How the Media Use Conspiracy Stories to Boost Sales: Unravelling Journalistic Tactics

The media has long been known for using sensational headlines and stories to attract readers, and conspiracy theories have proven to be particularly effective in capturing the public’s attention. Newspapers and other media outlets often cover conspiracy theories, sometimes even lending them credibility, to help boost their profits and keep audiences engaged. As these stories spread, they can lead to widespread speculation and misinformation, further complicating the relationship between the media and the public.

Conspiracy theories often thrive in an environment of uncertainty and mistrust, making them particularly appealing to media consumers seeking explanations for complex events. This in turn fuels the media’s interest in covering such stories, creating a cycle that perpetuates the spread of conspiracy theories. The resulting increase in exposure to these theories can significantly influence public opinion, affecting not only individuals but also the broader democratic process.

As the media continues to grapple with the implications of spreading conspiracy theories, it is crucial for organizations and consumers alike to critically assess the information presented and consider its impact on society. This will help promote responsible journalism and contribute to a more informed and discerning public.

Key Takeaways

  • Media outlets often cover conspiracy theories to boost profits and audience engagement
  • The proliferation of conspiracy theories can have significant impacts on public opinion and democracy
  • Promoting critical thinking and responsible journalism will help combat the spread of misinformation

Media and Conspiracy Theories

Factors Driving the Use of Conspiracy Stories

The media, especially newspapers, often use conspiracy theories as a means to garner attention and increase their sales. One driving factor behind this is the inherent human interest in the unknown and controversial, which makes stories containing elements of misinformation and conspiracy theories appealing to a wide audience. It plays on social and psychological aspects of human nature, such as mistrust, fear, and the desire to be part of a community that holds exclusive and secretive knowledge1.

In the age of the internet and social media, the competition for readership is more intense than ever, and as a result, there is a high demand for content that can stand out and grab attention. As a consequence, publishers are more inclined to disseminate stories containing conspiracy theories, even if the claims are not entirely true or fact-based. In some cases, political motivations or personal biases may further encourage newspapers to promote such theories, reinforcing their readers’ pre-existing beliefs or prejudices2.

The Role of Social Media

Social media has played a significant role in the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter facilitate the rapid sharing and communication of content, including conspiracy theories and misinformation3. As sensational or controversial content tends to generate more engagements, social media algorithms often prioritise these types of stories, amplifying their reach and impact4.

Furthermore, social media allows people with similar beliefs to connect and form communities that thrive on shared conspiracy theories and misinformation. These communities create echo chambers where ideas are reaffirmed and reinforced, making it difficult for members to encounter or accept alternative opinions and accurate information5.

In conclusion, the media, with the assistance of social media platforms, often utilise conspiracy theories as a means to generate attention and increase sales. The factors that drive this trend include psychological aspects of human nature, competition in the media landscape, and technological advancements that facilitate the rapid spread of sensational or controversial content. It is important for the public and industry stakeholders to recognise the role played by both traditional and new media in promoting conspiracy theories, in order to work towards a media landscape that prioritises accuracy and truth over sensationalism.


  1. Media use, social structure, and belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories
  2. News media literacy and conspiracy theory endorsement
  3. COVID-19 and the 5G conspiracy theory: social network analysis of Twitter data
  4. Unveiling the formation of conspiracy theory on social media: A discourse analysis
  5. Are newspapers´ online discussion boards democratic tools or conspiracy theories´ engines? A case study on an eastern European “media war”

Implications for Democracy and Society

Impact on Public Knowledge and Perception

The media’s use of conspiracy stories to sell newspapers has significant consequences for both democracy and society. For one, it can distort public knowledge and perception of important issues. During the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation and conspiracy theories spread rapidly through mainstream media, raising concerns for public health1. The proliferation of false information can lead to confusion and scepticism among the public, detracting from their ability to make informed decisions based on verifiable evidence.

Journalists have a responsibility to uphold democratic values by providing accurate and factual reporting. Moreover, they should prioritise public interest over entertainment value. Despite this, the media often capitalise on conspiracy theories to increase coverage and boost sales. This trend is problematic for the democratic process, as it encourages sensationalism over substance, skewing public knowledge and reality.

