Major Essay 1
February 3, 2012
With wide-eyed anticipation, a child eagerly awaits a day at the circus. Watching
the ringmaster direct decorated lions and elephants, children’s eyes expand in
wonderment at the circus. The physical attributes including the tent, tiered seating,
cosmic lighting, and the props of flaming hoops contribute to the heightening of the
performances. Remembering my own awe of the flying acrobatics, the bustling circus
stimulated elements of excitement and anticipation of the next act’s context. However,
once the ticket sales begin to dwindle, the entire company picks up their show and moves
locations to capture a new audience. Although most hold onto this scene as a faraway
childhood memory, the concept still resonates in adulthood with today’s media.
Similar to a child circus not seeing the circus acts’ danger, news is received
without doubting the content’s truth. Audiences of online, print, and TV-broadcasted
news tend to passively absorb any information and headlines thrown at them in the bustle
of news broadcasting. The short summaries of the current local and national news
exemplify a minimalistic approach. Due to space limitations of these mediums, the
presented stories require attention-grabbing details to draw in viewers. The stories must
produce the numbers necessary to sustain the business side of news corporations.
However, the brief publication of a story often evokes skewed perceptions within the
audience. The incomplete or emotional portrayals of information generate the
phenomenon known as media hype. Comparable to the circus, this generated excitement
around a single news story entices the audience to only want more. And the new sources
Notable topics prove newsworthy based on the relevance or controversy of their
content. The 6 o’clock new’s headline story is not about the winner of the local
elementary school’s science fair or an interview with a museum director over a new
exhibit. While these can be important to a limited audience, topics involving
controversial issues trigger more responses, blogs, comments, and ultimately more
money. The media hype stems from “trigger events” that can translate into a general
societal problem and rally public outrage. These strong emotions come from the topic
concerning a majority of society, rather than the minority it directly affects (Wein and
According to the article An Anatomy of Media Hypes, these intense feelings from
the audience actually facilitate the growth a story. The audience’s continuing interest
provokes journalists to develop their coverage of the specific topic. Follow-up stories
supply life to the original controversy. The news reports persist until the audience’s
boredom sparks their own downplay of the topic (Wein and Elmelund-Proestekaer, 189).
The cycle begins again with a new controversy. With the power to dictate the amount of
coverage, are news broadcasts and headlines controlling what society deem important?
They surely amplify certain stories and restrain others with the timing, placement, and
length of exposure.
Over the past two weeks in my hometown, the Super Bowl festivities and
preparations consumed Indianapolis. Volunteers rebuilt the entire downtown area to host
the crowd of Patriots and Giants fans and Hollywood celebrities. While browsing The
Indianapolis Star’s homepage, the viewer transports directly downtown to experience the
Super Bowl festivities from home. This is the city’s main newspaper and one of the
primary sources of news topics. The top news tab contained pictures, videos, articles, and
a fan guide featuring the NFL commissioner, Tim Tebow, Drew Brees, and even George
Clooney. Advertisements for food and drink specials for the game lined every border of
the web page. The buzz around the city and outside suburbs all relate to the excitement
surrounding the Super Bowl XLVI happening in their backyard. However, the recent
news’ headlines are only found by clicking on a link at the bottom of the screen. The
stories of a bank robbery and a heroin trafficking subject can be read only after sorting
through the media hype of the Super Bowl. (IndyStar.com)
This example demonstrates the manipulating power of media attention on a single
topic. The reader would have to spend five minutes searching for a link to separate page,
but perhaps by that time they would have already been swept up in the Super Bowl
frenzy. Consequently, the search for legal or business news was lost in the pull of the
media attention towards the big game. The website’s separate webpages controlled my
attention as the reader with a stronger emphasis towards the Super Bowl.
Even if I made it to the other news topics, a majority of the articles related back to
the game, fans, and events downtown. The structure of the website reinforced the hype
around the subject through repetition and subtopics. This system of reinforcement
illustrates the positive-feedback loop. The topic develops importance in the community
because it is regarded as important by the news mediums (Vasterman, 513). The number
of links and articles prompt an air of importance, which stimulates more coverage. The
“correspondence assumption” held by the public relates the amount of coverage to the
event’s importance and prevalence (Vasterman, 510). This creates a chain reaction within
the further investigation and reporting of the story, which fosters the story’s dominance
The original story therefore snowballs into a topic that stirs increased emotions
and excitement within the public. The slight differences in coverage also expanded the
relevance of the event, which attracts even more readers. Ultimately, the increased
publicity entices more readers, which parallels a greater profit for the paper. If
newspapers can fuel their own financial success by simply generating more audience
attention to an event, would they hesitate?
