With the recent increase of reports on the private lives of celebrities in broadsheet papers, Gary Dunne laments the lack of journalistic merit these stories have
Recent months have seen John Terry, Willie O’Dea and Tiger Woods facing the glare of the media. Often these scandals come in hand-in-hand with phrases such as “tabloid fodder”, or with cautionary tales about the power of the red tops. But it is not just The Sun and The National Enquirer giving us the juicy details about Tiger Woods and John Terry’s latest affairs. These incidents are now covered on Sky News, and are front-page on The Guardian and The Times. But why is this the case? Why are Tiger Woods extra-marital affairs main evening news?
Tiger may be one of the biggest sports stars in the world, but Muhammad Ali is probably the most famous sports star of all time – yet his frequent affairs, divorces and re-marriages did not dominate the serious news agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, he became a major news story for his links to Eliza Mohamed, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims. His subsequent refusal to deploy to Vietnam ensured his face would become the most recognisable in the world. Unless collecting mistresses like an eager child completing a sticker collection or frequent public urination counts, neither Woods nor Terry have achieved much outside of their respective sports. So what has changed since the 1960s? The answer is a hyper-competitive media environment.
Newspapers always have articles to fill their pages from front-to-back. Millions consume this information daily – whether it’s the day after a major election or just a dull Tuesday in November. Whatever the day, whatever the occasion, there is always enough news for the media to exist. But filling this space is hard work – it’s not every day that a major event happens. So what do the media do on less exciting days? They improvise and use what they have to create stories. A slow news day can lead to what would otherwise be a footnote becoming main evening news. How does having a constant barrage of never-ending headlines affect society – and just as importantly, what is the effect on the media itself? How do they deal with the pressure of always needing material?
Rolling 24-hour news channels have caused a seachange in the media. Newspapers cannot compete with the immediacy of live news so they must find “scoops” to stay in business. Furthermore, coverage is given to items that would not have been mentioned before. Flicking through broadsheets now, articles on Lady Gaga share column inches with budget deficits. The growing convergence of internet, TV and newspapers mean that competition comes from all angles. Advertising – the lifeblood of any media outlet – depends on ratings, views or circulation. This means that the means of getting attention is changing all the time.
Creating the sense of a big story is vital to media outlets. With competition at every angle, a sober response to a story may not attract the public and with them go the advertisers who pay their wages. Accordingly, the media take whatever happens to the nth degree. Everyday, somebody has a crisis or a catastrophe. A passing remark in an otherwise dull interview is seized upon. Politicians – and even football managers – do not merely speak, they blast and they rant. 24-hour news channels exist in a constant state of peril. Viewers are urged to stay tuned for the next critical story.
Regardless of what day of the year it is, TV has 24 hours of airtime to fill. The breaking news banner much beloved by Sky News, Fox News et al has changed from something seen six times a year to an almost hourly occurrence. Whereas once the breaking news banner signalled a major event, now John Terry’s selection for Chelsea in a weekend game is considered sufficient. This can be seen as an example of what academics refer to as “infotainment”: controversy equals sales, and sales equals advertising revenue.
What does all this mean? Has this been an inevitable progression from the televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy? Famously this debate is said to have changed the election in Kennedy’s favour. Viewers who saw Nixon visibly wilting and sweating said Kennedy won the debate, very different to listeners on the radio who believed Nixon won.
Now we have media darlings such as Barack Obama as US President. Similarly, David Cameron, a former PR officer, is favoured to be Prime Minister in the UK within the year. Is the news media’s need to be entertaining so strong that politicians must now be celebrities? The effect of the media has led to politicians – or indeed, anybody in the media – unable to say anything mildly controversial, for fear it will be amplified to create news stories. This can have an effect on Governmental policies, as media-aware politicians know that they cannot risk the wrath of a controversy hungry media. Bland media friendly faces may have replaced the people of action just when action is needed the most.