“Tabloidization” is a vaguely defined term that since the 1980s has been used to describe stylistic and content changes in journalism, usually perceived as representing a decline in traditional journalistic standards. To grasp the significance of the term, it is first essential to understand its root form – the tabloid.
Although the term “tabloid” strictly refers only to certain newspapers’ half-broadsheet size, it has come to define a particular kind of formulaic, colorful narrative related to, but usually perceived as distinct from, standard, “objective” styles of journalism. The tabloid style is consistently seen by critics as inferior, appealing to base instincts and public demand for sensationalism. True “tabloids” emerged in Britain during the first decade of the twentieth century, and in the United States in the 1920s. Entertainingly sensational, they were written in the idioms of the people, as William Randolph Hearst proudly declared when launching the American Daily Mirror in 1924 (Bird 1992). The tension between a perception of tabloid style as representing the legitimate desires and voice of the people, or as representing a vulgarization of public discourse, has been at the heart of the debate about tabloidization ever since.
The tabloid is not defined by content; tabloids may cover the same topics as mainstream journalism, although typically more briefly and flamboyantly (Bird 2002). British daily tabloids, such as the Sun, cover politics and “hard” news, although much more briefly and superficially than “quality” newspapers, while much of their space is devoted to celebrity news, sensational human interest stories, advice, and so on. Their US daily counterparts, such as the New York Daily News, have a similar mix of news and entertainment, while US weekly supermarket tabloids, such as the National Enquirer or Star, rarely touch hard news at all. Publications recognizable as tabloids across the world contain variable mixes of news, entertainment, sports, and other features (Sparks & Tulloch 2000), usually with heavy use of illustration.
If “tabloid” has come to mean a specific style, “tabloidization” is a more recent term developed to describe an inexorable move toward that style by “real” journalism. Long before the term was actually coined, tabloidization was a focus of criticism and concern that began with the emergence of more popular journalistic formats, such as the “penny press” of the 1830s, whose writers drew on the formulaic conventions of broadsheets and ballads to produce dramatic, human interest news of crime and mayhem, frequently with an implied or overt moral. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, critics bemoaned the cheapening of public discourse represented by such popularization of the news, and this lament has gathered momentum over the last 100 years. In the late twentieth century, the term “tabloidization” appeared, and has come to connote a serious decline in journalistic discourse, whether in television or print. As Sparks (2000, 1) writes, there is a growing perception that “the high standards of yesterday are being undermined by sensationalism, prurience, triviality, malice, and plain, simple credulity.”
Neither journalists nor critics agree precisely what tabloidization is, or whether it is invariably a negative force. Indeed, as Sparks (2000) writes, empirical attempts to demonstrate the process have been inconclusive. However, there appear to be some key areas in which most people recognize the phenomenon. Generally, these can be discussed as issues of either style or content, although these are clearly closely related. Under style, we can look at writing techniques, observed in a movement away from longer, complex, analytical writing into shorter, punchier sentences, primarily in a narrative rather than analytical mode. Second, we see an increasing emphasis on the personal; for instance, journalists handle major economic themes through personal stories about individual people and the way they cope. A third symptom of tabloidization is a greater use of visual images, including photos, artists’ sketches, and so on, as well as increased reliance on such techniques as re-enactments and dramatizations, primarily in electronic news.
Tabloidization of content is usually framed in terms of increasing trivialization. For instance, celebrity news and gossip are seen to be crowding out serious news, and human interest stories receive more coverage than important international events. Critics also point to changes such as the move toward covering political debate as horse races (in election coverage) or as shouting matches on talk shows and other venues, both of which detract from serious and nuanced debate and analysis (Krajicek 1999; Kurtz 1994).
The term “tabloidization” arose in the specific context of changes in traditional news; for instance, it was used widely in the United States to describe and often decry the emergence of the national newspaper USA Today. The paper was launched in 1982 by Al Neuharth, then heading the Gannett chain, and featured innovations such as short, snappy text, extensive use of color photos, dramatic sports coverage, and a detailed weather map. Many critics despised the paper, but it went on to become a great success, and by the early 2000s Neuharth enjoyed the status of a press elder statesman. Without a doubt, USA Today’s stylistic innovations led to significant changes in print journalism, where more eyecatching design, shorter stories, and use of color and visuals have become standard. By now, such changes are generally regarded as positive and enriching to journalism generally. This progression points to the way in which the very meaning of “tabloidization” continually shifts, as changes once seen as evidence of decline become mainstreamed, if they are successful.
