Misinformation overload
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Misinformation overload

The rise of sensational stories in journalism is coming at the expense of in-depth reporting and balanced perspectives

Misinformation overload

From exaggerated crime reports to hyperbolic political coverage, the trend towards dramatisation is reshaping how the public consumes news in Thailand, especially on television screens. Critics, however, have raised a red flag that this not only distorts fact-based reality but also undermines the media's role in providing accurate and responsible journalism, potentially leaving audiences more misinformed and emotionally manipulated.

This was a major concern shared among media experts at a recent seminar hosted by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). They discussed whether sensationalised news programmes "reflect" or "aggravate" social problems. The conversation particularly aimed to tackle concerns about how licensed TV channels allocate significant airtime to sensational news, often leading to public complaints and administrative actions.

Pirongrong Ramasoota, NBTC's broadcasting commissioner, revealed that a recent survey of news programmes broadcast on digital TV during February and March showed that approximately 20 out of 30 programmes were deemed sensational news shows, making up two-thirds of all news content. These programmes often feature hosts who extend minimal content into lengthy discussions, emphasising sensationalism, emotional impact and dramatic storytelling over straightforward, factual reporting.

While this approach can be used to increase viewership and engagement, it may also lead to misinformation, biased reporting and a lack of focus on important news topics. Pirongrong added that several news programmes have faced complaints and administrative action over segments, including four cases of crime news, five cases of child and youth abuse, three cases of human rights violations, and four cases of violence stemming from conflicting opinions. News presented in a confrontational format aims to amplify and reinforce violence in order to evoke strong emotional responses from viewers and to create a sense of satisfaction and engagement.

"[Some] producers may have good intentions to inform viewers about the incidents, yet sensational news programmes often inadvertently present physical violence that reinforces structural violence in society," Pirongrong said, adding that this calls for a critical reassessment of whether such news programmes should continue in their current form.

Audiences have witnessed the use of sensational language and repeated display of inappropriate images, raising concerns about the ethical implications and the impact on public perception.

In many dramatised news reports, individuals involved are portrayed as characters, and events are coloured with heightened emotions. Some reporters may use irrelevant sources to highlight a character's traits without verifying their pertinence to the story. In a recent crime report, the journalist conducted an interview with the mother-in-law of a suspect's ex-wife, a person who had long divorced the suspect and was clearly not involved in the incident.

Theema Kanchanapairin, a presenter on Channel ONE31, noted that current news programmes have significantly changed in format, from reporting and talks to sensationalism and variety. The shift began with experiments in presentation formats, particularly for evening and nightly news. These programmes started incorporating dramatic elements and storytelling techniques similar to those found in screenplays or movies.

"This approach gained significant popularity, enabling Thai news to outperform dramas in viewership. This shift has led to a new phenomenon in the media industry -- sensationalising news stories to attract viewers, boost ratings and increase advertising sales," Theema said.

This trend poses a significant challenge in the news industry. As a result, current news presentations often blend traditional news with new formats, such as in-depth reports and the integration of technology, to create programmes that are both entertaining and informative.

Sensational news often employs a variety of techniques to captivate audiences and evoke strong emotions. Language and narrative techniques include the use of hyperbolic language with exaggerated terms, crafting stories with strong emotional appeal, attention-grabbing sensational headlines, and suspenseful storytelling. Isolated incidents are used to generalise trends, conflicts are highlighted, speculative scenarios are presented as news, and expert opinions are dramatised.

Meanwhile, vivid and disturbing imagery, music and sound effects enhance the emotional impact, and fast-paced editing creates a sense of urgency and provokes curiosity. Content selection and presentation techniques include selective reporting that highlights certain aspects while omitting others, repetition of sensational details, using celebrities, and focusing on emotionally appealing human-interest stories.

The increasing prevalence of sensational and emotionally charged news content has raised concerns about mental health impacts and decline in quality information.

Dr Worat Chotpitayasunon, a spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health, Ministry of Public Health, emphasised that the media industry faces significant changes due to economic and technological pressures, leading to the decline of state-regulated traditional media and the rise of entertainment content.

"Society's preference for emotionally resonant news, such as crime stories, has led to a format that emphasises detailed storytelling and emotional engagement. This approach can desensitise viewers to violence and pain, impacting mental health and societal perceptions," he said.

In addition to desensitisation, sensational news can influence audiences to "learn" harmful behaviours, such as ­copycat suicide attempts detailed by news hosts. This type of reporting can also contribute to a perception of the world as an unpleasant and constantly threatening place, a phenomenon known as "mean world syndrome".

This shift towards light and entertaining content over in-depth reporting can hinder people's access to quality information and affect decision-making in daily life.

"The media plays a significant role in shaping our worldview and how we evaluate events. When entertainment takes precedence over informative content, it alters not just our news but also our decision-making and worldviews," Dr Worat explained, stressing the importance of media balancing engaging content with social responsibility to promote accurate understanding.

The phenomenon of sensational news extends beyond Thailand and television news consumption. Supinya Klangnarong, a Policy Committee member of the Consumer Council, pointed to Reuters research highlighting troubling trends in media consumption that sidestep quality news.

"Media outlets increasingly prioritise entertainment over in-depth reporting and thorough investigation. This trend is particularly evident in societies experiencing a rise in news avoidance," she said.

Research indicates a stark contrast between Nordic countries and Thailand in news consumption habits. For instance, 63% of Finns get their news directly from media sources, while only 7% of Thais do, with 60% relying on social media. This high reliance on social media in Thailand, compared to other Asean countries, suggests growing scepticism about media quality and reliability.

Supinya stressed the need for the media to produce trustworthy content to aid in informed decision-making.

"The media must balance entertainment with social responsibility, providing both engaging and informative news to help citizens understand the world deeply and accurately," said Supinya, also a co-founder of the fact-checking organisation Cofact Thailand.

The Reuters research also revealed a correlation between press freedom and public confidence in the media. Countries with more press freedom tend to have more accurate and fair reporting, leading to greater public trust and a willingness to pay for quality news. In contrast, Thailand's lower confidence in media independence has led to a greater reliance on social media, which can sometimes spread misinformation.

"Thailand needs to enhance media standards to ensure true independence and quality reporting," Supinya added. "Promoting media literacy is crucial for the public to distinguish between accurate and false information, fostering a well-informed society capable of navigating today's complex news landscape."

As technology and communication rapidly evolve, maintaining a reliable and comprehensive media is essential, particularly in combating misinformation on digital platforms and sensational news designed to boost advertising sales and public engagement. A strong and independent media is essential for guiding society through the information age with stability and fairness, Supinya concluded.

Assoc Prof Alongkorn Parivudhiphongs is head of the Department of Journalism and Information at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

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