Sensational News!

This post was written by Myndalynn Word (MC ’21) and was edited by N. Locklin.

In the 1920s, journalism was changing. This was due to the changes in technology and emerging trends in radio. With all new technologies, previously popular modes of entertainment risked being old fashioned. Newspapers had to become more entertaining in the 1920s, “Jazz journalism brought with it sensational stories printed in a popular tabloid format. Modern media’s obsession with sex and crime has nothing on the era’s scandalous content,” says Rick Musser in his History of American Journalism. In the 1920s, people began to see a shift, where stories that evoked sensation were being published in order to keep newspapers relevant.

In the 1920s, the perfect storm for a chance to provide some sensationalism was a murder in town, especially a small town. While these murders were truly happening, sometimes the headlines were made more exciting in order to get people to read them. Murder in East Tennessee is something that people were not expecting. Personally, I do not see the reason to hype these stories up even more. Murder is crazy enough to hear about; why feel the need to make false claims? To closely examine sensationalism in the 1920s, let us consider three different news articles reporting on the Night Marauder case in Maryville. In looking at these three articles, it is important to make sure they are each from a different town: Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. That way, readers can see the pattern between these, and it will not just be by chance that it happened in one.

On August 22, 1925, a newspaper in Nashville, TN included information on the Emery Letter, an anonymous letter sent to the Blount County Sheriff, boasting of the crimes. At the top of the news column was the headline: SCRIPT ON NOTE SHEFFEY’S, SAYS WRITING EXPERT. Followed by “Shooting Women is Fun, Marauder’s Letters Avers.” Then below that, “Employer Identifies Hand: Victims are Listed.” These are all a part of the headline and byline. There are a few reasons why sensationalism is present here. First, the whole article does not concern the writing expert who testified. That expert appears in the last paragraph and is barely mentioned. It for sure was a tactic to get readers to stick around for the whole article. However, it seems unfair to make a claim about what the article is going to be about, all in bold, capital letters, when that is not even the main point of the article. There is sensationalism present here because readers expect that this means Sheffey is guilty.

The next aspect of this headline that is important to look at is: “‘Shooting Women is Fun’, Marauder’s Letters Avers.” The headline is claiming that the Marauder’s letter states, “Shooting women is fun” and actually has it in quotes. However, when looking at the actual document of the Emery Letter, it does not say this. It especially does not say this word for word. From a journalistic perspective, it may be a lot more interesting to people to see ‘shooting women is fun’ instead of what was written, “I wish you would tell some of those girls to holler so I can have the fun shooting them.” He is really saying that he only has fun shooting a woman if she will scream for him. Some may say that this is similar enough to not be sensationalism. I disagree. Either way, it is horrible. This could make women more scared, causing more pain than good.

Finally, at the very beginning of the paper, the article claims that the employer testified it was Sheffey’s hand who had written the Emery letter. However, when you get into the article, one finds out that there was not enough evidence to even make that claim. One person said that it was absolutely Sheffey’s, while another said they could not be sure. The article made it sound like there was more evidence against Sheffey when there was not. It is frustrating to see these types of headlines because it is very misleading for worried people in the community.

The next news piece comes from the Chattanooga Daily Times and was published on August 21, 1925. Unlike the previous source, this one actually has some good information, with reliable headlines. Such as: STATE SOUNDS OLD CASE ECHO AT MARYVILLE. Followed by, “Sister of Dora Davis Witness Against Sheffey.” Both of these headlines are not examples of sensationalism; they are both true statements that are not trying to mislead readers. The only area that may be a little misleading is the headline: LETTERS USED TO PROVE SHEFFEY’S HANDWRITING. There was a likeness, but it was never proven. Either way, this article seems to be fair and not mislead the people reading it.

The final primary source is taken from The Knoxville News from August 21, 1925. Across the very top of the newspaper, it reads: SAYS FIEND LETTER IS BY SHEFFEY. Immediately, this screams sensationalism. Using the word ‘fiend’ evokes a certain emotion. Also, as previously mentioned, it is not completely proven that the letter is by Sheffey. This exhibits sensationalism because it makes it seem like something is true when it actually is not and also uses flashy language that evokes the emotion of fear.

Knoxville News headline

Underneath the huge headline, there is a smaller article titled: EXPERT CITES LIKENESSES OF WORDS WITH HIS. Here, in much smaller writing, they are explaining that it is just a likeness. With the headline, they are provoking sensationalism, but the actual article title explains what is really going on. The expert says that they are similar, but there is not enough evidence to actually convict Sheffey.

It is always important to read these articles fully and carefully. Just because the headline says something, it may not be true. Unfortunately, sensationalism is not something that has disappeared. Regardless of what someone is researching, they should be very careful when looking at newspaper headlines.

What is in common with all three of these articles? Sheffey. In every single headline, he is mentioned. The even bigger question is…why? The media seems to glorify mass murderers when they should really be focusing on the victims and their families. One possible way to stop the glorification of murderers is to report on events and victims but avoid all mention of suspects until after their trials are over. This will keep the focus on those who suffered and the people who loved them rather than the violent criminals. Newspapers should not be naming the people responsible because it only gives them more reason to seek this negative attention.

Another way newspapers can stop glorifying the murderer is by stopping sensationalism. With the emergence of jazz journalism in the 1920s, different companies were trying to make the best stories. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of false headlines to get people to read through the story. A perfect example of this is when the Nashville newspaper literally made up a quote that was supposedly taken from the Emery Letter. In the end, the headlines should be about the women he murdered. There was literally a list of victims in the Emery Letter, yet everyone is still focusing on the suspect. Does it really help the victims’ families when they see all this news coverage about Sheffey, but their family members are still gone?

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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