Voice of Leadership: Addressing Social Media Sensationalism

Voice of Leadership: Addressing Social Media Sensationalism

The landscape of our current knowledge sharing through media channels in American society can be alarming to most people. Sensationalism is common, throwing out emotional pictures and distorted information without offering the proper context to make a reasonable conclusion. We have seen this to be true across multiple controversies. Shifting popular opinion through this tactic is nothing new, but its consequences impact our shooting and hunting heritage. The solution is to train leaders to promote a nuanced approach that supports empirical research and meaningful conversations and then allows people to decide what to believe and support. This encouragement will produce real ambassadors for hunting, providing more strength than by feeding our peers a few simplified arguments.

Sensationalism is easy to recognize. It is all around us and uses solid words or pictures to grab the attention of others. As explained in the 2021 article “Sensationalism in Media” written by Rylan Vanacore, “Media outlets resort to shocking words, exaggeration and sometimes blatant lies.” We see this regularly in the media when it comes to coverage of hunting and shooting, which Vanacore refers to “anti-hunting propaganda.” But when the opposition is screaming loudly, that doesn’t mean hunters should scream louder. I think we should whisper something wise.

It is interesting to see this sensationalism in all aspects of our society, not just when addressing controversy surrounding hunting. Medical science has had its fair share of sensationalism as well. As far back as 2001, the article “Sensationalism in the Media: When Scientists and Journalists May Be Complicit Collaborators” by David and Richard Ransohoff claims that “sensationalism may prevent the public from being knowledgeable participants in policy discussions about scientific issues.” Offering some insight into sensationalism in the hunting context, the article notes that “because democracies rely on an informed citizenry to debate and decide among policy choices, sensationalism may threaten effective involvement by desensitizing the public to information about medical science through repetitive cycles of excitement and disappointment.” A similar cynicism was called out in the reporting of political news as it is sometimes easier for journalists to report superficial controversies than to conduct deeper analyses of complicated problems.

The article calls out the trend toward tabloidization, trivialization, sensationalism and dumbing down in science writing and how it may drive away readers and viewers. “In politics and biomedicine, the complexity of a problem may be sacrificed to the expediency of a simple and gripping story,” it notes. “Without recognizing these tactics, we may not be prepared to respond appropriately.”

If recognizing sensationalism is the first step in combating it, then understanding why it is used is also helpful. In a general sense, it seems to increase viewing time, which is especially true for news with harmful content. According to Vanacore, “with the right wording, the most mundane thing can be blown out of proportion.” He continues to say that once you get someone's attention, then you know you can weave your way through a very convoluted and implausible argument and make it appear more reasonable, twisting the facts along the way. We find this practice in anti-hunting messages all the time. However, we see a similar injustice when hunters assume people know the value of hunting, including as a wildlife management tool. Images of blood, death or anything of that nature require many explanations to be accepted by people unfamiliar with hunting. Hunters need to see this necessity as reasonable and welcome the opportunity to explain instead of justifying their practice with simple explanations that don't address the concerns that arise when people see such content.

Also keep in mind that, as the Ransohoffs noted, it can be argued that issues requiring considerable scientific data analysis may be a little dull. To be fair, the average citizen may not follow all the science of wildlife conservation with passion or be able to talk intelligently about the whys behind their beliefs. Because of this, conclusions drawn can be less than objective. Hunters may not be knowledgeable in ways that would really help their cause, and conversations with nonhunters can be poorly communicated. Similarly, when it comes to medial reporting, the Ransohoffs note, “Journalists may create a human-interest angle in a personal story that may distort research that has meaning only in a broader statistical context.” The perspective that sees the similarities between these controversies and how public opinion is affected can be beneficial.

The answer to the ever-present sensationalism in media and the negative impact on our hunting heritage lies with us—the hunting industry leaders—to encourage empirical research, a fuller understanding of the science, and passionate communication to hunters and nonhunters alike. The question-and-answer website Quora defines nuance as “giving deep explanations with a variety of things to consider for a complex subject instead of just making an opinion with no room for disagreement. It is a suggestion versus a declaration.” As explained in the article “The 3 Anti-Hunting Arguments We Should Actually Worry About” by Brian Lynn, sensationalism makes a conclusion no matter what the science says, arguing that hunters can be just as guilty of this as nonhunters. Lynn calls the mainstream media “unquestioning” and shares that if hunters took the time and energy to explain hunting, then the argument with anti-hunters might be more straightforward. The bottom line is that science supports wildlife conservation. We merely must highlight this fact and speak about it readily and with compassion, not anger.

I have personally found some great resources for hunters, most specifically the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum (HLF) book, “How to Talk about Hunting: Research-based Communication Strategies.” The NRA HLF provided this resource in 2020 to educate hunters in how to share effective communication with hunters and nonhunters and to effectively and persuasively tell the story of hunting.

In addressing sensationalism, the article “Is Sensationalist Disinformation More Effective? Three Facilitating Factors at the National, Individual, and Situational Level” written by media researchers in Switzerland and Belgium encourages people to take advantage of the good parts of sensationalism. They write, “Delivery has a sort of gymnastics to it—an amplification or fancy embroidery. The key is to make sure it has logical and solid data backing it up and then provide neutralness so intelligent people see the logic and decide for themselves.” Importantly, the article defines nuance as a subtle suggestion while sensationalism makes a conclusion.

I conclude this discussion with a warning to be aware of sensationalism that seeks to simplify complex arguments. Focus on encouraging inquisitiveness regarding the objective facts of wildlife conservation, and the willingness to engage in meaningful conversations with friends, not enemies. Those screaming in the social media arena aren’t reasonable, and everyone can spot it a mile away. Our real audience is those unaware of the conservation value. Most are up for a respectful conversation if we are prepared to communicate effectively, which takes us back to the NRA HLF book. This allows others to decide for themselves with the new information you give them.

I call on you to appeal to people’s legitimate reasoning and use the acquired knowledge of conservation to strengthen your love for your hobby, not merely justify it. This is in the context of our hunting heritage and so many other controversial subjects of our time. We hunters must lead in this way and be examples of encouraging objectivity before forcing a conclusion on others. I believe reasonable people will see our reasonableness and will respect our view more easily. As stated in Philippians 4:5 in the Bible, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” I believe that when others view this type of thoughtfulness, they will be inspired to do the same.

2021-2022 Voice of Leadership Panel
The Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire and educate participants within our community. This year’s panel includes:

  • Cyrus Baird—Senior Director of Government Affairs, Delta Waterfowl
  • Karen Butler—Founder/President, SLG2, INC DBA: Shoot Like A Girl
  • Eric Morris—Producer & Host, N.onT.ypical Outdoorsman TV
  • Ken Perrotte—President of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers
  • Brenda Weatherby—Director of People and Culture, Weatherby Inc.
  • Courtney Nicolson—Associate Director of Communications, Sportsmen's Alliance