How can the media strike an effective balance between public interest news and tabloid news

How can the media strike an effective balance between public interest news and tabloid news

How can the media strike an effective balance between public interest news (news value) and news that interests the public (tabloid)?




1.0 Introduction

When media operates in the market economy today, commercial pressures including audience rating, circulation and profitability index are some of the pressing factors considered in media operations. This results in a situation where media outlets compete for an “eyeball economy” and an “attention economy”. The audiences are likely regarded as consumers to some extent rather than citizens (Derek, 2009). On the other hand, the audiences may be unclear about what their better interest is, so that they perhaps just follow their own taste and desire (Persky, 1993). 

Nevertheless, public life is inundated with a lot of valueless news often in a form of celebrity gossip and trivia which according to Hargreaves (2005, p.59) is disintegrating people’s brains and undermining civic life (Hargreaves, 2005, p.59). This essay will therefore present the relationship between public interest and less value news, examine the debate between news-value versus public interest, and come up with several measures and suggestions.

2.0 Main body

Hargreaves(2005) in his book “Journalism: A Very Short Introduction” described news in the public interest as that which is based on news that is less melodramatic, and focusses on important issues such as education, health, diplomacy and community relations, even though it gets less attention. While news that interests the public often is not in the public interest. It can include pictures with sensory stimulation or inflammatory print content which often catch the attention of the public, as Hargreaves (2005) stated that “violence is desirable, death a bonus. Better still if the journalist is young, glamorous, and famous”.

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The popularity of tabloid news can arguably be blamed on the public’s hunger for it?. These tabloids contain all of the factors which were mentioned above, and this shows editorial decisions based on evaluating readers’ interests (Barnett, 2012). Skovsgaard (2014) notes the tabloid style typically appeals through sensationalism, and emotions which is why it obsesses over the personal lives of personalities and ordinary people. This is why sensational headlines such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” (The Sun) typically work as a means to stir public emotion. This is a very famous and also successful example because it indeed attracted plenty of public attention, although the fanciful headline arose from a joke (Hargreaves, 2005, p.63-64). 

Another tabloid style headline is a similar orientation to interest the public in order to gain great circulation. Tabloids are more concerned thus with interesting and entertaining triviality than reporting serious issues that are in public interest. This is a global issue too as illustrated clearly from the first visit of Chinese First Lady Liyuan Peng’s to foreign countries with her husband Chairman Jinping Xi. Her dress style and fashion rather than other serious topics, became the main focus even turning into a style chased by domestic people (People’s Daily Online, 2013). 

It has also be shown that excessive chase of sensationalism possibly may result in forgery too, as when The Sun published a fake interview with a widow though the paper had never spoken to her (Hargreaves, 2005, p.63). 

Besides, there is another severe consequence other than such pseudo events—invasion of privacy. In March 2002, the News of the World illegally invaded a missing girl Milly Dowler and her families’ privacy and even deleted certain important messages, interfering with police investigate into the case. The phone hacking scandal astonished almost everyone in the world and evoked a lot of criticism. The newspaper had to stop publication as a result (Davies and Hill, 2011).

It seems like the tabloids have less rules, less baseline, and maybe stop at nothing to search for news that interests the public, feeding those townspeople who long for secrets and freak-shows to raise the spirit. This issue is reaffirmed by Franklin (1997) who declares the tabloid media is “more concerned with reporting stories which interest the public than stories which are in the public interest”. This also confirms a slogan from The Mirror which said “90 percent entertainment, 10 percent information” (Hargreaves, 2005, p.61). Curran and Seaton (1997: 259) said news value is becoming less about news in the social sense. Tabloid style journalism almost everywhere is now driving out hard news that delivers news value and is in the public interest (skovsgaard, 2014). The following set of statistics demonstrates how tabloids even have the most circulation in the UK.

