Is celebrity journalism in Western Society overriding more serious news? Well, a quick glance at the newsstand, a scroll online and television channel surfing will definitely suggest a focus on celebrity in today’s media content. Not only are tabloids covered front to back with scandal and gossip, but in an effort to meet consumer demands, even broadsheets are following a similar pattern. Celebrity-focussed news programs have been developed like Entertainment Tonight and E News, even the more traditional news broadcasts report more on celebrity deaths, than what is happening in Syria (Farrell, 2013). This essay will focus on the origins of celebrity news, its rising influence and how its affecting journalism, in an attempt to understand its growing cultural and economic significance.
Debate about the ideal content or purpose of journalism is as old as print itself. Popular culture has always made its way through the papers and intruded on the high principles and purposes of journalism – to provide information of importance to the public (Conboy, 2014). Celebrity journalism, on the other hand, centres on the lives of film stars, pop stars or those who are simply “well known for their well knownness”. All of which make up the staple of contemporary journalism. People are now far more interested in learning of the private lives of those in the public eye, and to feed their hunger for gossip, they turn to the media. The media, in an effort to increase readership, circulation and profits through advertisers, become crucial suppliers of such ‘information’ (Farrell, 2013).
Celebrity journalism, as we know it, began in The New Yorker in 1957, which Truman Capote was commissioned to profile film star, Marlon Brando. Over the course of several hours, Brando opened up and gave intimate family details regarding his mother’s alcoholism, resulting in a revolutionary piece like no other (McClintok, 2014). Today, celebrity news is a pervasive phenomenon, stretching far beyond tabloids, gossip columns and specialist magazines, constituting a new normality in the media world (Dubied, Hanitzsch 2014). Even during the financial crises in the United States, ‘serious’ news outlets struggled financially, yet celebrity and gossip magazines flourished (Breese, 2010). In Britain, celebrity agenda permeates all aspects of news, which was made particularly evident with DJ and charity fundraiser, Sir Jimmy Savile’s death on the 29th October 2011. On that same day, two suicide car bombers carried out one of the deadliest attacks on Kabul in years, killing 13 American soldiers, as well as Afghan civilians. Disturbingly, Savile’s death was the top story on BBC R4’s 6pm news, with the attack in Kabul deemed secondary (O’Neill, 2012). Essentially, celebrity comes to dominate the media simply because it is catering to public tastes (Williamson, 2012), by maintaining the specific market appeal of the 21st century (Conboy, 2014). That is, the growing fixation with celebrities by uncovering the ‘real’ person behind the media presence (Farrell, 2013).
There is no doubt that celebrities feed the news with sensation, scandal and drama, propagating an obsession for people’s private lives, yet it’s worth noting that celebrity coverage brings a wide range of socially and politically relevant issues into public consciousness (Dubied, Hanitzsch 2014). This contributes to democratisation, by portraying new groups in society as famous and humanising them (Williamson, 2012). Their narratives are usually portrayed as a ‘rags to riches’ feel-good, highlighting their likeness to the ordinary masses, while spotlighting why they are famous in the first place (Farrell, 2013). This coming together of the celebrity with the everyday provides a significant amount of commentary on moral and ethical issues in the domestic sphere, some of which would have been uninteresting to people otherwise and were an irregular feature of the news (Conboy, 2014). Such conversations include illness, medical treatments, religion and sexuality, which contribute to the expanding range of topics that are spoken openly now (Breese, 2010).
From a sociological point of view, celebrity news is journalism’s response to fundamental changes taking place within society, particularly individualism, social value change and mediatisation. Traditional social institutions like religion, school and family are no longer the most prominent factors in orientation discovery, with many people dependant on the media now with its plurality of options and flexibility (Dubied, Hanitzsch 2014). People like Ellen DeGeneres led the way for identification and open discourse when in 1997; she publicly came out about her sexuality. Her revelation, during an episode of her sitcom back then, Ellen, allowed for public debate, as people made their own opinions, both negative and positive on the celebrity’s coming out. DeGeneres said, “It was only meant to be honest… It turned into people not liking me, because they thought that I was somehow political all of a sudden”. Despite the initial controversy, Degeneres inspired many to come out and be true to themselves, like young actress, Ellen Page, who personally thanked DeGeneres for paving the way (VanMetre, 2015).
Global research points to a remarkable shift in social value change from initially survival values to self-expression, with self-expression values being especially emphasised in wealthier societies (Dubied, Hanitzsch 2014). Caitlyn Jenner, member of the notorious Kardashian clan, is testament to this as she made shock headlines everywhere when she publicly transitioned from Bruce to Caitlyn earlier this year. She decided to make light of the issue, by instead of cowering away from the public eye, embraced her image and sat for the cover of Vanity Fair, explaining her change of heart and how she could make a difference, “I’m doing it to help my soul and help other people”, said Caitlyn. Similarly to DeGeneres, a media storm brewed, criticising and praising the personality, leading her to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN’s EPSY (Marquina, 2015).
Celebrities can also encourage, through the media, health behaviours of proven benefit for a widespread audience when they choose to reveal intimate details about their health condition in hopes of educating others about misconceptions, symptoms and benefits of early detection. Their narratives have shaped health promotion and public dialogues about health, illness and wellbeing (Beck et al 2013). Michael J Fox and Sir Elton John, who have both raised over $400 million for Parkinson’s research and HIV prevention, and Angelina Jolie in her double mastectomy, are to be commended for raising awareness and funds (Griffiths, 2013).
