News in an age of competition: the case of
sensationalism in Dutch television news, 1995-2001
The quality of the mass media performance has been subject of discussion for many decades, not only
among media practitioners and their critics but also among media students (McQuail, 1992). One of the
main topics in these discussions concerns the impact of market-driven journalism on the quality of the
news coverage. Most researchers and critics expect market-driven journalism to have negative effects.
They expect it will produce news with a generally low informational level and a homogeneous content,
directed primarily at those sections of the population that are most interesting to the advertisers (e.g.,
Bagdikian, 1985; McManus, 1994; Underwood, 1988). According to others, however, the effects of
market-driven journalism are not purely negative. Their main argument is that the pressure of the market
urges journalists to take the information needs of the public very seriously (McManus, 1994, pp. 2-3).
Research on market-driven journalism is complicated by many theoretical and analytical problems.
Notably, defining the market and its major players is often a difficult task, which involves decisions that
are sometimes arbitrary (Albarran, 1996). The conceptualization and measurement of quality is another
problematic task, which can be accomplished according to many conceivable but also arbitrary criteria
(McQuail, 1992; Schatz & Schulz, 1992). Lastly, developments in technology and journalistic values are
concurrent influences on journalistic products, which complicate the analysis of market influences. For
instance, a study by Tuggle and Huffman (1999) documented the interplay between technology,
journalistic values, and market demands in decisions concerning live reporting. At a more theoretical
level, McManus (1994) described how journalistic values may converge with market demands in the
coverage of some events but also may conflict with market demands in the coverage of other events.
Researchers have not been discouraged by these problems. They have studied market-driven journalism
under various headings. The most prominent examples of these are the concept of diversity (e.g.,
Coulson & Lacy, 1996; Lacy, 1990) and a concept that might be best described as "sensationalism"
(Grabe, Zhou, & Barnett, 2001; Slattery, Doremus, & Marcus, 2001 ; Slattery & Hakanen, 1994). The
present study focuses on the latter concept. First, this study aims at expanding a recent conceptualization
of sensationalism that is largely based on the limited capacity model of mediated messages (cf. Grabe,
Lang, & Zhao, 2003; Grabe et al., 2001 ). Second, it will establish the extent of sensationalism in
television news in a setting that recently witnessed an increase in competition between news
organizations, that is, the Netherlands between 1995 and 2001.
The Concept of Sensationalism