Module JG390

Tabloid Journalism

Module author

Tanni Haas

City University of New York

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • define tabloid journalism and explain this journalistic genre;
  • give an overview of the historic development of tabloid journalism;
  • reflect this genre critically and discuss the ethical problems of tabloid media.
Study point 1
Reading extract Tabloid Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that tabloid journalism is important zu know

Tabloid Journalism is a specific type of journalism which is often discounted by what many consider to be "true journalism." Often not taken seriously by established reporters, tabloid journalism may be seen to only focus on topics such as those stories which are the most sensational (examples include celebrity gossip, outrageous crime, prophecy/predictions, extra terrestrials, end of world scenarios, etc.) 

Today, tabloid journalism can be easily recognizable by those publications such as "The National Enquirer," "Globe", or "The Star." Usually placed at grocery store checkout counters (away from what is considered to be "reputable newspapers"), many give these papers very little credibility; however, there is a huge market for such publications. Due to the popularly of these publications, advertisers have taken advantage of the circulation, making this business highly lucrative, securing the ongoing survival of tabloid journalism. 

One of the main characteristics of these "newspapers," is that, unlike daily newspapers which report current events in a more professional or factual manner, the tabloid style is to emphasize the sensational elements of a story. For example, a more "reputable" newspaper may report on the death of a particular celebrity, noting the passing and possibly providing a brief history of his or her's life. A tabloid, however, will concentrate on anything which may be possibly scandalous surrounding the person's life. This could take the form of something as ridiculous as a pet dog or a shoe fetish; any of which may or not be true; but nonetheless, this is what a tabloid would focus on. 

Additionally, the tabloid may not always confirm facts of a story. If there is just a hint of gossip about a situation, it may be published as truth, even enhanced. The target audience is not likely to be highly educated, and may most enjoy reading something negative about a famous person.

The tabloid form of journalism, while not taken very seriously by "real newspapers" may actually publish important stories, which may have been confirmed. One example of this is a story published by "The National Enquirer" in 1982. Reporters of "The Enquirer" investigated the death of then Saturday Night Live star, John Belushi. Upon their inquiry, they were the sole source responsible for discovering what really happened to cause this star's death. In some cases, tabloid investigation may actually discover and report on "real" news.

The majority of tabloids report in a lurid or "slimy" style, concentrating on the darker side of the lives of celebrities. These publications are usually published on a weekly basis, and the attention grabbing headlines are almost always about a dysfunctional family, divorce, drinking problem, etc. Tabloids rarely report on anything which may be considered "positive." For example, a recent tabloid headline read, "Police could soon be called in to sort out the bitter spat that has engulfed Patrick Swayze's family." Obviously, this "story" is not exactly newsworthy, but there is a large market of readers who are hungry for such lurid details about a dead celebrity; therefore, tabloids not only exist but thrive.

One other characteristic which distinguishes tabloids from other newspapers, is their appearance. Usually shorter, in a more condensed page format, their "headlines" are usually spilled against a photograph of the story's subject, almost always shown with a scowl or grimace. This configuration of the front page is designed to confirm that the story being reported on is confirming a disparagement (which may or may not be true, but this doesn't seem to matter.) 

The beginnings of early tabloid journalism can be traced back to Alfred Harmsworth. A successful newspaper publisher in the United Kingdom, during the late 1800's and early 1900's, Harmsworth purchased a few newspapers, which were not financially successful and on the verge of failing. Transforming them into what we now classify as tabloids, the public's ever growing hunger for dirty laundry increased circulation, sales, and of course, advertising revenue. One of his best known publications still survives today, and is one of the most popular publications in the U.K.; this newspaper is known as "The Daily Mail."

Today, with so many publications and news sources available (hundreds of television channels, magazines, internet, etc.), all screaming for consumers' attentions, you may wonder why tabloids are still so popular. The short answer, is that they are successful because on the whole, everyday peoples' lives are not great. If readers know that celebrities, and those individuals whom our society classifies as "successful," have problems, it may help to know that we are not so different from them. The thinking is, "Joe Celebrity has a drinking problem, so maybe I am not so different." The idea of decency is not bound to a particular class; tabloids allow the every day person to take a peak behind the facade of a public, often perfectly perceived, life.

Some may ask themselves, "Do we need tabloids; if so, why?" The easy answer is, "Yes, of course we do." All journalistic reporters strive to discover and report on the the truth. Many of the more reputable newspapers will adhere to an unspoken code of agreed upon limits; however, tabloid publications are not bound to these limits and often may go beyond these boundaries to chase down a scandal. Those in the public, to include not only celebrities but often times business people and politicians, who, like everyone else, may engage in activity that they wish to hide from public view. 

Tabloid reporters are known to use extreme investigative techniques to uncover such behavior. One example of this, is the 2008 story discovered by reporters working for "The National Enquirer." No other reporter even had a hint that the American Senator John Edwards was having an affair with a mistress, fathering a love child, during the same time his wife was undergoing treatment for cancer. Reporters for the more "reputable" newspapers respected boundaries, not delving into his private life. Reporters working for "The National Enquirer" conducted a covert investigation, reporting the Senator's scandalous affair. This sole investigation has been credited with deciding the outcome of the presidential election of that time. 

While tabloid journalism may not be perceived as important or credible, the truth is that this style of reporting does hold a place in our world and is not likely to go away any time soon.