Differences between good journalism and bad tabloid journalism
By: Jonathan Kush
The differences between good responsible journalism and the exploitative nature of the tabloid press
What is tabloid journalism anyway?
Journalism that presents news usually through sensationalism, emotionalism and over simplification of complex issues catering to the lowest common denominator many times even lying (Örnebring & Jonsson 2004 p287).
News of the World Scandal
This is the scandal where journalists from News of the World, the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch's and News International, hacked into the phones and voice-mails of celebrities and other newsworthy people to get access to their private information resulting in the closure of the NOW newspaper (Marsh 2011 p53)
Did the journalists at NOW cross the line of what constitutes good responsible journalism?
Is hacking the phones of two dead girl’s relatives defensible? Is invading the privacy of a premiership footballer cheating on his wife with a model good journalism? Why is this indefensible? The answer is simple; the rationale for doing it crosses the line more than the manner in which it’s done. If the intrusion was done in the name of exposing crime, misconduct, corruption or abuse of power by people public organs of power accountable to the public such as politicians, the rationale would be defensible (Marsh 2011 p53; British Journalism Review 2010 p3).
The British Journalism Review (2010 p3) asserts that the line between good responsible journalism and bad journalism can be crossed if the rationale behind it is invalid. Invasion of privacy in itself isn’t a bad thing; the same way shooting one terrorist armed with a bomb isn’t a bad thing if you are going to save thousands of lives. Bad behavior in journalism isn’t new or even necessarily bad if acts of deception lead to results that turn out to be valuable to public knowledge rather than high circulation. The public-interest defense is one of the key points that separate good journalism from exploitative tabloid journalism. The phone hacking scandal passed the line of decency when who they sought to investigate and reveal did not pass the public-defense criteria. Holding a government agency accountable passes that criteria but investigating who a talented footballer is sleeping with doesn’t pass.
Good journalism is credible meaning that you can trust the source, responsible meaning its accountable to the people it’s meant for thus a responsible journalist will tell the truth as they saw or heard it without distorting it, something that the tabloid press lack. Good journalism is about bearing witness to events and communicating them on behalf of the public (who may not know) without distorting the truth or facts and to do so in their interest, with no private or sectional interest. This is the opposite of tabloid press because distorting the truth is emblematic of that culture which is why there is a lot of libel litigation against tabloid newspapers (Marsh 2011 p50).
Good responsible journalism is about holding the organs of power and privilege to accountability by “shining the light” upon them so they desist from repressing or abusing it to the detriment of the majority, not premiership footballers. The BBC program “Panorama” has been popular for decades because its good journalism that’s about investigation and revelation for the good of the public (Marsh 2011 p52). Hacking the phones of two dead girls’ relatives or celebrities indefensible and cannot really be serious journalism because these people are not public organs of power. As Steve Barnett (2011 p15) asserts, although many people may enjoy reading about the private lives of many skilled and talented musicians, actors, footballers or businesspeople, journalists (even the public) are not entitled to invade their private lives simply because they are very gifted or have achieved tremendous success. Even worse, the manner in which this kind of journalism is conducted leaves a lot to be desired let alone the content which is often brutal, vulgar, vicious, humiliating journalism that became a hallmark of the defunct NOW newspaper.
Steve Barnett (2011 p14-15) also notes that the line between good responsible journalism and the exploitative nature of the tabloid press shouldn’t even be drawn along the techniques employed, rather in the definition of journalism itself. He compared good journalists to the caped crusader as seen in cult movies following super hero journalist Kent Clark on routine missions to weed out corruption, stand for the bullied and oppressed and fighting evil. Bad journalists were compared to the foul mouthed pigs in raincoats from the “Spitting Image” movie in which they are seen carrying notepads, turning over unsuspecting victims while cowardly sucking up to their equally vulgar editor bosses bullying clients.
But one cannot judge the tabloid press without first understanding why it’s like that. David Ryfe (2009 p198) followed a case study of an American Newspaper to analyze the new environment facing journalism in today’s world of internet blogs, social media and celebrity obsessed culture. He uncovered a culture that makes reporting hard news (think Kent Clark) harder while increasing circulation and reader interest. Simply put, in this new world, news exclusivity at whatever cost (private investigators were hired by NOW), paper circulation, and sensationalism trounce good journalism which may be idealistic.
Therefore, one can argue that the line between good and bad journalism can be drawn easily by looking at the criteria of what constitutes each. Good journalism is done in the interest of the public, is responsible, credible, fair and based on facts with little self-interest. As David Ryfe (2009 p199) said, good journalism is like a watchdog for a society. When journalism stops being the watchdog, that’s when it crosses the line. That’s why the exploitative nature of tabloid journalism driven by the thirst for celebrity culture resulting in scandals like phone hacking can hardly be ascribed the watchdog status because it’s not.
British Journalism Review (2010) “Downturn Alley” British Journalism Review, Vol.21, Issue 4, p3 -4 [Accessed via SAGE Journals Online] at http://bjr.sagepub.com/content/21/4/3
David. M. Ryfe (2009) “Broader and deeper: A study of newsroom culture in a time of change” Journalism, Vol. 10, Issue 2, p197 -216 [Accessed via SAGE Journals Online] at http://jou.sagepub.com/content/10/2/197
Henrik Örnebring & A.M. Jonsson (2004) “Tabloid journalism and the public sphere: a historical perspective on tabloid journalism” Journalism Studies, Vol. 5 Issue 3, p283 -295 55 [Accessed via SAGE Journals Online] at http://jou.sagepub.com/content/10/2/197
Kevin Marsh (2011) “Our only hope is to stand - and deliver” British Journalism Review, Vol. 22, Issue 3, p49 -55 [Accessed via SAGE Journals Online] at http://bjr.sagepub.com/content/22/3/49
Steve Barnett (2011) “Crusaders or pigs in raincoats?” British Journalism Review, Vol. 22, Issue 3, p13 -15 [Accessed via SAGE Journals Online] at http://bjr.sagepub.com/content/22/3/13