How sensationalism fixates the modern world

Press Office

Why does the language of sensation articulate so much of our view of modern life? How did the media become fixated with sensationalism?

New research, contained in two recently published books by John Jervis, an expert in cultural studies, throws fresh light on public fascination with emotion and the dramatic.

Both works explore how people’s perception of the ‘thrills, spills and shocks’ of modern life has increasingly become informed by the sensational depiction of such events in the media and popular culture.

In Sensational Subjects: The Dramatization of Experience in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, January 2015), John Jervis considers the way murder became a staple of the popular press in the early nineteenth century, with gruesome descriptions deployed to make a direct impact on the sensations of the reader.

This fascination grew so that by the end of the 20th Century the mass media sensationalism had become the norm, with depictions of sensation taken up by literature, art and film.

In the contemporary world, the dramatisation of these experiences has seen mass panics over issues such as paedophilia and terrorism take on the form of a melodramatic battle between good and evil, the book suggests.

In Sympathetic Sentiments: Affect, Emotion and Spectacle in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, January 2015), John Jervis explores the implications of living in a culture of ‘feeling’ that, paradoxically, appears to be ill at ease with itself. Modern life exhibits a distinctive ‘spectacle of sympathy’, in which sympathy entails public forms of expression that, the book suggests, represent both a condition of the authenticity of such affects and their capacity to be simulated.

This affect is demonstrated in a range of controversies central to modern life, including contemporary debates surrounding trauma and compassion fatigue, the book suggests.

John Jervis is Research Fellow in Cultural Studies in the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. Previous works include Uncanny Modernity: Cultural Theories, Modern Anxieties. (co-author Jo Collins. Palgrave, 2008).