The press of the crowd, the roar of the sensational

September 14, 2012 | Research, UToday
By Cynthia Nowak

Crime, scandal, gossip, fire, flood and thrill-seekers who consume fiery ghost peppers for the camera. Is our own century’s choice of the daily news peculiarly debased?


Hardly, says Dr. Paulette Kilmer, professor of communication, whose research into 19th-century news amply demonstrates that sensationalism has driven news-gatherers for a long time. She’s contributed several chapters on related topics to an upcoming book resulting from her participation in three symposia since 2011 sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on the American press in the Civil War era.

“News stories touch on the human drama,” Kilmer said. “I would argue that there is no such thing as news that does not contain sensationalism. Crimes and disasters, accidents, war — these are dramatic. News, by definition, is what has happened, and these are things people either need to know or really want to know.”

As for today’s ghost pepper craze, arguably it generates less spice than the ghosts who were regular apparitions in 19th-century newspapers. Kilmer cites an 1894 New York Times story. Without mockery or irony, the news item covered the case of a ghost appearing in court to finger the dishonest cad who was his business partner in life. The upshot: The deceased man’s widow regained her rightful share of the inheritance.

“People who were in the courtroom told the reporter that they saw the ghost,” Kilmer said. “Was this total fabrication? Mass hysteria? We don’t know, but we know The New York Times did not report it as hooey.”

It’s one instance, she added, of a story’s underlying moral being more important than factuality: “The ending is just as it should be, since it facilitates justice.”

That distinction arose from the earliest days of American newspapers, Kilmer noted. “The first thing the colonial press wanted to do was build a community and help people survive. Once we became our own country, the goal shifted to creating good citizens with shared values.”

It’s a philosophy that marks one difference between the 19th century and ours, but in many cases, the raw material of news remains the same. Take that courtroom ghost; it serves as just one example of other-worldly news content. According to Kilmer, ghosts represent an archetype — in this case, the restless soul, the wanderer — that remains with us in 2012. Think “Ghost Hunters,” “Celebrity Ghost Stories” or the continuing underground frisson of “zombie apocalypse.”

Archetypes lie at the center of much of Kilmer’s research. Paraphrasing from a well-worn volume of Carl Jung, she said, “The archetypes provide bridges to the subconscious and are also crucial because of the need all humans have for creative thinking if they are to prosper.”

According to Jung and other philosophers, Kilmer said, a vast repository of archetypes exist in the shared human unconscious: “They’re patterns — form without content — and our life experiences provide the content. We are not required to use every archetype in our brain; they surface as we need them, to help us make sense of what we encounter throughout our lives.”

When these patterns crystallize as myths, fairy tale or news stories, the archetypes take on a printed form. The more sensational the story, it seems, the stronger the role archetypes tend to play.

Although the garden-variety journalist of the 19th century wouldn’t have known an archetype from a split infinitive, Kilmer said, “The problem is that the writer, no matter how starkly and factually the story is presented, cannot control the reader who will plug it into a whole web of experiences and make it into a different, personal story.”

She advises readers to approach today’s news with an eye to archetypes. In research easily spanning a thousand 19th-century news stories, for example, she’s read many lynching accounts. It’s a subject now blessedly rare in American journalism, but as Kilmer noted, “Some of those old stories invoke the monster archetype, citizens protecting the community against the monster. That carries on in today’s news.” (As well as in those shambling, community-shattering zombies.)

For every horrific crime story, she said, readers will invoke the monster archetype, branding the perpetrator as outside the pale of humanity: “Although archetypes within us are neutral, they will be invoked and interpreted differently, depending on where and when we live.”

Sensationalism aside, Kilmer keeps an eye on the continued morphing of journalism. She appreciates the increased availability of news but isn’t optimistic about what she views as a splintered selectivity allowed by today’s technology. “Some scholars believe that people read every word of the earliest American papers,” she said. “I think that the ritual, the delivery, the gatekeeping and the sharing of traditional newspapers are vital in creating a sense of community.

“Will online news be able to do that? I don’t know, but I do know that our American democracy was built on newspapers and on a balanced presentation of news. A lot of mischief in our politics now happens because our newspapers are in decline as people go online to read what they want, rather than being forced to read what the other side is saying.

“After all, we can’t count on ghosts to save us from our greed or foolishness.”

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