Tabloids in the age of social media

It's harder to gauge an outlet's quality in a tweet

Last month the National Enquirer dropped a bombshell report that playwright David Bar Katz, a close friend of the recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman, told them the two were gay lovers and that he often saw Hoffman doing drugs. The only problem with the story was that the Enquirer never actually spoke to Katz. (Enquirer staffers say they were duped by an imposter.) Within a day, Katz had filed suit, and two days later the parties had settled. As part of the agreement, the Enquirer bought a full-page ad in The New York Times to publish its apology. 

In the pre-digital era, not everyone who read the Enquirer also read the Times. But at least they knew to take the former’s reporting with a huge grain of salt. After all, it was sold in the supermarket checkout aisle, right next to other guilty pleasures such as candy bars and the even more outrageous tabloids like World News Weekly

But in the digital era, the gap between damage done by a false Enquirer story and the damage repaired by a print advertisement in the Times is even greater. When a salacious scoop gets posted online, it bounces around social media such as Facebook, and comes up in searches for the subject’s name, in both instances divorced from the context of being beneath an Enquirer banner. Those reading the story may not make any distinction between the Enquirer’s website and that of a more serious publication. And, in the modern media environment, where people read by social media stream rather than by publication, they certainly may not see the retraction posted later or an apology posted elsewhere. That’s all to say that people who saw the original article may never have seen the retraction and apology, but consumption habits in the digital era make it even less likely. 

All of this is especially true among young people. Whereas an older generation learned not to take the Enquirer seriously when they asked their mothers about it while buying groceries, or at least they picked up visual contextual clues—from its placement next to other impulse buys to its own font—today’s teenagers are more likely to stumble upon the story via social media than in a checkout line. Just like the print Enquirer headlines, Web headlines and teases are engineered to make readers click when encountered out of context in a Facebook feed or Twitter stream. “How much difference is there, after all, between the attention spans of consumers in a checkout line and consumers multitasking online?” muses Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project’s senior vice president for educational programs, via email. “One could argue that the tabloid (or perhaps yellow journalism in general) was the original clickbait.” 

News literacy educators say the Hoffman episode is emblematic of the challenges they face among the digital native generation. The whole concept of a supermarket tabloid is hopelessly outdated. It depends on frameworks such as a physical newsstand that today’s 14-year-old may find as foreign as a telegraph machine. “Supermarket tabloids have long been an icon of unreliability, largely because of their outrageous claims and sensational, melodramatic design. But when individual pieces are shared via social media, these visual and context clues are typically stripped out,” says Adams. “Without this context, tabloid headlines read like a lot of other content vying for our attention online.” 

To help their students take papers like the Enquirer with the appropriately super-sized grain of salt, news literacy educators say they must encourage their students to assess the stories themselves critically. The hallmarks of what makes the tabloids untrustworthy can still be sussed out without the physical context of printed product. 

“The visual cues are really less important than the reporting: Who are they quoting? Is it all anonymous?” says Dean Miller, director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. Stories in outlets like the Enquirer frequently rely on just one source. Often, that source is anonymous. Perhaps that is to avoid embarrassments like Katz episode: If no one is quoted by name, no one can complain the quote was fabricated. 

Once someone has learned the basics of news literacy—the need for authoritative sourcing, the limited circumstances in which anonymous sourcing is appropriate—they should be able to see what is wrong with a typical Enquirer story. Take, for example, its report from last week that Matt LeBlanc’s girlfriend is tired of waiting for him to propose. The entire article is based on quotes from anonymous source. Here is the lead quote:

“Andrea’s fed up with Matt dragging his heels about getting engaged,” said a source. “She wants to have a baby with him ASAP, and she’s ready to do just about anything to get him to propose.”

Contra what Miller would teach his news literacy students, the source’s anonymity is not justified with an explanatory phrase. Nor does the Enquirer offer any reason to believe its anonymous source, like saying the source “was present at a conversation where LeBlanc’s girlfriend demanded an engagement ring,” or somesuch.  

Some of the journalists giving lessons with NLP use this kind of thinly sourced celebrity gossip to illustrate how stories can be overhyped and underreported. “Rochell Bishop at the [Chicago] Tribune will bring in two conflicting reports about a celebrity marriage, breakup, pregnancy, or other topic and split the class in half, giving each side only one report,” explains Adams. “The students (all of whom typically believe the account they were given) then pair up to discuss and try to settle which report is more reliable and why. The lesson here is that ‘a source close to Beyonce’ doesn’t give you anything to go on—and no way to verify the information.” Another veteran Chicago journalist, Brenda Butler, creates a newsstand for students to choose newspapers from, and for those who choose the supermarket tabloids, demonstrates the sensationalism and lack of sourcing. 

But news literacy also aims to reinvent the pre-digital concept of brand awareness among young news consumers. They want students to raise an eyebrow at a story based on one anonymous source, but also to develop wariness of a brand that regularly runs such pieces. “One outcome of a good news literacy course is that it makes people attentive to the outlet from which they are receiving information,” says Miller. “Over time, they will get better about picking a whole variety of outlets to rely on.”

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR. Tags: , ,