Understanding media: The celebrity in the text
Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

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Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

5 Celebrities and newsworthiness

Celebrity has become one of the principal ways in which information is disseminated, including information about such apparently different fields as entertainment and politics. Even health advice is provided through stories about celebrities’ encounters with illness and their recoveries. For example, on the back of the announcement of Kylie Minogue's breast cancer treatment, the press were full of breast cancer reports and personal stories all of which began with a reference to Kylie. This section will extend this idea that there has been an increase in the way in which the world is textually presented to us through the activities and behaviours of celebrities, by looking at claims about ‘tabloidisation’. The term is used to refer to a significant change perceived in the way in which mediated information, in particular news and current affairs, is presented. The term is (obviously) derived from ‘tabloid’, the smaller-sized, more populist type of newspaper with higher circulations than the more prestigious broadsheets, conventionally seen as important and central to the political process. Before examining the debate about what tabloidisation might involve and why it is relevant here, we shall look at how British tabloids approach stories about celebrities.

Reading Activity 3

Now read the extract from Ian Connell, ‘Personalities in the popular media’.

Click to view Reading 3 (4 pages 0.1MB) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Once you have read it through, make some notes on the following questions:

  • What distinction do critics of tabloids set up between human and public interest?

  • How does this tie in to the differences between tabloid and broadsheet newspapers?

  • Why in Connell's view do the tabloids’ stories consistently mount attacks on privilege?

Connell refers to ‘personalities’ rather than celebrities, but more importantly he discusses a strikingly different approach to celebrity coverage from that which has been dominant here so far. The term that Connell suggests for the kind of writing in the texts he analyses is ‘fabulous reportage’ – sadly (in my view) this did not catch on. There are strong links between these kinds of stories and what I term ‘unauthorised’ stories – those based on gossip and candid photographs obtained by means close to ‘stalking’. Yet the stories that Connell analyses elsewhere in his article are not from sources like these. The one about ‘Randy Rod’ Stewart's forthcoming marriage to Rachel Hunter was built up by combining revelations from a ten-year-old autobiography by Stewart's previous wife with illustrations of sexy pictures from Hunter's modelling career and the journalist's moral admonitions. In journalistic terms such stories are ‘beat-ups’, fabricated out of material produced for other reasons and ‘re-purposed’ to suit the required approach – here the persistent tone of outrage that characterises tabloid exposés of those unjustly privileged. Contrary to my earlier claim that we no longer think of celebrities as more worthy than ordinary people, this tabloid approach is based on the belief that they should be and since they are not, do not deserve what they have.

Despite its importance to a rounded picture of how media texts operate, especially in their representation of celebrities, Connell's ‘fabulous reportage’ was only a minor component of what came to be termed tabloidisation. In its US inflection, tabloidisation relates particularly to supermarket tabloids, of which the most notorious is the National Inquirer, a newspaper which at its height of popularity was obsessed with alien abductions, Elvis sightings and the birth of monsters. John Fiske (1992, p. 49) explores the appeal of such stories by noting how, while mainstream media produce a believing subject (the texts’ preferred meaning involves being taken to be true), tabloid texts are not interested in this: ‘One of [tabloid journalism's] most characteristic tones of voice is that of sceptical laughter which offers the pleasures of disbelief, the pleasures of not being taken in.’ The truth of the reporting is not the point; what is important is being party to information in opposition to official knowledge. There are definite continuities with the British tabloids, even if few of them favour alien abduction stories, though Sunday Sport did in the 1980s. Some of the disregard for evidence and the more conventional standards of reporting attributed to these papers and the encouragement of scepticism is implicit in most references to tabloidisation, whether in the USA or not.

Not all of the considerable debate about changes in news and current affairs reporting during the mid-1990s referred to the changes as tabloidisation, but they talked about similar things. Bob Franklin (1997, p. 4), who can be described as taking a ‘cultural decline’ perspective used the term ‘newszak’ to deplore the changes, claiming ‘human interest has supplanted the public interest; measured judgement has succumbed to sensationalism; the trivial has triumphed over the weighty; the intimate relationships of celebrities … are judged more “newsworthy” than the reporting of significant issues and events of international importance.’

Not all critics opposed the new practices (for example, those taking a ‘populist’ view). Both Catharine Lumby (1997, pp. 117–35) and John Hartley (1996, pp. 171–95) have discussed tabloidisation of news media, especially its greater proportion of human interest, sex and celebrity, as involving the feminisation of media practices – and done so approvingly. What is important for our purposes here is the centrality of celebrity to the perceived changes. Regardless of the position adopted, the critics all observed an increase in the presence of celebrity in the news media. For those who disliked the changes, this was central to the trivialisation that they detected. One way to start to assess the situation is to ask if the increase really occurred. Such quantitative questions (what is called content analysis) can complement the textual analysis we have engaged in so far. The study of Australian celebrity referred to earlier measured the increase in a sample of print and television news media as well as popular magazines and daytime television chat-shows. That survey, conducted in 1997, found between two and three times more coverage of celebrities in every outlet sampled compared to twenty years earlier (Turner et al., 2000, pp. 16–23). Stories about celebrities were displacing what is more customarily considered news content, but it was not clear-cut: analysis of the individual texts revealed that some of the items dealt with news material in what might be considered a celebritised way (see Turner et al., 2000, pp. 16–23). Senior politicians’ policies could be interwoven with stories about their wives, children and even houses; businessmen's relationships with their mistresses were deemed financially relevant. This has some precedents in early twentieth-century ‘human interest’ journalism.

Activity 8

Find an item in the news that presents a political or business figure in a celebritised way. How separable are the political or business components from the private or promotional ones?

Perhaps you noticed how it is often very difficult to separate the aspects out. Richard Branson is one example of a person renowned for integrating his celebrity persona and his business interests.

However much some of the proponents of the tabloidisation debate may have wanted to return the news media to its previous state where a greater proportion of the news was de-personalised and celebrity (much) less prominent, they have not been effective in this desire. Texts about celebrities are popular and entertaining; celebrities are able to draw attention to serious issues that may not otherwise receive coverage. A significant amount of the mediated information we learn about the world we live in is conveyed in stories that one way or another concern celebrities.

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