All You Need To Know About Tabloid Journalism

Tabloid journalism has really taken off in Mzansi. Barely a week goes by these days that we do not read or hear about some outrageous story concerning a public figure. Often we end up asking ourselves questions about the legal ramification of this journalism fodder. 

What is Tabloid? 

The word "tabloid" comes from the name given by the London based pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co. to the compressed tablets they marketed as "Tabloid Pills" in the late 1880s. 

They were not the first to derive the technology to make those tablets but they were the most successful at marketing them, hence the popularity of the term "tabloid" in popular culture.

The connotation of "tabloid" was soon applied to other small items and to the "compressed" journalism that condensed stories into a simplified, easily-absorbed format.

Nowadays the term tabloids is characterized as publications that are specializing in the sensational, use scandal sheets, feature bold pictorial coverage of sex escapades, murder and gore, sports and about many things but mostly rich and famous people.

The best example of tabloids in South Africa are the Sunday newspapers; "Sunday World" and "Sunday Sun".

Tabloid Journalism

The key to tabloid story writing is that something doesn't have to be true to print -- someone just has to have said that it was true. Writers can bring in sources and experts to confirm just about anything. 

They will use leading questions to get a "money quote" from a source, or offer up the quote themselves and use it as long as the source agrees with them. 
  • For example, a writer might interview a source for a story about Khanyi and ask, "Was Khanyi Mbau  there the whole night. Was the guy also there? " If the "source" says yes, the story might run with a quote saying, "Khanyi Partied The Whole Night With An Unknown Guy!"

So where do they get most of their stories from?

Good tabloid writers expand upon small news items that appear in the back pages of traditional newspapers. Once a writer finds a story that can be expanded, he calls family members or authorities involved with the story to get quotes. 

Using those quotes, the writer can flesh out the story and make it more about the people involved than the events themselves. This is a hallmark of the tabloid writing style.
  • For example; the story about Zahara being exploited rests heavily on her relationship with her family rather than the actual facts about her supposed exploitation by TS Records. 
Tabloid stories are not based on hard facts but rather on what purported witnesses or sources say is true.Celebrity news is a staple of the tabloids, and sources for this information are everywhere.

Free Publicity

A large proportion of tabloid celebrity news comes from celebrities themselves, often by way of their publicists. Some stars build a working relationship with a tabloid, offering inside stories in exchange for the free publicity. 

At other times, the tabloid will accept inside stories while agreeing to avoid running harsh or negative stories about a certain star. 

Remember, tabloid media seems to cover stories that are outside the realm of serious journalism. Sometimes it seems like the stories are completely made up and truth be told, sometimes they really are made up.

If a story is incredibly far fetched, or the people quoted in the story are vaguely identified, then chances are it is false. Generally though tabloid media try to base their stories on a grain of truth.

Khanyi may not have been partying with the unknown man but they were both at that party so though the story might be misleading it is not entirely false.

Tabloids And The Law?

The tabloids are not immune to lawsuits, but they aren't sued nearly as often as you might think. What's their secret?

Firstly, the process of suing them is a tedious one that some celebrities might not see the point in pursuing. 

Second issue is the cost factor. Suing someone is not as simple as you might think. To sue someone you would have to prove that the information that was given is false and sometimes when you loose you may have to incur huge amount of bills as you may be ordered by the court to pay the other guy's legal fees.

Sometimes it is just not worth the trouble to try and sue a newspaper or a journalist when you are a musician or an actors as you may feel that you may need the media's support in future when you need publicity for a project. 

Our industry is small. The last thing a celebrity needs is to be ignored by the media, so they just roll with the punches. 

Personally I have told some of my industry friends that pursuing a story even if it is false can only be at your disadvantage.

Truth is, tabloid news have a very short lifespan. A story will run on Sunday and cause murmurs across the nation but by Wednesday we would have all moved on. 

Take all these celebrity racism stories. Last week everybody was heeving about Jessica, this week nobody even remembers or cares about the story. 

By pursuing legal action or trying to defend a story a celebrity will inadvertently be keeping it alive. People and other media platform still care about the Zahara exploitation story simply because she is still defending TS.

Basically the publicity surrounding a celebrity's reaction to a story could prove a thousand times more damaging than the original fabrication. 

Still, if you have the means and the will power to prove a point you can sue tabloids

Actor Siphiwe Mtshali was able to sue for a false story that was written about him. That has not really hurt his career much now. 

Now let's take the Minnie Dlamini Vs Nonhle Thema lawsuit that never really got anywhere. 

Though Nonhle's tweet was inappropriate and probably pissed Minnie off, she would have had to mount a fierce battle to make Nonhle accountable for her crass attack on her but Nonhle could put up a good defense in court. 

Simply put; Nonhle's tweet was libellous and could by law be eligible for a lawsuit but she could still have come off unscathed. 

Libel is an action for causing hurt or damage to someones reputation. Just like assault is an action for physical harm or damage. 

There are two forms of the libellous action.

If the action is in writing, it is called "defamation".
If the action is spoken, then it is "slander". 

The truth is not always a defence in a libel action. The court can find against you even if you tell the truth if the damage can be proved and you the libeler cannot mount an adequate defense. 

Basically it is a toss up between Minnie and Nonhle. Minnie would have had to prove that Nonhle's words caused her or her career any harm — and that would have not been an easy task. 

The same applies when you taking on the tabloid. You would have to prove that the story has caused you or your career any harm for your lawsuit to succeed. 

Of course this is just an overview of the legal system. Anything can be challenged in a court of law and it helps when you have a healthy bank account. 

The Tabloids, The Industry And The Consumer 

In the infamous Leveson Inquiry that looked into the "culture, practices and ethics of the media" after the Tabloids scandal that rocked Europe last year, Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster said: 
"There's an abundance of people who are keen, eager, quite idealistic about their view of what journalism can do, what they can achieve as journalists, the role of journalism in a democratic society."
It is my believe too that journalists are not generally out to destroy people but rather have to serve a market that is increasingly in demand of the most salacious, crass and dramatic stories out there. 

Expecting journalists to uphold some moral high ground all the time would be like building a house near a railway expecting the trains not to make noise all the time. If it happens, great but if not do not go on moaning as that is what they do -- make noise!

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