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The Sensationalism-to-Get-Buzz Formula

PUBLISHED: December 5, 2012


Ruminatrix / bullhorn sign

By Ruminatrix / Flickr / Creative Commons


I have no beef with sensationalism in my entertainment. For years now, I’ve been known to wind down with the sort of television that has no reason for existing, no stakes in the real world. Sometimes you need a mental nap, and these shows provide it, whether it’s in the form of an aging hype man looking for someone special with whom to kick it, or a group of people wondering what the heck that noise was while hunting ghosts.

The deal is this: You know you’re not coming out of the viewing experience with any enrichment—no new knowledge, no greater empathy, no tweaks to your world view. You recognize that you’re participating in a distraction.

In the past few years, though, I’ve noticed this sort of distraction getting into non-fiction—meaty, thought-provoking nonfiction—that makes my fan-girl heart beat all aflutter. Oh, no, I thought. Not in my backyard.


A friend of mine once described a coworker as “the kind of guy who you know isn’t listening to you; he’s just waiting for you to shut up so he can start talking again.”

I’ve been editing and writing long enough to know that this is how publishing sometimes feels, especially in times of stress. When you’ve just edited a piece that you wish everyone in the country would read, or when your book—years of work!—is about to release, it can feel as if you’re at an enormous party where everyone is talking over you, convinced that their story is the essential one. Sometimes it is. But sometimes the loudest voices are just the ones that have been able to secure a bigger megaphone. They are Someone Important’s darlings.

What the heck was that noise? It’s buzz.


I first became aware of the formula for getting buzz after reading something by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. Flanagan is an enormously gifted writer, which is partly why her essays enraged me so much. I can’t remember now exactly which essay really pushed my buttons. (Was it the one urging us married ladies to have sex when we don’t want to? Or her attack on employed mothers? Or, wait, the one in which she essentially posits that girls would do better if they were hermetically sealed under glass until sometime in their mid-twenties?)

I do clearly remember having a weekend-long conversation with my friend Stephanie about Flanagan’s work over the phone, the two of us venting about how Flanagan couldn’t really believe some of the anti-feminist, retro stuff she was writing?

Could she?

We’d rant about her work, and fifteen minutes later, one of us would call the other back. “And another thing!” I ended the weekend with a red ear from the phone pressed against it, plus a mild spike in my blood pressure.

Eventually, I caught on to Flanagan’s formula.

1. Make a blatantly ridiculous statement.
2. Watch your buzz grow as your intended audience works itself into a lather about it, generating a lot of web traffic (fired especially by social media).
3. When asked to defend your blatantly ridiculous statement, point to the less ridiculous arguments in your writing, and/or take a superior attitude and act as if your detractor isn’t smart enough to understand hyperbole.

If it were just Flanagan dabbling in the sensationalism-to-get buzz formula, I could deal with that. She’s just one writer, after all, and no one’s forcing me to read her work.

But she’s not the only one. Over the years, I’ve noticed writers—like Flanagan, talented writers—using the formula. Amy Chua debuted as Tiger Mom by declaring that Chinese mothers are superior (she didn’t have control over the WSJ headline, the publication that excerpted Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, but she did take the attitude that parents reap what they sow and the Chinese crop was, well, better). David Shields, in his 2010 book Reality Hunger, declares the novel dead. In this year’s The Lifespan of a Fact, a debate between Jim Fingal and James D’Agata, D’Agata maintains that a writer of nonfiction can change known facts for the sake of the story’s artfulness. (There are probably many other examples of this, but I already lament that I’ll never have enough time to read everything I want to in my lifetime, so howsabout you point them out to me in the comments?)

All three of these books got roaring buzz.


The kiss of death for any publication is a reputation for publishing boring work. No one wants to helm the S.S. Sleep Aid. Any good editor wants to publish thought-provoking work—but there is a distinction between sensationalism and provocation, between gimmickry and creativity. (For what it’s worth, I think David Shields is straddling that line. The provocative part of his argument centers around a rallying cry for innovation in form, particularly in the essay form.)

What drives some editors to cross the line? I’m thinking it’s a desire for notoriety, money (more page views means more ad dollars), or both. Sure, they can justify it by claiming that this is the zeitgeist now—because, you know, The Internet!—but the result is the same: a whole lot of Sturm und Drang about non-issues.

When I started my first professional job at a local alternative newsweekly, lo, so many years ago when we still pasted up the paper, the first lesson my editor taught me was that our responsibility was to the reader. While the ad department was around to keep the lights on, without the reader, the whole shebang wouldn’t exist. I hang onto this belief and all that it implies—respect the readers’ intelligence, give them an engaging reading experience, recognize them as a community—with a fervor that borders on the religious.

More recently, I co-edited Brain, Child, a literary magazine for mothers. In looking at pitches from writers, we’d want to know, before we assigned anything, what the burning question was. We wanted that question to be interesting enough to warrant space in our pages. It never occurred to us to run something that couldn’t even be formulated into a question that matters.

Good writers don’t have to fiddle around with their readers’ minds to make a point. Amy Chua could just have easily made her burning question, “Can Chinese mothering work with my recalcitrant Western child?” and still have written a charming book. David Shields could have asked simply, “Where is the innovation in writing right now?” They would have found readers like me and—bonus!—they would have been able to maintain those readers’ trust.

