Sacrificing Credibility for Sleaze: Mainstream Media's Use of Tabloidization

Sacrificing Credibility for Sleaze: Mainstream Media's Use of Tabloidization

Jenn Burleson Mackay (Virginia Tech, USA) and Erica Bailey (Pennsylvania State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8619-9.ch057


This chapter uses an experiment to analyze how mainstream journalists' use of sensationalized or tabloid-style writing techniques affect the credibility of online news. Participants read four news stories and rated their credibility using McCroskey's Source Credibility Scale. Participants found stories written with a tabloid style less credible than more traditional stories. Soft news stories written with a tabloidized style were rated more credible than hard news stories that also had a tabloidized style. Results suggest that online news media may damage their credibility by using tabloidized writing techniques to increase readership. Furthermore, participants were less likely to enjoy stories written in a tabloidized style. The authors conclude by utilizing act utilitarianism to argue that tabloidized writing is an unethical journalistic technique.
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Tabloidization can result from competition, technology, and the desire for circulation. News organizations essentially have restructured, redesigned, and degraded their content in an effort to survive. Tabloidization can be viewed as a way of appealing to advertisers above other competing interests (Conboy, 2006). The deregulation of the media is one reason that current affairs programs have become increasingly commercialized. The programs have reverted to a hybrid format that is a combination of news and reality television (Baker, 2006). Not all countries are experiencing the same level of tabloidization, however. Research suggests that the increase of democracy in Brazil resulted in a less tabloidized, and less politically affiliated media (Porto, 2007). An increase in media privatization and deregulation in India, on the other hand, has led to more entertainment news and fewer public service-oriented stories (Rao & Johal, 2006).

Signs of tabloidization can be found in some of the earliest mass media (Tulloch, 2000). Scholars have cited several characteristics as signs of tabloidization. It has been described as an increase in entertainment coverage, a decrease in long stories, an increase in shorter stories with illustrations, and an increase in informal language within news stories. Frank Esser (1999) says the concept “implies a ‘contamination’ of the so-called serious media by adopting the ‘tabloid agenda’” (p. 293). Howard Kurtz (1993) argues that tabloidization results in lower journalistic standards, an increase in sleazy tales in place of thoughtful political pieces, and a transition as to what journalists feel audiences need to know about a politician’s capabilities for office. An overall increase in visual elements such as photographs and large headlines are another sign of the tabloidization process (Rooney, 2000).

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