Sensationalism or people’s papers, debating tabloids

Sensationalism or people’s papers, debating tabloids

Date: January 1, 1970
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Shocking headlines attesting to the appearance of supernatural phenomena, photos of horrific car crashes, and murderous headlines are a common feature of any newsstand, anywhere in Southern Africa. The tabloid press is growing, in both number and popularity, and so whether one is a fan or foe, it bears some looking into.

Some media critics, readers, and journalists argue that tabloids are sensationalistic, violate women’s rights, and promote a culture of “dumbed down” journalism. Others in the same grouping will argue that they are truly the people’s papers, reflecting real life, local stories, and making the news more accessible to the public.
So who is right?  Could be that there is truth in both arguments. When the recently launched third issue of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal put the tabloid press under a microscope, the range of opinions expressed showed how truly diverse the media landscape in the region is. 
For a start, there is debate on what constitutes a tabloid. Is it form (technically, yes) or content: sensationalism, and greater focus on personal, visual stories? For example, is the Mail and Guardian a tabloid? In form, it certainly is, but in content, it is of course not what we would commonly think of as a tabloid. For now, we will speak of tabloids in the content sense.
The African media landscape has seen a proliferation of tabloid journalism over the past few years. In South Africa, newspaper readership trends show a steady growth in favour of tabloids. The Daily Sun is the most popular daily newspaper with sales of 301 800 and an estimated readership of 2.29million. Together the Daily Sun, Sunday Sun, Sowetan, Son and Sunday World command the biggest share of total readership (that’s 11.2%; 6.3%; 5.3%; 4.5% and 3.4% respectively).
Botswana’s The Voice newspaper, which celebrated its 14th birthday in February 2007, prints over 32 000 copies weekly and boasts by far the highest circulation in Botswana.
5-Plus in Mauritius sells 80,000 copies per week, the second largest readership in Mauritius of the ten weeklies.
As journal contributor Rene Smith, an independent researcher from South Africa, points out, there are increasingly blurred lines between tabloids and “mainstream” newspapers, in a bid to increase circulation. After all, if they are so popular, they must be doing something right for the people, so adding some of this to the mix may make sense.
In their contribution Lynette Steenveld and Larry Strelitz write that that the “campaign journalism” often found in tabloids plays a “helper” role in communities, exposing  inadequacies of local systems and mobilising action. A good example of this is South Africa’s The Sun, whose ongoing series Home Affairs Horrors shares the all too familiar  battles to access documents, such as the much needed national identity book.
Beate Kasale, editor of The Voice in Botswana concurs. She says that while The Voice is often criticised, it “provides an opportunity for the voices of the voiceless to be heard.” She points out that the paper spurs community action, including raising money and creating campaigns to support people whose stories mainstream media would never carry. 
It comes as no surprise that those who are closest to the tabloids, the editors and the readers, think that tabloids are more in tune with the public. Based on a series of interviews conducted for the Mirror on the Media research initiated by Gender Links, editors in South Africa, Mauritius and Tanzania all point to their readers’ desire for people-centered, human-interest stories as key to their popularity.
The also heartily point out that not all tabloids are the same, with some crossing farther over the boundaries of what is considered good journalism than others.
In contradiction, the preliminary findings of content analysis in the above-mentioned research into the gender dimensions of tabloids in these same three countries suggest that tabloids are not quite as “people-centred” as they are made out to be, if we take as our starting point that people in any society comprise both women and men. 
Comparing the findings of the monitoring against the Gender and Media Baseline Study (GMBS) conducted by Gender Links and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in 2003, the study finds that women are as under-represented as sources and images in tabloids as they are in the mainstream media. Women constitute just 25 % of news sources in tabloids in the three countries monitored.
When it comes to images in the more visual tabloid medium, the monitoring found women constitute only 35%  of those depicted, and women are more likely appear as pictures than as sources, but even then not in equal proportion to their strength in the population. At 18 percent, black women are better represented in tabloids than in the mainstream media (7 percent) but are still grossly underrepresented relative to their population (45 %).
The study also finds that although tabloids do carry more local and human interest news than the mainstream media (including on “ordinary” women and on topics of interest to such women) these publications promote some of the worst gender stereotypes.
Kylie Thomas of the HIV/AIDS and the Media Project at the University of the Witwatersrand points out that media analysis is not just about what is in papers, but also about what is not.  She questions why, if tabloids are truly the “people’s papers,” there is very little reference to HIV and AIDS, one of the most pressing issues facing the region, in the pages of South Africa’s Daily Sun.
At the very worst, tabloids have been accused of simply printing stories that are not true, not researched, and provide no value to society. By focusing on melodramatic tales, they draw attention away from the wider political and economic processes that shape readers’ lives. People may be reading more, but what they are reading contributes nothing to personal, social or economic development.
Perhaps the answer is not a clear one clear. In her contribution, Lizette Rabe from Stellenbosch University in South Africa argues that tabloids are a mix of “the good, the bad and the ugly.”  She contends that the challenge is for media to make the most of the opportunities that tabloids present for diversity and adding value to the media environment.
Since it is unlikely that the tabloids are going anywhere, it would seem wise to at least have an idea about what makes them tick. Maybe all media can learn something from the millions of readers that peruse their pages every day, in every country in the region. Whatever we think of tabloids, the purchasing choices of these consumers shows that the votes are going to the tabloids where it really counts, their pocketbooks.
Deborah Walter is the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service and editor of Gender and Media Diversity Journal: The Tabloid Explosion. This article is part of the Gender GL Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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