Yes, I know this makes me sound like some throwback idealist. But using sensationalism to bring readers to your publication strikes me as cheating. And it strikes me as unfair that when a publication breaks its compact with the reader, it’s actually rewarded. In my rabid idealist fantasies, there’s a tribunal that holds publications accountable. Run, say, a manufactured conflict about feminism and the workplace, and boom! The next issue must be composed entirely of an apology to readers.


When I’m reading nonfiction now, I steer clear of anything that smacks of sensationalism. In social media, I don’t post or tweet the links, and I don’t participate in discussions that are, essentially, people getting worked into a frenzy over a distraction.

Recently, I accidentally read two different nonfiction pieces in which the writer reveals—eventually—that what we’ve just read was fiction. So we can just manipulate readers now through misdirection and not even bother finding a real story? That’s a thing?

The actual world we inhabit is beautiful and strange and troubling enough. We shouldn’t have to rely on sensationalism. Here’s a smattering of what you have time to read when you cut out the distractions:

Gila Lyons’s “The Wolf Is Waiting,” an eloquent essay on panic attacks

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s nuanced piece on kids “hate-tweeting” Obama and where racism comes from

Emily Rapp’s “Dirty or Clean?” an essay so gorgeous and raw that I feel like a better person having read it

The Hairpin’s fascinating, pseudonymously-written series on growing up Scientologist

And Manal al-Sharif’s “Driving My Own Destiny,” an essay about Saudi women’s freedom, published in VQR’s Fall issue. It’s wonderful in its own right, but it also brought my attention to the reality that, although we hear about women in the Middle East, we rarely hear from them.


Somewhere, I suppose, Caitlin Flanagan is still churning out some gorgeously written, anti-feminist work. We have yet to see a surge in Chinese-style parenting here among Western parents. People are still reading novels, and most of the nonfiction writers out there seem to be okay with using facts as they exist.

After three seasons, the aging hype man didn’t find someone special on his show after all. He’s engaged to someone from his untelevised life and was recently arrested for allegedly attacking her and threatening to kill her teenage son.


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Anjali's picture
Totally agree with you here! It’s gotten out of control. The worst part, is that most people consider the buzz bona fide news! Ugh. Great piece, Jennifer.
Jennifer Niesslein's picture
Jennifer Niesslein · 11 years ago
Thanks, Anjali!
Evgenia's picture
Evgenia · 11 years ago
Is it just a coincidence that the works expounding certain ideas, with which Jennifer Niesslein seems to strongly disagree a priori, are being used as examples of extreme sensationalism? And is it another coincidence that the pieces, which don’t seem to contradict Jennifer Niesslein’s obvious ideological bias, are held up as examples of great non-sensationalist (as well as “gorgeous”, “fascinating”, “eloquent”, “wonderful”, and “nuanced”) writing?
Adrienne Jones's picture
Thank you, Jennifer. I too have gotten frustrated with the noisy headlines and blatant attempts to generate controversy. In a world where pageviews are cash, it takes real effort to filter all that out and read and write what is real.
Barbara's picture
Barbara · 11 years ago
Evgenia, 1. In what way is there an “ideological bias” when she says there are some sensationalist slants being used to drive buzz? You think her stating this extremely common and well-known marketing tactic is somehow being intentionally provocative? 2. Those are called “adjectives.” Sometimes a writer uses them to describe things.
Katy Read's picture
Farhad Manjoo on Slate recently wrote a piece titled “Stop Calling Me a Troll” (…)– “me” in this case being anyone who states a strong opinion with which one vehemently disagrees. He’s right; “trolls” are mom’s basement types who seek to piss people off and start arguments as entertainment, not grownup professionals making outrageous statements as part of their work. But Manjoo overlooked the vast field in between, from Ann Coulter to Time magazine’s hot mom breastfeeding a preschooler to all of your examples – people who aren’t wholly insincere but get intentionally exaggerated or in-your-face as a branding device, or for the sake of attention, sales and clicks. You captured it perfectly – congratulations!
Bill Peschel's picture
It’s like this, Barbara: If I write something you agree with, it’s gorgeous, fascinating and wonderful. If I write something you disagree with violently, it’s biased and sensationalist. If the writer had peppered her essay with one example of Flanagan’s provocative writing that she thought was not to the point or distracting from her message, I would be more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. Instead, she flags it and moves on, as if everyone would believe her. Those of us who have read her essays and found them thoughtful and worth considering would disagree.
Jennifer Niesslein's picture
Jennifer Niesslein · 11 years ago
Thanks for kind words and/or the discussion, everyone. The Manjoo piece was really interesting, Katy–in the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means,” right? Evgenia and Bill, I’m assuming that you’re only really talking about the Flanagan and possibly the Marie Myung-Ok Lee references. (There’s nothing particularly political in an essay about panic attacks or the state of innovation in nonfiction.) I didn’t specifically quote Flanagan because I believe at this point, her tendency toward inflammatory rhetoric is more than well-documented. If you haven’t seen it, here’s an lively (and long) discussion between her and Barbara Ehrenreich, with Sara Mosle moderating:… You certainly have the right to disagree with me, but you might want to note that I described Flanagan as “enormously gifted” and her work as “gorgeously written.”

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