Conspiracy Theories and the Political Divide

Furthermore, the media’s focus on conspiracy theories serves to exacerbate the existing political divide in society. A study found that mainstream media exposure to conspiracy theories can negatively impact public opinion, with segments of the population reacting differently to critical stories.

For instance, conspiracy theories might deepen the polarisation between liberal and conservative factions. This fragmentation can undermine the democratic process, making it harder for citizens to engage in constructive dialogue, build consensus, and promote shared values.

By pandering to the sensational aspects of conspiracy theories, the media risks compromising its role as an impartial source of information – a central pillar of a democratic society. In doing so, they impede the knowledge and understanding necessary for citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

In conclusion, the media’s use of conspiracy stories to sell newspapers has far-reaching implications for democracy and society, impacting public knowledge and perception, as well as deepening the existing political divide. It is crucial for journalists to consider these consequences in their reporting, maintaining a focus on accuracy and evidence-based information to support democratic values.


  1. COVID-19–related infodemic and its impact on public health: A global social media analysis

Role of Advertising and Revenue in Sensationalism

Advertising and revenue play a significant role in sensationalism and the media’s use of conspiracy stories to sell newspapers. The financial pressures on print media, stemming from the decline of traditional advertising, drive newspapers to adopt strategies focused on capturing audience attention and generating income1.

In order to attract readers and advertisers, newspapers might resort to the use of conspiracy narratives and fringe views to generate interest and create controversy. By publishing sensational news stories, media outlets increase the chances of attaining reader engagement, with the ultimate goal of boosting their advertising revenue2.

The rise of the digital transformation of news media has further exacerbated the situation, as print media attempt to reach larger audiences through online platforms3. The fierce competition for reader attention in the digital space has led to an increased reliance on sensational news and conspiracy theories to capture reader interest. This has in turn resulted in the blurring of lines between actual news and fabricated stories4.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that embracing sensationalism and focusing on conspiracy narratives can harm the credibility of newspapers and the quality of journalism overall. While the short-term financial benefits may be attractive, the long-term reputation of media outlets that embrace such tactics might suffer5.



Prominent Case Studies

Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

In the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, several conspiracy theories emerged that were promoted by some media outlets. These theories questioned the authenticity of the event and the credibility of its victims, leading to increased attention and newspaper sales. The constant coverage tarnished the reputation of legitimate news sources and tainted the media ecosystem with misinformation. As a result, individuals and groups focused on fact-checking these claims and ensuring transparency in reporting, with renowned newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post working to debunk the conspiracy theories.

Climate Change Misinformation

Another prominent case where the media has been accused of using conspiracy stories to sell newspapers is the reporting on climate change. Some media outlets, such as the Daily Mail, have been accused of publishing misleading and inaccurate information about climate change, undermining the scientific consensus. Bob Ward, a member of the UK’s press regulation body, has spoken to the Press Gazette about the need to tackle this issue, since it has significant implications for the democratic process and the credible sources of information on this critical global issue. It is crucial for media organisations to maintain high standards of reporting and avoid spreading false or misleading information to gain attention or sell newspapers.

Birther Movement

The Birther Movement, which questioned former US President Barack Obama’s American citizenship, is another example where conspiracy theories were used by some media sources to sell newspapers and gain attention. This movement gained prominence during President Donald Trump’s initial political rise, and he played a significant role in popularising the conspiracy theory. Several media outlets covered these stories in an attempt to capitalise on public interest, which had consequences for the democratic process in the United States. Reputable newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post addressed these conspiracy theories and worked to restore credibility and transparency in the media landscape, revealing the truth and debunking false claims.

In conclusion, these case studies illustrate how conspiracy theories and misinformation can be used by some media outlets to sell newspapers and attract attention, often at the expense of credibility and the democratic process. It is imperative for media organisations to commit to high standards of reporting and fact-checking, ensuring that the information they provide is accurate and transparent. This will help maintain the public’s trust in the media and ensure a well-informed and democratic society.

