Monday, October 8, 2007

Tabloid Journalism - An Alternate Agenda

Are tabloid newspapers a refreshing development or an abominable evil?

It wouldn't surprise me if most people would argue for the latter. Tabloid journalism had always been condemned for abandoning its social responsibility to society. It's even generally considered to be synonymous with bad journalism. However, this kind of harsh judgement doesn't seem to be fair or productive - at least from a social scientific form of view. In many cases, tabloid journalism - the aspect of journalism defined as “bad” - served the public good as well as the journalism considered to be more respectable. Tabloid journalism was able to achieve this by positioning itself, in different ways, as an alternative to the issues, forms and audiences of the journalistic mainstream – as an alternative public sphere.

Tabloid journalism’s function of storytelling unites journalism with popular culture. And storytelling both develops and restricts the possible range of a story’s meaning. The audience may either absorb the story and formulate their opinions about it – which occasionally may be the opposite of what the writer intended – or take the story at face value and support what seems to be public opinion.

Tabloid journalism is most famous today because of how it relates to the common man and how it speaks in his tongue. It interprets the world for its readers. It combines entertainment with informational articles that allow the reader to have fun and still be informed. And it often follows an angle divergent from the stories in the mainstream press, offering another perspective on the information presented.

The more sophisticated reader may greet this “press of the masses” with contempt because he knows its content is likely to be elemental and emotional. Yet perhaps tabloids don’t always deserve such scorn. Just as a child starts reading fairy tales before moving on to more serious reading materials, so is the public first reached by what the critics call “sensationalism.” The most important political problem facing us may well be that the marginalized groups in society feel that their issues and concerns are not addressed by political institutions or media outlets. As tabloids provide this alternative public sphere, it would then seem foolish to condemn tabloid journalism.

Yet there are divided views about tabloid journalism. There was one interesting article I found on the internet regarding this issue. It was highly debated at a Leader’s Angle presentation at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), an international business school in Africa.

Francois Groepe, chairperson of the USB Alumni Club and Media24’s General Manager for Finance, said that tabloid newspapers play various roles in society. Tabloids sensitize people politically while broadsheet newspapers merely try to be politically correct.

On the other hand, Professor Lizette Rabe, Chairperson of USB’s Department of Journalism, pointed out that tabloids capitalize on sexism, racism and human rights, and they also often objectify or commodify women.

“Traditional journalism is all about who, what, where, when, why and how. I guess for sensationalist journalism it’s all about sex, scandal, skinner [gossip], skin, sensation and sport,” said Rabe. “If journalism is about the maximum truth and the minimum harm, how is this applied in tabloid newspapers? If sleaze becomes the standard, how will it not erode the status of the media and undermine the credibility of the media?”

However, as she switched her focus on the good side of tabloid journalism, Rabe also said that it is an exciting new development. Tabloids add value to shareholders, create new jobs and add an element of fun.

“Certainly, it is the ‘voice of the voiceless, the paper of the people, the media of the masses.’ It has potential. We will have to see how it will use its powerful position,” she said. “If done well, developmental journalism must be the most important aspect of tabloids because it can lay the foundation for a new middle class to develop from a raw working class.”

Reverend Johan Symington, Communications Director of the Dutch Reformed Church, disagreed on this point. He said that sensational journalism with visual images devoid of any true context does not rightfully serve the public. The methods and languages used by some tabloids do not serve the interests of the public as they reduce these people to mere consumers.

“The consequence of subjective press coverage is the victim syndrome,” he said. “Readers are at the mercy of powers which they cannot themselves resist.”

However, Rhoda Kadalie, human rights activist and columnists, said that the public could not care less about all the uproar. She said she likes the witty headlines of tabloids and finds them cathartic, because these expose society for what it is. For her, tabloids play an important watchdog role and that these newspapers are pioneers in the media industry.

“People don’t want newspapers to leave out the juicy bits. They are all for free speech and fun. Besides, all of us like a bit of smart [grief] every now and then,” she said. “Tabloids promote reading and sensitize people politically. Other newspapers want to even out everything and be non-political. People don’t trust conventional newspapers any more because their content is biased towards the elite and their journalism is far removed from the people. Tabloids are reacting against the politically correct newspapers.” And with this she presented a challenge: “Do we give people what they want, or do the papers decide what should be published?”

And a relevant question that should follow that is: are the audience mere spectators who simply take whatever is churned out or are they clever enough to judge for themselves the content they receive? Tabloid readers – and newspaper readers in general, for that matter – have significant powers of good judgment. They do not need to follow a paper’s running order and can instead go straight to the entertainment pages while merely glancing at the other pages. Readers may even know what to expect – what types of characters and what kind of narrative twists there will be in newspaper stories. They may not agree with everything they read and may even consider a story worthless or out of touch with their own construction of reality, whether or not it is from a broadsheet or a tabloid.

The credibility of tabloids will always remain an issue even though they serve the function to entertain, inform and educate. However, it cannot be said for certain that tabloids compromise public interest because the public has a choice. The audience of today is a thinking lot and they know what they get when they pick up a tabloid. They read a tabloid because they want lighter stories that inform and entertain. What can be said for certain, however, is that the biggest achievement of tabloid journalism is their penetration into a market that was previously not well-informed in terms of news and was not adequately represented in the mainstream media. What these tabloids gave these people more than anything is a sense of ownership over the paper. And that is something even broadsheets aren’t able to give their readers.


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