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.


Agenda Setting: How To Package It Right (Part Two)

PART TWO: Keeping The Audience

There's no doubt about it: media has incredible power and control over its audience. To what extent it is able to exercise its power is debatable, however. Time and again, the audience are able to prove that they are not easily duped and manipulated by the media - that they are capable of producing agendas which may not have been the media's primary intent. And this is why media makers have to make sure they utilize to its fullest extent media's ultimate power - the power of agenda setting.

I've discussed in my previous post one of media's power in agenda setting: determining when and how this agenda would be set. This ensures that media has an audience in which to set an agenda upon. However, even when media is able to capture an audience, it still has to make sure that it is able to keep this audience interested long enough for them to receive the agenda it would like to set. And this is where the idea of "packaging" comes in, where media makers have to be crafty and cunning in the way they will package a medium of media to make sure it captures the audience's interest.

As David Altheide says in Media Power:

“The idea I am stressing is not merely that people are involved with various forms of mass communication, or that some attitudes, opinions, and even behaviors are directly or indirectly influenced by mass media content. I am claiming that the explicit content of media is relevant, but is not the most important feature of media imagery, effect, and consequence. What strikes me as even more important is what may be termed the implicit content, the grammar, rhythm, pacing, style, and presentational mode. In this sense, it is the way things appear, look, shape up, and are configured if they are to be “right.” For example, TV news information has a certain look and rhythm to it. As long as this is associated with news and the contexts of these special effects are not explicated, then it looks fine, complete, good enough, even true. The problem, then, is to raise to consciousness how this TV form in a particular context has helped to generate this kind of format that is now widely shared throughout the world, can be regarded as a feature of rational ideology in its own right, and, therefore, is far more pervasive and consequential than run-of-the-mill political preferences. Thus, my interest is less guided by the query, “what is presented,” but more focused on “how is something presented?(Emphasis mine.)

- Altheide, David L. Media Power. London: Sage Publications, 1985.

Just as I have done in my previous post, I would again use the news programs of ABS-CBN and GMA 7 as examples. First up is "TV Patrol World," ABS-CBN's primetime news program. Here is a clip of how the program starts each night:

After it makes its audience watch Kris Aquino sashay in her evening gowns, and after it makes them scream "Deal!" or "No deal!" at their poor, innocent television sets, ABS-CBN keeps its audience's eyes glued to the TV screen by presenting them with this catchy opening of "TV Patrol World." Now, if you're a regular news viewer like me, a scene like this is probably common to you. So much to the point that you just watch it passively and simply wait for the news reports to begin - after all, there's nothing new with a scene like this, right? But that's exactly the point. We've been conditioned to watch news programs this way that we already find this acceptable; that we already find this real. But have you ever wondered just exactly why the opening scene is crafted this way? Aside from capturing the audience's attention, does airing a flashy opening scene like this serve another, covert purpose, especially for the media makers, the agenda setters?

Let's break the scene into parts and reflect on them:

I. Several clips of the news anchors in different situations flash briefly on the screen, followed by a quick flash of the globe's image.
II. Ted Failon, one of the program's three main news anchors, seemingly interviewing someone presumably at the ABS-CBN studio.
III. Karen Davila, the program's only female news anchor, sitting in front of a sari-sari store, talking with children in what seems to be a street in a poor area.
IV. Julius Babao, another of the program's news anchors, arriving at presumably the rooftop of the ABS-CBN studio in a helicopter bearing the network's name.
V. A quick flash of an image of the three news anchors together.
VI. A booming announcer's voice saying, "Live! Mula sa ABS-CBN News Center, Manila, ito ang TV Patrol World!" The screen flashes the title of news program as the announcer places special emphasis on the word "world."
VII. Julius Babao says, "Magandang gabi, Pilipinas!" followed by Karen Davila who says, "Kami ang nagpapatrol ng Pilipino!" and by Ted Failon who says, "Nagbabalita at naglilingkod sa inyo saan man sa mundo!"

What seems to be wrong with these scenes? Perhaps it's the fact that people start to perceive how real these scenes are even though these rarely happen in reality.

How many times do you see someone as well-known as Karen Davila out on the streets talking to ordinary people, much less children? How many times do you see someone actually go to work by riding a helicopter, like the way Julius Babao did? Why do the news anchors make it seem as if they are the ones really "patrolling" the Philippines when they don't do anything else other than stand in the center of the studio in front of the cameras and look pretty? And perhaps what I find both ironic and amusing is that, why do they claim that they broadcast news from anywhere in the world when in fact they're just broadcasting from the ABS-CBN studio in Manila, and that the international news they air on the show actually didn't come directly from them?