Tackling the Spread of Conspiracy Theories

Media Self-Regulation

One approach to mitigate the dissemination of conspiracy theories in newspapers is through media self-regulation. Media organisations can set guidelines and ethical standards, which can help prevent the spread of baseless conspiracy theories. For instance, during the presidential election, some news outlets decided not to cover unfounded rumors and focused on fact-based reporting. In Illinois, challenges of maintaining news integrity led to the implementation of stricter editorial policies and review processes to ensure accuracy and credibility.

Improving Media Literacy in the Public

Another strategy to tackle the spread of conspiracy theories is by improving media literacy among the public. Media literacy involves the ability to critically evaluate the content presented in various outlets. Enhancing the public’s understanding of news media operations and the importance of verifying information can play a significant role in addressing the spread of conspiracy theories.

Educational institutions have a crucial part to play in promoting media literacy. By incorporating media literacy into their curriculums, schools can equip students with the necessary skills to discern reliable and unreliable information. Moreover, non-profit organisations and government agencies can conduct public awareness campaigns, seminars, and workshops to raise the level of media literacy in the society.

In summary, tackling the spread of conspiracy theories requires a multi-faceted approach that involves both media self-regulation and improving media literacy in the public. News organisations should adhere to ethical reporting guidelines, and the public should be educated in recognising credible and accurate information. The combination of these efforts will significantly contribute in combating the spread of baseless conspiracy theories.

Frequently Asked Questions

What techniques do newspapers employ to sensationalise conspiracy stories?

Newspapers often use attention-grabbing headlines, exaggerated claims, and provocative images to sensationalise conspiracy stories. They may also frame these stories in a way that highlights the most controversial aspects, while downplaying or ignoring counterarguments. By doing so, newspapers generate curiosity and encourage readers to engage with the content, ultimately driving sales and web traffic.

How does the media exploit conspiracy theories for commercial gain?

Media outlets exploit conspiracy theories for commercial gain by capitalising on the public’s fascination with the unknown and mysterious. As a result, they may devote regular programs to discussing conspiracy theories, even if there is limited evidence supporting the claims. This helps to drive viewership and readership, which in turn attracts advertisers and generates revenue. Additionally, media outlets may deliberately select conspiracy theories that align with the political leanings or interests of their target audience, as a way to retain and grow their readership base.

How do newspapers manipulate public opinion using conspiracy stories?

Newspapers can manipulate public opinion by presenting conspiracy stories in ways that appeal to readers’ emotions, fears, and biases. This is often achieved through selective reporting, omission of relevant information, and the use of loaded language. By reinforcing existing beliefs and exploiting human psychological tendencies, newspapers can influence how readers perceive and respond to the conspiracy stories. This ultimately impacts public opinion on the subjects or people involved in the conspiracy theory.

What impact do conspiracy stories have on newspaper circulation?

Conspiracy stories can have a significant impact on newspaper circulation, as they often generate high levels of interest, curiosity, and engagement from readers. By publishing stories related to conspiracy theories, newspapers can attract new readers, increase web traffic, and boost social media shares, all of which contribute to higher circulation numbers. However, this strategy may also risk alienating some readers who may perceive such stories as misleading or irresponsible journalism.

How do media outlets select and prioritise conspiracy stories?

Media outlets generally select and prioritise conspiracy stories based on their newsworthiness, potential for controversy, and ability to generate attention from readers. They may also consider the political, cultural, and social context in which the conspiracy theory arises, as well as the interests of their target audience. Moreover, the media may prioritise conspiracy stories involving high-profile individuals or events, since these stories are more likely to attract public interest.

To what extent is truth sacrificed for sales in conspiracy stories?

In some cases, truth may be sacrificed for sales in conspiracy stories, as media outlets prioritise capturing readers’ attention and generating revenue over presenting accurate and well-researched information. This may result in the publication of misleading or outright false claims, ignoring counterarguments, or giving undue weight to conspiracy theories with little supporting evidence. It is, therefore, crucial for readers to approach such stories with a critical eye and to seek out additional, reliable sources of information to form a balanced understanding of the subject matter.


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