All that glitters is not news
- Guest post
By Christine Dobby
Beauty and celebrity magazine editor Bonnie Fuller says “you can’t turn your nose up at your audience.” Maybe not, but selling your audience celebrity gossip in the guise of real news is like marketing candy for its nutritional value.Fuller took over at HollywoodLife.com, an online entertainment site billed as “your celebrity news, gossip and style BFF” in 2009. She discussed the importance of celebrity gossip (sorry, celebrity news, as she calls it) with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC-Radio’s Q in February.
Fuller was on Q to promote her website and suggested that celebrity “journalism” (her word again) plays a valuable role in society. She said, “Everybody is interested in celebrity news and people take a lot of lessons out of it.”
But her argument that reporting on the minutia of celebrities’ lives enriches our own is hard to sustain. It may be true that there is a general level of fascination with the day-to-day of Brad and Angelina and company, but prurient interest does not equal public interest. Put simply, celebrity gossip, as entertaining as it is, is nothing more than an amusing pastime, not journalism.
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of The Elements of Journalism, grappled with the question “What is journalism for?” in their 2001 book. They argued: “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” They later added: “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. That purpose is to provide people with information they need to understand the world.”
Fuller suggested that celebrity gossip does fulfill this need. She said readers take lessons from celebrity news, and to back up her argument, pointed to the example of women getting screened for breast cancer after reading about a female celebrity with the disease.
Fuller also cited her website’s coverage of Tiger Woods’ multiple affairs. “We’ve written a lot of service pieces about how to tell [if your partner is lying], 13 ways you can tell if he’s cheating, how can you then improve your relationship and your communication. . . . So people take a lot of lessons out of what’s going on in celebrity lives. . . . It’s not just pure entertainment value.”
As trite as these pieces may sound, it is not fair to dismiss them completely. But what Fuller failed to address is the news value of the seemingly endless trivialities of celebrities’ day-to-day lives: their acne, their bikini bloat, what they wore to pump gas and who they were seen out with. These kinds of items, which make up the overwhelming majority of celebrity stories, do not enhance readers’ understanding of the world. As Cecil Rosner, managing editor of CBC Manitoba, says, “The single-minded fascination [with the details of celebrity lives] is not very important in the long run.”
Rosner recently published a piece on J-Source about the acceptance of the National Enquirer as an entry in the race for a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on John Edwards and his extra-marital affair and resulting child. In an interview, Rosner acknowledged that some of what happens in the lives of celebrities can provoke general discussion and allowed that there is some value in that. “[One] can use it as a jumping-off point,” says Rosner, who added that the Tiger Woods case raises questions of fidelity that may be relevant to readers.
Like Fuller, Rosner acknowledges that news organizations should pay some attention to celebrity because “masses of people are engaged.” But, he cautions, “Too much coverage distorts people’s perceptions.”
And distorted perceptions have already taken root if you ask Vanessa Grant, a Toronto web producer who runs a daily fashion quiz blog, Catwalk Keener. A few years ago she attended a conference on youth culture and the internet in New York City. She was struck by the absolute confidence so many young people had that they will one day be famous.
Grant says the expectation is there, “Whether it means being a huge celebrity in movies, or having a YouTube channel that lots of people look at.” She suggests that people are “interested in reading about Tila Tequila’s life online because it’s kind of what they aspire to.”
Details on the life of a faux star; it is fair to say that this kind of information does not help the public understand the world or be free and self-governing.
Fuller’s argument that there is meaning and value in celebrity reporting is only applicable in certain circumstances, those where it is used as a means of sparking a discussion with larger societal implications. Otherwise, it is nothing more than spun sugar, an addictive diversion likely to leave you feeling empty and wanting more.
Christine Dobby is a former lawyer now studying
journalism in Ryerson’s master of journalism program. She will be
spending the next four months in Saint John, New Brunswick as a summer
reporter for the Telegraph-Journal.