Tabloid means compact size. In reference to the press it describes smaller sized newspapers. Yet in contemporary journalism the term tabloid refers to both newspapers and television and carries a strong normative evaluation of news work. In many respects, the term tabloid has become removed from its original meaning and attached itself to the idea of sensational news coverage. Slogans like “if it bleeds it leads” and “bodybag journalism” refer to emphases on death and destruction and are commonly used in reference to tabloid news. An assessment of public debate among media critics and academics about this journalistic style reveals sweeping declarations about its corruptive influence on journalism. Periods of public outrage about tabloid news have become a frequent ritual in many countries around the world. At the heart of this debate are two popular concerns: tabloid journalism violates notions of social decency, and it displaces socially significant stories.
Tabloid news content is often defined as that which amuses, titillates, and entertains, whereas “proper” news is commended for its assumed ability to enhance the political and social knowledge of the audience by appealing to reason rather than emotion. Stories dealing with celebrities, crime, sex, disasters, accidents, and public fears have consistently been labeled as tabloid topics (Ehrlich 1996; Djupsund & Carlson 1998; Uribe & Gunter 2004; Wang 2004; Vettehen et al. 2005). A number of dichotomies have been employed over the years to assist in drawing the line between tabloid and “proper” news topics. These include entertainment versus information, infotainment versus edutainment, human interest versus public affairs, situational versus timeless issues, soft versus hard news, opinion versus fact, and unexpected events versus issue coverage. Not only is the topical focus of tabloid news seen as trivial but it is believed to displace important news, conducive to informing citizens. And, indeed, some traditionally non-tabloid news outlets are adopting the tabloid news menu to draw viewers.
Tabloid journalists not only focus on sensational topics but use packaging techniques to further enhance the titillation of the content. For newspapers these include large headlines, photos with graphic and often disturbing content, and placement of sensational stories on the front page and as the lead story. In television news, slow motion video, music, sound effects, and other digital visual effects are employed to dramatize content. Critics view this as a flagrant attempt at drawing readers and viewers, thereby further abandoning the journalistic mission to inform, not to entertain or titillate. The profit motive is most often identified as the impetus for sensational journalistic practice ratings (Brants & Neijens 1998; Esser 1999). But there are also concerns about the moral and psychological influences of tabloid reporting. In fact, scholars have described the sensational tabloid approach to reporting as provoking “unwholesome emotional responses” (Mott 1962, 442), complaining that it shocks and thrills our moral and aesthetic sensibilities (Tannenbaum & Lynch, 1960), and emphasizes “emotion for emotion’s sake” (Emery & Emery 1978). According to Daniels (cited in Tannenbaum & Lynch 1960, 382), sensational news stories are “underdistanced” – that is, they provoke more sensory and emotional reactions than what is deemed proper for audience members to desire or experience.
It has been argued that sensationalism plays an important role in maintaining a society’s commonly shared notions of decency and morality by publicly showcasing what is unacceptable (Stevens 1985). Thus, instead of corrupting the standards of public decency, tabloid news offers morally conservative commentary on the titillating issues that it covers. Moreover, respected journalists readily admit that they intentionally arouse emotion in readers with the hope that they will channel audience excitement into efforts to right social wrongs. The “muckrakers” of the early 1900s in the US, now celebrated for their socially responsible journalism, practiced investigative reporting with the aim of arousing emotion and to incite the public to act against perceived injustices.
The legitimacy of what is defined as socially significant news has also been questioned. Stories about family conflicts, substance abuse, violence, disaster, and other disruptions of everyday life are regarded as more significant to the lives of ordinary people than the traditional political and economic issues that elites prescribe as important information for the masses (Bird 1992). Like the “penny press” papers of the 1830s, today’s tabloid outlets have made news accessible and popular among non-elite audiences, serving a democratizing function. Interestingly, in the People’s Republic of China, tabloids have exploded in popularity since the mid-1990s and have tested the limits of press censorship by taking editorial positions critical of the government and by engaging in critical investigative reporting.
Media critics seem both skeptical and concerned about the news viewers’ ability to distinguish between “proper” and sensational journalism but there is evidence that the audience is able to make this distinction using production features of television news as cues. In an experimental investigation, Grabe et al. (2000) found viewers rated stories packaged with lavish production features less believable and informative than stories without them. In this sense, production features seem to play an important reflexive function in helping audiences categorize television news as either trustworthy or lacking credibility. Moreover, adding tabloid production features to dull public affairs stories has been shown to enhance memory for news content, furthering the information function of news (Grabe et al. 2003).
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