Figure 1: UK Newspaper Circulation Statistics 2013-2017

UK Newspaper Circulation Statistics 2013-2017



In addition, as figure 1 (above) shows, the highest circulation of a newspaper in the UK is not a quality paper one at all, but The Sun, a tabloid, placed at the top for five years. The enthusiasm of public, on the other hand, has no difficulty to infer. This also demonstrates a key fact: the tabloid news will not disappear anytime soon, because the public like it. However, the disastrous consequences of such tabloid actions cannot be ignored, especially based on certain serious events (e.g. death of Diana, News of the World phone hacking scandal). 

This is why a balance needs to be in place between tabloid news and news value. Hargreaves (2005) argues that although junk food is convenient and taste wonderful on the first bite, its consumption raises longer term questions of public health, in the same way junk journalism does. For this reason, there must be certain principles, and ways that need to be applied to bring about a balance. 

It is important for instance to note that the responsibility of journalism is not only a public service, but also should spread significant information and correct value. As Franklin et al (2005) alleged this information must be useful to the public. In other words, journalists should filter original material first to ensure information published is embedding merits for public interest. About how to balance between entertaining and informing readers, Harrington (2008) suggested “the role of the media is to follow and guide public opinion in a cyclical manner”.

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John Fiske takes a slightly different approach by arguing that we probably should tolerate popular or tabloid news for catering to entertainment. Fiske (1989) quoted in (Harrington, 2008) notes that the key to balancing public interest news and news value is to evaluate both how entertaining news is but also around what information the entertaining news is being used. In other words, journalism should consider giving people what they want and need. “For what purpose?” and “In whose interest?” should perhaps be the question journalism should to ask itself (Harrington 2008). 

An example of how such an approach can to work have been illustrated in the division between “The Daily Show” and “Entertainment Tonight”. Both of them are in style and while their news model is dissimilar from traditional news forms, they both use their popularity differently. One uses their popularity to offer the public sphere news that has greater impact on society. While the other panders to the lower common denominator engaging seriously in celebrity gossip and their personal lives.

The balance can be found in providing ‘popular’ public interest news, even using tabloid tactics to tackle serious issues like health, crime and education. As Harrington (2008) emphasized that focusing on things in respect of results, instead of measures. People like Michael Moore have shown that serious political issues can to be made entertaining using even tabloid tactics without sacrificing their significance to the public sphere. The end outcome maybe not only one item, perforce hard news or indifferent entertainment, instead, both of the two aspects can be left and integrated. Whether the tactics are journalistic is open to debate, but the more important factor is getting an active reaction to the audiences’ needs (Harrington,2008 p277).

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Ethics of journalists is another vital point to keep by journalists when they seek a balance. Especially in terms of privacy, because certain journalists’ behaviour about invading privacy have brought horrible consequences. The phone-hacking scandal with Britain's News of the World made the world rethink "market journalism" concept from Murdoch, which broke the news ethics and legal limits, and damages to press freedom, democracy system and news independence (Davies and Hill, 2011). 

Whereas, it hard to divide between news freedom and privacy even though there are more and more countries recognized a legal right to privacy (Sanders, 2003), because seeking truth and respecting privacy seems ambivalent. Privacy is thus probably one of the grey moral areas still for journalists (Sanders, 2003, p77). Hence, ethics training is a very necessary step, something integral to the job rather than being optional (Sanders 2003).

The coverage of tabloid news and news that interests the public drives circulation even now but Sanders (2003) argues that we should stop condemn the messengers yet continue to devour the message. This paradox exactly illustrates that media serves up news that is interesting to the public because the audience demand it, but there is a way for media to deal with the conflict between public interest and news that interests the public. What is better is for the public to be entertained but also be guided. Media can even use tabloid tactics to tackle serious public interest issues like health and education make them entertaining without sacrificing their significance to the public sphere without the media losing an active reaction to the desires of audiences.

Another issue worth thinking about is tighter privacy legislation which can deter tabloid style stories.


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