What Fosters Tabloid Journalism
When broadsheets in especially Europe held their sway at the height of their reach and influence in the 1960s through the 1970s-1990s, the coinage of “tabloid journalism” circulated briskly as an expression of critical concern over the sensationalisation of scandals involving celebrities and other public personalities. It was not just the case of face and figure but also tantrums, faux pas and the myriad human frailities, including unusual habits, personal fads and different tastes. Items and angles designed to titillate the baser instincts provide grist to the “tabloid” mills.
Actually, tabloid denotes newspaper size that is clearly of smaller size than its broadsheet counterpart. And most of the papers that present “sensational” fare were, and are, of tabloid size. Several British tabloid papers have been selling strikingly large numbers of copies on a scale that is the source of the envy of “sober” broadsheets whose patrons and fans dismiss the “scandal sheets” as a complete nuisance.
In Britain, The Sun and Daily Mirror dailies sold some four million copies for several decades, peaking in the 1960s and the 1970s before their decline synchronised with a marked growth in the broadcast media. The new millennium has made it loud and clear that either the print media will have to adapt to the new situation for a fairly sound survival or face extinction.
Sensationalism and yellow journalism are two different aspects. In the first, a balance is maintained through uniformity and accuracy in the information cited whereas the latter rests on grey or outright fictious events. In the earlier half of the 19th century when “yellow journalism” was practised and coined, its critics referred to frequent blatant lies that sought to pass as facts in the guise of news. Sensational journalism’s thrust and emphasis denote the angle of the approach to news and the lurid details it ruthlessly seeks and highlights.
Disproportionate coverage creates hype. The May 19 wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle was drenched with massive media attention. The former British army officer and the American TV star, a divorcee, are now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Markle, along with her white father and African-American mother, were subjected to racial and other painful comments, compelling the Buckingham Palace in late 2016 to issue a rebuke. Her father divorced his wife when the daughter was young, but he had planned to walk his daughter down the aile, only to give up the idea when he was targeted as what some media critics termed the “punching bag of the British tabloids”.
The biracial Markle has the privilege of light, relatively fair skin. Her mixed heritage is unique in that most European heads of state or government are almost invariably fair skinned and their spouses of the same colour. This has been the source of comments with diverse slants traded in the social media.
Tabloid glare can be a gory experience to its victims while those with titillating tales to tell and hog the limelight and relish the attendant attention have reasons to go aglow with pleasure. Tabloid journalism does not hesitate to machinate celebrities including cine-stars, captains of various sectors, political personalities and anyone or anything with a prospect for grabbing public attention. The attention of the reading, viewing and listening audiences might be brief or long-binding, depending upon the meaning of the message to individuals concerned.
Tabloid news media show little or no mercy when covering scandals, sex, crime, corruption, disasters, faultlines and such other ingredients they hanker after with persistence. Keyhole journalism is what some critics describe stories containing sex and other scandals. Criminals serving jail sentences are known to have been given large sums of money for exclusive stories that fire tabloid interests and fuel public imagination in a process that critics of tabloid practices call “journalism pandering to the baser instincts” of some sections.
Sqabbles among celebrities are rich fodder for the tabloid that does not have the slightest hesitation in making mincemeat of the image and reputation of those in focus. Probably, the British tabloids have set the benchmark of the extreme extent they travel to when it comes to obtaining the type of information they are after so relentlessly. Interestingly, the largest-selling tabloid since several decades, The Sun, is owned by the world’s biggest media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch who also owns The Times, Britain’s most prestigious and frequently quoted broadsheet daily.
In 1969, he purchased the News of the World, which started in 1843 but folded up in 2011 when a probe revealed the excesses it was involved in while employing unlawful means and tapping private phones to obtain bits of information at the expense of the personal tragedy of its targets.
Indian writer Sashi Tharoor recently commented: “Welcome to India’s extraordinary media environment, in which the Fourth Estate serves as witness, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. With far too many channels competing 24/7 for the same sets of eyeballs and target rating points, television news has long since abandoned any pretense of providing a public service, and instead blatantly privileges sensation over substance…This erosion of professional standards has too often made newspapers willing accomplices of purveyors of manipulated ‘leaks’ and malicious allegations.”
Tabloid journalism tries to reach large masses even if it might mean tormenting and humiliating a select few at a time. In an interview to the latest issue of the Madhupark monthly, noted author Taran Nath Sharma said: “There is a big difference between writing for creating hallaballoo and writing for winning people’s hearts”.
Greta Rana, one of the pioneer regular columnists since the 1970s in the print media, had this to say in the New Spotlight last week: “It seems that familiarity really can breed contempt. Nowadays there are journalists even whose remit is to dish out the dirt about famous people, or their families. They are aided and abetted quite often by family members who sometimes believe they are more deserving of the limelight than the family member of focus…The media barons, of course, love it when people in high places falter. Would they love it as much if it happened to them?”
Rana’s anguished query carries an obvious answer that audiences have experienced across also the Nepali media landscape. Individuals and institutions involved in or associated with the stage, screen (big/small) or cocktail circuit, among other avenues, perceive the public platform represented by the news media as not unsatisfactory as long as others are the target of the sharper edge of tabloid journalism in the name of “freedom of speech and media religion”. However, the tone and tune of the same lot takes a reverse turn, when a similar media slant of media focus is on them.