more information, more context, better storytelling." 2

The Pew/CCJ study found that newspaper journalists indeed find "providing an interpretation to news" is a core principle of journalism. Less than half of TV and radio journalists agreed. However, 71 percent of Internet journalists agreed. 3 Also, 71 percent of national journalists and 72 percent of local journalists in the Pew/CCJ study agreed that "too little attention to complex issues" is a "valid criticism of the press." 4

As in our discussion of breaking news, journalists' habits are determined by the relative limitations of each medium, and the Internet can change those limitations. A 30-minute television broadcast limits the amount of information that can be presented. An Internet journalist affiliated with a television station believes that his site can help the station's journalists provide "background and context that is often missing from the TV version because of time limitations. ... It provides a great complement to TV news, where there isn't always enough time or resources to tell the news in the best possible way." 5

Adding context, however, poses additional complications, especially for journalists facing time pressure. Reporters may not have the time to analyze an event and establish context, focusing instead on basic facts and finding simple ways to frame the story. The simplest way to give a story context is to explain it in terms of conflict, and journalists often ignore the actual effects of the story beyond familiar political battles. For example, if a president facing re-election were to propose debt forgiveness for developing nations, many reporters would ignore the questions of cost to American taxpayers and the ramifications for people in the affected countries, focusing instead on that president's supposed intent of shoring up his party's appeal to immigrants. The questions of finance and overseas effects are difficult to report quickly; it's simpler and quicker to frame the story in terms of a political conflict. 6

Project for Excellence in Journalism studied this effect in newspapers in 1999, concluding, "The press shows a decided tendency to present the news through a combative lens. Three narrative frames — conflict, winners and losers and revealing wrongdoing — accounted for 30% of all stories, twice the number of straight news accounts. ... Explanatory frames — those that reveal how things work, how they fit into larger trends, or historical context — accounted for only 12% of all stories." 7

Reporting in terms of conflict is by no means limited to political journalism. Scientists complained in a Los Angeles Times story that journalists reporting on nutrition overemphasize supposed conflicts within the scientific community. "The media characterize contradictory and conflicting scientific and medical findings as a problem, a weakness, proof that the researchers don't really know what they're doing," molecular biologist David Anderson told Times media reporter David Shaw. "But this is inherent in the scientific process. It's part of the control mechanism that enables the right answer to ultimately emerge." 8

Shaw's story also notes that some "differences" in scientific studies may result from different types of studies, not an actual conflict. Similar misreadings also take place with statistics. Shaw quotes Marcia Angell, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine:

"[A study that says] a woman who drinks alcohol has a 30% increase in the risk for breast cancer over the next 10 years ... sounds like a big increase. ... But if you look at what it means for an individual middle-aged woman, whose chance of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years might be 3%, a 30% increase would change that to ... 4%. That means her chances of remaining free of breast cancer has [sic] dropped from 97% to 96%. Is that worth giving up your dinner wine for? Probably not." 9

The tendency to take the "largest, most startling numbers in a journal story" 10 is commonly called "sensationalism," and it is one way to draw attention to news stories in a crowded marketplace. The Pew/CCJ survey shows that journalists consider sensationalism a threat as competition increases. When asked to name ways in which increased competition has changed journalism for the worse, "sensationalism" was the top answer of Internet journalists. 11

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that sensationalism in news has increased in recent years. One may well point to early American newspapers to show that sensationalism was rampant in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, we have shown that journalists face growing time pressure and competition, and time pressure and competition can yield sensationalism. Therefore, we may conclude that sensationalism is a possible outcome in today's fast-paced media climate.

Sensationalism exposes the two difficulties of time pressure we have discussed, the focus on breaking news and the lack of time to develop context. Tendencies toward sensationalism often do not arise on a conscious level; few journalists would admit to seeking unnecessary drama in their stories. Sensationalism can result from the quest for breaking news, which emphasizes dramatic developments such as a plane crash over explanations of ongoing events or follow-ups on past events such as the Kosovo conflict. Also, it is a tendency to express news stories in convenient frames such as conflict, and it is a misunderstanding of statistics in the search for the best angle on a story.