While the Super Bowl headlines illustrates journalism’s ability to build
excitement around a single event, the game happens every year and could draw some
attention to the event by itself. The true power of media hype is seen in news waves
regarding a scandal or a controversial issue. The framing of a single event can draw even
more attention. According to Vasterman’s article Media Hype, the selective process of
interviews, facts, and opinions shape the chosen angle of the story. Any information
outside the designated structure is neglected and unreported (514).
As a personal example, media hype controlled my life during senior year of high
school. My twin brother and I attended a suburban high school of 4,500 students, where
he played varsity basketball and I cheered since freshman year. Basketball games
remained a family event as our parents came to support us both in our athletics. However,
during the Senior Night, which celebrated the seniors’ final home game, only my parents
and I walked across the court, unable to share the celebration. Robert, the team’s senior
captain and starting player, sat at home instead of sharing the recognition. He and three
other senior players had been accused the previous week of hazing a freshman player on
a bus ride home from an away game. They were first benched for a game and later
suspended for a week from school. Their punishment escalated into removal from the
basketball team and then being expelled three months before graduation. If only that’s
where it ended.
The press began to frame and “investigate” the controversial story, which
contained elements of class status, race, stereotypes, and athletics. As a protective
defense, the nationally recognized high school attempted to dodge the media storm by
withholding all information. Contrarily, the restriction of details about the incident only
fueled every newspaper and local news stations’ interest. The public looked to the media
sources for answers to their questions. Unfortunately, the only printed statements
available were incomplete and distorted claims from the freshman player and his lawyer.
The accusations led to legal charges on the four basketball players. The media sat
outside my house, followed me to school, and dictated every decision my family made.
We remained silent despite the constant reporters’ phone calls, emails, and personal
appearances at our house to protect my brother in his legal case. We had seen and lived
the consequences from the exaggerated and skewed framing of the situation by the media.
Consequently, our protective instinct only contributed to spreading of the one-sided story.
From the outside we appeared to be hiding something when simply our family
was drowning in the publicity. The hype around the case suffocated us for the next six
months as the media subjectively portrayed the story from the exaggerated angle of the
victim and his lawyer. The story developed a life of its own as Robert’s pending court
case forced his side of the story to be unreported to the media. Generated from the
media’s incomplete reporting, the public’s perception mandated the location of Robert’s
court hearing, his scholarship opportunities for basketball, his local employment
opportunities, and our family’s reputation.
The media failed in their responsibility to objectively report the story. However,
they had tried to contact us for comments and interviews. The newspapers and news
stations were met with silence. The legal charges forced the school and the defensive
lawyers to be unable to release any statements regarding details of the case. The current
legal system aims to create fair trials where jurors and judges base their decisions on
information presented in court, not untrustworthy sources such as publicity (Joy and
McMunigal, 47). The press ignored the ongoing legal case’s boundaries and still pushed
for witness interviews.
However, as in Robert’s case, a lawyer’s refusal to comment could confirm
“…that the publicity the case receives is skewed unfairly against the client” as explained
in Trial by Media: Arguing Cases in the Court of Public Opinion (Joy and McMunigal,
48). The press could not actually report the case’s two sides fairly without any statements
from the defendant. Without the necessary information, the story illustrated the only side
of the case from which it received information.
Consequently, this exaggerated and distorted version sold the story and sparked
more controversy than the true story would have to the public. Ethically, the press should
be required to release only a completely researched story, especially with controversial
legal cases. Yet, when met with restrictions of the legal system, they expose the public to
the only version they can gather. The explosive reaction from the public pushes the press
to capitalize on the popularity of the topic rather than the objective and unbiased release
of news. The question for my family remains if the perception of the case by the media
would have been any different if we had given answers to their persistent questioning.
While media ethics should prioritize objective reporting, the opportunity cost of
ignoring a more controversial angle weighs more. Therefore, subjective reporting of
today’s news stories often prevails over a neutral presentation of strictly facts. The
emotional content and potential debate attract a wider audience, which boosts the
economic success and public following of the news source.
According to my personal perspective, newspapers and television reports focus on
their audience as a business. This steps away from their presumed role of educating the
public on a topic with a professional and objective lens. Instead, the continuation of a
story and the public response generate media hype surrounding a single event. The
audience’s yearn for more information fuels the media’s creation of such news waves.
However, the public’s excitement and conversation of the story covers up the drowning
those directly involved. The pounding the waves only stops when the press personally
does not gain anything from the story anymore. Similar to a traveling circus moving to
increase ticket sales, the media moves on to a new topic to construct yet another media
Elmelund-Præstekær, Christian, and Charlotte Wien. "An Anatomy of Media Hypes."
European Journal of Communication 24.2 (2009): 183. Print.
The Indianapolis Star. (Indystar.com)
Vasterman, Peter L. M. "Media-Hype." European Journal of Communication 20.4
(2005): 508. Print.