The language deployed in celebrity journalism also builds social meaning by building a composite version of the vocabulary and style of the ideal average reader (Conboy, 2014). In a research study in 2004, 55 London based regular readers of The Sun or the Daily Mail were interviewed about their views on reading the celebrity-based newspapers. The majority of readers were blue-collar workers and identified themselves in the paper through its use of colloquial language, prompting them to say – “like we talk” or “like something I’d say myself” (Johansson, 2008). The two-way process between language and reader allows people to make sense of the world, by reducing contradictory elements in a language, which magnifies references to popular culture (Conboy, 2014). The majority of celebrity accounts also just represent them as normal, everyday people, which emotionally limits the distance celebrities are from us, as we find pleasure in knowing someone with extraordinary fame is also just as ordinary as us (Breese, 2010).
The shocking headlines and celebrity narratives are usually driven by the availability of images provided by the paparazzi, photographers and even fan sites and celebrity news sites. The huge demand for celebrity photos has expanded the market and allowed for more jobs, with the paparazzi industry shifting from common grounds of freelance to being dominated by multinational agencies, which pay top dollar for photographs (Turner, 2013). Of course, not all aspects of celebrity photography are positive. Its photographs constitute a serious challenge to media laws and professional codes of conduct, in which the high prices of photos are at the expense of celebrity privacy (Dubied, Hanitzsch 2014). Fred Inglis labelled the paparazzi as “fairly despised and fairly descipable”, yet pointing out that “we feed eagerly on the photos”. Describing Princess Diana’s tragic death, he said, “when the wolves took off in pursuit of Princess Diana… raced away in the huge black Mercedes and crashed into the underpass to kill her… the gross and deadly photographs fetched a fortune. Not many people looked away” (Turner, 2013). Nine paparazzi were charged with manslaughter initially, but charges were dropped in 2002 (Barr, 2008).
Justin Bieber is a recent victim to this vile paparazzi behaviour, when nude photos of the star surfaced in mid October of this year, while holidaying in Bora Bora. In an interview with Access Hollywood, Bieber broke his silence and said, “My first thought was… how can they do this? Like, I feel super violated… you should feel comfortable in your own space… especially that far away” (Atkinson, 2015). Currently, Bieber’s legal team is threatening to sue The New York Daily News for posting the photos (Meyers, 2015). These stakeouts and high-speed chases may sound vile, but ultimately there is a market for these photos. If people did not read magazines or care about celebrities, there would be no paparazzi (Anderson, 2013). Even a very unsensational photo taken of a celebrity going about their daily business is a ploy for trouble. Jane Nicholls, former editor of People, said, “The problem is when people get an image and make up stories, they interview their keyboards” (McClintok, 2014).
The relationship between journalists and access to their sources (celebrities) form issues as well, that may create implications for the entire occupation (Dubied, Hanitzsch 2014). Instead of the journalist independently developing sources in order to seek out information for public interest, celebrity news is generated by their publicity for mostly commercial purposes. Through connections with news organisations, their intent is to serve the interests of those at the centre of the story, by giving widespread distribution. Unsolicited celebrity news even exceeds the demand as journalists are provided with plenty of publicity material, redefining the journalists’ role. No longer a news-gatherer, publicity now make things easy for journalists by making the story ‘ready to run’ through tailored videos, photos and news-compatible releases. Journalists now become filtering agents, doing very little independent investigation, fact-checking or backgrounding, in their time-poor and highly competitive field (Turner, 2013), whereas publicity become dictators of the news agenda (O’Neill, 2012). Consumerism is also enhanced through the organisation of celebrities, as (Zelizer, 1989) journalists perform marketing tools (Kristensen, From 2015) by thrusting fixation on films, music and products endorsed by celebrities to the masses, in their corporate controlled media industries, which are linked to the celebrity (Farrell, 2013).
What could be considered the biggest negative of celebrity journalism would be the perceived ‘dumbing down’ of audiences, as they actively choose to engage in sex scandals, divorces, marriages and cosmetic surgery instead of debates concerning social or political issues (Farrell, 2013). As a form of escapism, audiences take pleasure in reading celebrity magazines as a way to deal with day-to-day struggles and the circumstances and events in a world that headline more bad global news than good. The deployment of humour provides an opportunity to relax and revel in the lives of the rich and famous, which can be seen as a positive and negative (Johansson, 2008).
Nevertheless, most people would agree that journalism has more than one role, not only to inform and hold those to account, but in this entertainment-driven society, to also aim to do so in an engaging and entertaining way (O’Neill, 2012). Celebrity journalism has its place and perhaps will remain so for a long time, or until Keeping up with the Kardashians is axed, as celebrities do provide us with a new take on society and flow of conversation, which would not have happened if it was not for public figures. However, celebrity infusing every facet of everyday existence is not how journalism should be. Perhaps if news programs and newspapers reported ‘serious’ news in an entertaining format, similarly to The Project, maybe people would simply leave their reading of trashy celeb magazines to the doctor’s waiting room.
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Image by Keith J. Kelly http://nypost.com/2016/02/16/celebrity-magazines-arent-dead-yet/ via New York Post http://nypost.com/