Sensational media practices, often dismissed as tawdry and trivial, perform significant cultural work in the production of knowledge and the consolidation of and resistance to social and political power. Sensationalism conveys a carnivalesque ethos that deliberately pushes boundaries yet tends to maintain the status quo; it often operates as a powerful stealth actor in the public sphere, while thriving on not being taken seriously. This special issue of Feminist Media Histories scrutinizes journalism and non-fiction operating in an array of geographical contexts and media forms – print, radio, television, newsreel, documentary, social media, gifs, etc. – to gain a better understanding of the mode’s many valances.
Theorizing Sensationalism seeks critical and intersectional analyses of experience based media that reveal how it has shaped – and disrupted – popular understandings of events and social phenomena. In particular, we seek work that moves beyond untheorized case studies – which often take an “I know it when I see it” approach – to shed light on how sensationalism produces social knowledge, and for what purposes. Sensationalism is a cultural construct often posited as antithetical to objectivity, but it also has functioned as a new form of (revelatory) knowledge and agent of reform, a means of infusing news with entertainment, a strategy to mobilize or motivate action or resistance, a form of ‘click-bait’ that lures in audiences or generates scandal for scandal’s sake, an object of debate, an allegation used by commentators to dismiss certain media productions as irrational, exaggerated, or false, as well as a rallying point for populist movements.
Despite the ubiquity of sensationalist media forms over two centuries, historians of the press, in particular, have tended to minimize the mode, in part because sex, gender, race, and class are often its enabling themes. From ante-bellum accounts of slavery and poverty, through salacious headlines and images in illustrated police weeklies, to the raucous output of tabloid newspapers, television news, and online content, sensational forms shaped discourse and thus demand serious theorizing. On the one hand, through deliberate appeals to feeling, sensational media practices not only reflect the economic imperatives of the press in different contexts, but also serve various political and social interests. On the other, experienced-based knowledge (often labeled “subjective”) vies for authority with traditional expert-sourced “evidence” favored under the rubric of objectivity. This special issue hopes to advance conceptual understandings of sensationalism by transcending the false dichotomy between rationality and emotion that continues to underlie many common conceptions of the term.
There is a rich and engaging scholarly literature on sensationalism in nineteenth-century fiction and the “culture of sensation” that emerged around early film and cheap amusements. However, historians of journalism and non-fiction rarely subject sensationalism to the same theoretical scrutiny as objectivity, against which sensationalism often appears as the less serious (or inferior) opposite. This is a significant oversight because the objectivity paradigm in journalism has historically elided issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other salient, geographically specific social divisions which historically (for right or wrong) have provided the raw materials for sensationalist productions. At a time when journalistic objectivity is under intense scrutiny in the United States and elsewhere, especially in the wake of disparate trends, such as the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter protests, a growing fog of misinformation, and the rise of repressive, far-right regimes globally, there is likewise a need for work that theorizes (and critiques) sensationalism’s central standing in past and current media.
We welcome proposals that focus on a range of geographic and historical contexts as well as media forms. Submissions may focus on, but are not limited to, exploring the following questions:
Interested contributors should contact guest editors Amanda Frisken and Gretchen Soderlund directly, sending a 500-word proposal and short bio no later than July 15, 2021 to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Contributors will be notified by August 1, 2021; article drafts will be due by December 1, 2021 and then will be sent out for anonymous peer review.