What do tabloids do?

Today, Fleet Street Blues links to a spirited defence of tabloid values from Oscar Williams-Grut at wannabehacks. It's a good piece, but you might have trouble reading it if you follow the link. The enormous elephant in the room might get in the way of your screen.

Aside from suggesting that celebrity and popular culture are no less important than politics or science, which quite funny, the main thrust of the piece seems to be this:
Recent figures reveal that the Mail Online is the second most read news website on the web. Why? Because they know what their readers want.
The virtues of the student tabloids are exactly the same as the nationals: they both know how their readers think.
Yes, the national tabloids do know what their readers think, and they're keen to give them what they want. The problem is that they're so hell bent on giving it to them that they prioritise this over telling the truth. That's kind of a problem.

One major aspect of tabloid style reporting is the blatant disregard for truth. It's just as much of a feature as short sentences, puns and punchy headlines.

TabloidWatch has recently covered how the Express and Star both made false claims about the flying of EU flags. The coverage prompted the EU Information office to write to the Express pointing out what was wrong. The Express decided not to print the letter or make any sort of clarification, but did print several letters that backed up its false claims.

The Telegraph recently parroted a claim about the costs of immigration that was a tabloid fabrication. The cost came from adding together figures whose author said shouldn't be added together and slapping almost a billion pounds on the top. When this total originally appeared in the Daily Mail, it was included at the bottom of a table that'd had certain things on it labelled differently to the labels their original author had given them, changing 'ethnic minority' to 'immigrant'. On the vaunted and incredibly popular MailOnline, the table was included in another story about the government's position on the benefits of immigration without the source being labelled at all, so it might look to the casual reader as though these were official government figures.

Express readers might think the EU is bonkers and might want to read about how it's going to fine countries whose buildings don't fly its flag - but that never happened. Mail readers might have wanted to read shocking figures about the cost of immigration - but they got a made up total that would have been unreliable even if the paper didn't add almost a billion pounds to it.

The article at wannabehacks also says:
Meanwhile, meanings are often lost, ambiguity appears and the reader becomes confused or loses interest. Good journalism should be clear, accurate and economical. No papers provide a better example of this than the tabloids. 
The Sun famously has a reading age of 8, a fact often used to dismiss them. But The Sun’s subeditors are some of the most respected on Fleet Street precisely because of this. The language they use may not be intellectual, but they know damn well how to use it.
It's not necessarily just the simple language that is the problem with the tabloids. It's the simplifying of concepts and events. If ambiguity appears in an article about an ambiguous situation, that's a good thing.

The reality behind the figure of the costs of immigration I mentioned earlier is that they were ambiguous. The original author didn't know how much of the figures he quoted actually applied to immigrants, which is why he warned against adding them together. This would have been more obvious to the reader seeing 'ethnic minority' in a table of supposed costs of immigrants, which is why the Mail changed them. Even without adding .9 billion pounds to the total, Mail readers would have been presented misleading, shaky figures as though they were concrete fact. This is not a good thing.

The idea that tabloid hacks are better than other writers because they use shorter words and make things simple is one of those weird myths, like how swallowed chewing gum stays in your gut for years and years, or that trainers thrown over a phone line mark gang territory. (That last one appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail by the way).

What tabloids do, away from fake sheiks, phone hacking and blagging is supply what they've decided their readers want by oversimplifying issues, reducing complex and ambigious ideas to simple black and white certainty that often misrepresents reality. Oh, and show pictures of tits that are sometimes accompanied by fake outrage. And that's before we even think about stories that are just rubbish from the start.

Anyone know where I can find a muslim only public loo?


Foofyface#1 said...

My friend did journalism at Uni and her lecturer asked whether she would write for The Sun. She replied she would rather punch herself in the tit for a living, and he came out with some drivel about how any journalist worth their salt would kill to write at the Sun and that she obviously didn't 'want it' enough. What an advertisement for the profession! "Journalism: if you work hard and get a moral labotomy even YOU could write for the bizarre column." She's a civil servant now.

Anonymous said...

Good piece. Couldn't agree more.

I don't have a problem with a low reading age, and I applaud attempts to make sure things are presented that is understandable to all.

BUT. If something is complicated, it needs to be acknowledged that it is complicated. That can be done very clearly. What newspapers do is agenda-driven simplification of complicated issues. That is not clarity.

And that list of good journalism includes the term, 'accurate', a description laughable when applied to the tabloids.

Okay, so I realise I've just repeated your point there, but hey-ho. Luke

gregorach said...

Things is, "what the readers want" isn't just limited to stylistic features such as short sentences and punchy headlines. What they want most of all is to have their prejudices confirmed. If it takes outright lies to do it, that's a price they're perfectly willing to pay. The strapline on George Monbiot's blog is true: "Tell people something they already know and they will thank you for it. Tell people something new and they will hate you for it."

The entire worldview wherein the press is a vehicle to inform the public is fundamentally flawed, because a significant proportion of the public are actively resistant to being informed if the truth conflicts with their pre-existing views, and the market is only too happy to provide more palatable alternatives.

P. Stable said...

On the subject of confirming prejudices, Williams-Grut's column (and indeed his paper) helped confirm most of my prejudices about Oxbridge students, and student journalists in general.

And I say that as a former student journalist.