Before we try to make sense of these questions, let us see what GMA 7 has to offer its audience as well. Here is a clip of how "24 Oras" opens the program each night.:

As with TV Patrol, let us break the opening scene of "24 Oras" into parts and see what we can deduce from them:

I. The words "Dahil hindi natutulog ang balita" flash on screen with an image of a wall clock which hands are moving fast.
II. Fast forwarded clip of a traffic scene, followed by an image of a sunrise over an urban city and the words "24 Oras."
III. Mel Tiangco, the main female news anchor of the program, staring at the heavens along with several people and then interacting with them afterwards. The words "Maaasahan" appear in this scene.
IV. Mike Enriquez, the main male news anchor, talking on the phone while walking amidst ruins of a burned house. The words "Lumalaban" appear in this scene.
V. Images of urban roads flash on screen.
VI. Mel Tiangco, Mike Enriquez and Pia Guanio, the news anchor for the Showbiz section of the program, talking inside an office and going over some papers. The words "Pinagkakatiwalaan" and "Laging Patas" appear in this scene.
VII. The words "24 Oras" appear again, this time followed by an image of the moon rising over an urban city, and then followed by the three news anchors together.
VIII. A booming announcer's voice says, "Mula sa GMA Network Center, narito ang walang kinikilingan, walang pinoprotektahan... Mel Tiangco! Mike Enriquez!"
IX. Mel Tianco says, "Magandang gabi po, ito ang 24 Oras!" and Mike Enriquez says, "Dahil hindi natutulog ang balita!"

Now what's wrong with this scene? The same critique as with "TV Patrol World." And the fact that the words being flashed along with the news anchors seem slightly dubious.

Paano mo masasabing maaasahan si Mel Tiangco samantalang ang pinakita sa eksena'y nakikipag-usap lang naman siya? Paano mo masasabing lumalaban si Mike Enriquez samantalang pinakita pa ngang naglalakad siya palayo sa mga natatarantang tao sa likuran niya? At higit sa lahat, paano mo mapatutunayang pinagkatitiwalaan (mali pa nga yata ang gramatikang ginamit ng programa), laging patas, walang kinikilingan at walang pinoprotektahan ang "24 Oras"? Kagaya ng mga natalakay na ng iba kong mga kasamahan, paano kung may anomalyang naganap sa loob mismo ng o kasapi ang GMA 7? Ang GMA 7 na siyang nageere ng "24 Oras"? Kaya pa rin bang panindigan ng "24 Oras" ang sinasabi nitong wala siyang pinoprotektahan?

(Pardon my sudden shift to Filipino. I needed to use the words "24 Oras" flashed in their opening scene, and it just didn't seem right to use both English and Tagalog in a sentence.)

My point in making this blog entry is not so much as finding the answers to the questions above as finding out why opening scenes of news programs are supposed to be this way despite the questions about them. It seems as if news programs are supposed to be "packaged" this way because this is only when the audience will accept them, much in the same way that regardless of its content, a child will more easily accept and be pleased with a beautifully packaged gift than with a plain-looking one. In the case of media, an agenda would be set more successfully upon the audience if the audience deems the giver of this agenda as worthy and acceptable.

Despite the fact that they rarely go out and actually mingle with ordinary people, both Karen Davila and Mel Tiangco have to keep an image of being caring and "motherly" in order to present an image of news anchors - and of all the other people involved in broadcasting news - as people who are approachable and who look after the welfare of the "little people." It appeals to the masses because these news anchors make them feel special, that they are not as left out in society as they believe they are.

Despite the fact that their coverage is just not that wide and encompassing, "TV Patrol World" has to continously assure its audience that their coverage reaches into even the farthest corners of the world. It has to assure the audience that they aren't being kept ignorant or in the dark about what is happening in the world, that the media is not (yet) powerless against these life-changing events, and that the media is (still) in control in each situation.

Despite the fact that socialites, politicians and big businessmen - who each has his own "businesses" to protect - run and are behind GMA 7, "24 Oras" has to constantly prove to its audience that it is fair and just. That even amidst this era wherein no one can be sure of who to trust anymore, amidst this sea of suspicion and doubt, news programs like "24 Oras" will still be there to serve as a life vest to keep people from sinking into society's whirlpool of veiled chaos.

Despite the fact that they're telling little white lies, news programs have to be this way for them to be able to deliver the truth.

And this is the media's second power in being an agenda setter: not only does it decide what the agenda for the society should be, but it also gives its audience reason to believe that the source of this agenda - even before they receive the agenda itself - is right.