Tabloidization: Beyond Traditional Media
Tabloidization, like most changes in any media form, is primarily audience- and advertiser-driven. This is especially true in print journalism, whose audiences are both declining in numbers and aging, with younger readers apparently not taking up the habit of newspaper reading as they grow older. The competition for news has become increasingly fierce, with proliferating broadcast outlets, as well as the enormous impact of the Internet, which has led traditional media to rethink many of their familiar practices. It seems to be an indisputable fact that “tabloid”-style news, whether about celebrities or sensational crimes, simply appeals to larger audiences than does serious reporting. The economics of the news business also drives the move toward relatively cheap stories that can have a broad appeal in many different formats rather than, for example, the expensive and timeconsuming enterprise of investigative or foreign reporting. For instance, US media in the early twenty-first century gave huge coverage to such stories as the May 30, 2005, disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Tabloidization
Aruba, or the April 2005 Jennifer Wilbanks “runaway bride” saga, both of which consumed both mainstream and tabloid print media, as well as cable news, talk shows, talk radio, and Internet forums. Stories such as these, which invite endless speculation and audience participation, are especially typical of the tabloidized genre.
The spread of these kinds of stories in so many different genres has widened the term “tabloidization” to encompass condemnation of the kind of “chatter” that has become typical of the contemporary media age. News outlets have proliferated across literally hundreds of cable and satellite channels and the Internet. While this democratization raised hopes that this would offer a much greater variety of serious, international news (and to some extent it has), it seems clear that more time has simply been devoted to these narratives. Fears about tabloidization seem now to be less focused on print media, and more on a general decline toward “tabloid culture” (Langer 1997) or “argument culture” (Tannen 1999). An important element in the criticism is anxiety about the free-for-all information market now offered through cable and the Internet; if anyone can be a reporter, surely this is a threat to the hard-fought-for professional status to which journalists have aspired. Journalists have always sought to define “real” journalism by comparison with tabloids, drawing lines between their techniques and those of their tabloid counterparts, in terms of both journalistic style and ethical standards, such as payment for stories or adequate sourcing (Bird 1992). The new media environment blurs boundaries even more, offering many more ways to attempt to redraw the lines through accusations of tabloidization.
Tabloidization As A Meaningful Term
However, it is also important to consider tabloidization in context. A movement to clearer, more accessible news that speaks more directly to readers does not necessarily equate with a decline in standards. For instance, Hallin (2000) reports that in Mexico, these kinds of stylistic changes have signaled positive forces for social reform and democratic participation, as elite controls on news have loosened. Similar changes are noted in former eastern bloc nations, where the emergence of more personal, snappier, and tabloidlike styles go hand in hand with a more open and accessible press. Several commentators, including Macdonald (2000), have pointed out that if done well, “tabloid” features, such as emphasis on the personal over the institutional, can make news more direct and effective.
Thus it is important to understand cultural specificities when discussing tabloidization, or any other journalistic quality. Even in two societies as apparently similar as Britain and the United States, there are significant differences in tabloid media, and thus the implications of tabloidization can also differ. For instance, US supermarket tabloids and UK daily tabloids feature similar layouts, writing styles, and celebrity focus, and journalists have moved comfortably between the two genres for years. However, they are in many ways different, reflecting quite distinct cultural milieus. British tabloids are explicit, visually and verbally, about sex, while American weeklies avoid direct references. Ironically, critics decried the tabloidization of mainstream journalism during coverage of the 1998 Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, while in fact the mainstream press offered far more explicit details than did the tabloids. And while some American weeklies are far more interested in paranormal and religious topics, such as Biblical prophecies and faith healing, British tabloids reflect a much greater sense of working-class consciousness than those in the United States, where “everyone is middle-class.” Tabloid-type media in other countries also reflect a range of social, political, and cultural characteristics; when we discuss “tabloidization,” we may mean very different things depending on context.
It is clear that “tabloidization” is a term that lacks a single, clear definition. When broken down to its constituent elements, such as changes in style and a move toward accessibility and personalization, it becomes a difficult target to see clearly. In part, this is because, although tabloidization is usually seen as antithetical to traditional journalistic standards, there has always been a tension between journalism’s twin impulses to inform and to entertain. For instance, journalists have long been encouraged to see large issues in personal terms; engaging narratives are far more effective in communicating than dry, statistical accounts. Members of the public are not well informed if they simply reject the news out of boredom. The issue seems to hinge on an almost impossible set of questions: when has the balance between entertainment and information shifted too far? At what point has the trivial pushed out all serious discourse? How will we recognize a “media circus” when we see it (Kurtz 1994)?
There are no clear answers to these questions, and thus there can be no clear definition of the term “tabloidization.” As they do with obscenity, critics claim to “know it when they see it.” Essentially the term has become a shorthand way of describing any trend in news production and reception that represents trivialization, cheapening, and a decline in standards; the exact nature of that decline may depend on the point of view of the critic.
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- Sparks, C., & Tulloch, J. (eds.) (2000). Tabloid tales. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Tannen, D. (1999). The argument culture: Stopping America’s war of words. New York: Ballantine.