Tabloids are toxic, invasive, disrespectful and dangerous. Yet we still consume them — the half-hearted, offhand click on an article here, the spreading of a rumor there, the “Oh my god, did you hear about Brangelina?”
The dissonance and hypocrisy between being a generally empathetic person and not batting an eye at the press’ casual commentary on female celebrities’ bodies, weight gain and weight loss and even tragedies is astounding.
The reality is we’ve been blinded by tabloids, so engrossed in their entertainment value that we missed all the red flags. They may have been labeled as trashy, but that doesn’t account for the full extent of the damage they cause.
It’s the tabloids that are largely responsible for perpetuating body image issues, endangering public figures and normalizing sexist, even illegal comments.
In certain cases, tabloids have played an important role — exposing people and breaking real news. For instance, the National Enquirer found evidence for the O.J. Simpson trial and TMZ broke the story about Chris Brown’s 2009 assault allegation, even leaving the victim’s name, Rihanna, out of their coverage.
But largely, tabloids have done more harm than good.
U.K. tabloids in particular have a history of harming people they cover — Princess Diana was killed in a car crash while avoiding the paparazzi. Meghan Markle is constantly compared to Kate Middleton and receives consistent racist, sexist attacks on the front pages.
Unfortunately, tabloids have also, as with all businesses in the digital age, migrated onto social media with clickbait titles and misinformation on platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat.
By doing so, they’ve expanded their reach to an entirely new generational demographic, imprinting and normalizing this facet of society onto them.
It’s even more harmful for teenagers to get sucked up in the tornado. An alarming number of former Disney Channel actors who entered the industry as children have had mental health breakdowns or substance issues later in life.
We see the same pattern threatening to repeat with TikTok stars — Charli D’Amelio’s rise to fame was sudden and exponential. A normal 15-year-old girl suddenly gained more than 41 million followers and probably even more eyes on her, watching and criticizing her every move.
Tabloids set the precedent and make it that much more acceptable for those in the public eye to receive hate comments, death threats, rape threats and so on. These publications allow people to have access to celebrities’ personal lives and feel emboldened or justified in their inappropriate behavior.
Some may say, “If you become famous, you should expect this,” as though knowing the risk of becoming a public figure warrants typically unacceptable comments. Nothing could ever warrant it.
Fortunately, societal awareness regarding tabloids has resurfaced with movements such as #FreeBritney. The conversation surrounding Britney Spears’ conservatorship and how she was portrayed in the media has ignited a massive cultural reckoning.
If we haven’t already realized how complicit we’ve been in terms of Spears’ case, it’s time for us to truly acknowledge the role we play. Gossip mills are running and thriving due to how grossly and morbidly over-curious human beings are. It’s a guilty pleasure in which many of us indulge.
Tabloids rely on exaggeration, shock, scandal, trauma and sex with no regard or consideration for human life. By invading privacies and milking celebrities’ lives for entertainment, tabloids dehumanize people.
Simply saying we’ve participated in breeding this culture isn’t enough because there will always be people who unapologetically continue to enable the industry. And where there’s a niche or market for ethically questionable content, there will be someone capitalizing off of that demand.
The only way to mitigate the effect of tabloids is to teach media literacy and hold these publications accountable — perhaps they can change the way they approach writing celebrity news.
Trigger warnings, for example, are much needed and do not limit tabloids’ freedom to write and publish. TMZ has already started labeling some videos with a graphic content warning, which they did not have when they broke the news on former football star Ray Rice’s domestic abuse in 2014.
The journalism industry should be moving past scoop journalism — the race to break the news first can disregard appropriate timing and empathy.
Perhaps tabloids will never be fully ethical or accurate, always carrying an aspect of scandal and sensationalization, but we can try to be respectful and slowly phase out our culture’s reliance on strangers’ lives.