We’re all familiar with the classic headlines. “Tulisa’s Cocaine Deal Shame“; “Jen’s Big Secret”; and even “Lauren Goodger narrowly avoids walking into puddle during day out in Essex.” (Yes, that’s news according to MailOnline). The headlines that make us want to rip up the paper we’re holding, and yet, we can’t help but read on.
Celebrity culture is so embedded in the 21st-century sensibility that we rarely question the peculiarity of taking the day-to-day lives of an elite few and holding them up for scrutiny, documenting their every blunder, misfortune and wardrobe malfunction on national news.
It’s part of human nature to idolise and admire, and celebrity culture is in itself no harmful thing. However, the media arguably exploits this culture to an extreme degree, raising the question: at what point does the need to get a good story overtake respect for human privacy and dignity? In light of recent events, this controversy seems more poignant than ever.
A prime example is the media coverage of Robin Williams’ death last month, which provoked outrage across the country. Despite detailed guidelines provided by Samaritans on how to report the story, the coverage by many mainstream papers was deemed insensitive, potentially triggering, and irresponsible. Tabloid newspapers such as The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Mirror described in graphic detail the particulars of his death, and confronted tactlessly the reasoning behind his actions, whilst one Fox News host, Shep Smith, provoked outrage after referring to the tragic event as cowardly.
Such coverage was not only insensitive and disrespectful, but may also have had a triggering effect for those battling with depression or suicidal ideation. Samaritans’ media guidelines, made available to all journalists covering the story, explicitly warned: “celebrity suicides have a higher risk of encouraging copycat behaviour, particularly if the media coverage is extensive and sensationalist”, also advising the media to “avoid explicit details of the suicide method.”
Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns and Media at YoungMinds, told The Student: “The death of Robin Williams is a tragedy in itself, so the media going into great detail about how he died is unnecessary and gratuitous. It could be triggering for other people who may be feeling suicidal and so it is ultimately irresponsible.”
Another victim to the unforgiving world of tabloid journalism was Mick Jagger, whose face dominated several newspapers’ front covers, as they prided themselves on capturing the very moment “Mick Heard L’Wren Was Dead” (The Daily Mail).
Most celebrities have had their fair share of media backlash, many would argue it comes with the territory. However, last year, one particular journalist took this to another level. Mazher Mahmood, popularly known as “The Fake Sheikh” for his undercover investigations, posed as a film producer, and offered singer and X-Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos a major role in a Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He built her trust, and recorded her talking about her talking about taking drugs and her drug-dealing friends. She later stated outside court, “Mahmood got me and my team completely intoxicated and persuaded me to act the part of a bad, rough, ghetto girl. They recorded this and produced it as evidence, when I thought it was an audition.” The Sun on Sunday printed a five-page spread on “Tulisa’s Cocaine Deal Shame”, which resulted in a long arduous court case, and a hellish year for the singer. This example demonstrates the extreme lengths the press can be willing to go in order to expose celebrities, whether or not the allegations are well-founded.
If the media has a complicated relationship with celebrities, its relationship with women is particularly fraught. A study conducted by Women in Journalism found that in nine national newspapers analysed over a period of one month, 84 per cent of individuals mentioned in lead pieces were men. The only women in the top ten were Kate and Pippa Middleton and Madeleine McCann, exposing a common pattern that sees women publicly recognised solely for their physical appearance or victim status.
In a hilarious attempt to expose the shallow portrayal of women in the media, The Vagenda asked their Twitter followers to normalise ridiculous tabloid headlines about women, with hilarious but extremely effective results. “George Clooney Reportedly Engaged To Hot, Successful Lawyer” becomes “Accomplished Human Rights Lawyer Might Be Engaged To Greying Actor, 52”, whilst “Lena Dunham shows off her body in unflattering shorts as she films hit show” becomes “Hugely talented writer continues to work on hit TV show.”
Whilst the problem of insensitive reporting is largely restricted to tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines, the broader obsession with celebrities’ lives is reflected in all forms and levels of media. Similarly, the gender disparity within media coverage is an issue whose roots lie far deeper than tabloid exploits, but is perhaps a topic for another article.
It seems that once in the public realm, a celebrity is doomed to be followed by swarms of paparazzi and have every element of their lives scrutinised by the rest of the world. With this in mind, one can hardly blame the likes of Justin Bieber for punching a reporter, which, ironically, was another scandal the press enjoyed covering in great detail.
However, it may be argued that putting oneself in the public eye comes with a sacrifice which is the result of an active choice. In this day and age, a public and a private life can rarely coexist as separate entities. In fact, many celebrities rely on the publicity gained from the media (no such thing as bad publicity, right?) to retain their celebrity status, and consequently their job: their success depends on their fame, so to speak.
Here, perhaps we ought to distinguish the public figures whose fame and media attention is a supplement and a result of their talent and consequent success, and those who yearn for media attention and whose actual talent or success leaves a lot to be desired (reality TV stars, for example). Perhaps for the latter, any negative press coverage they receive, is fair gain?
However, even for those who choose to expose their private lives for public scrutiny, and gain pleasure from doing so, there must surely be a line.
However, perhaps in blaming the media, we’re missing the point. After all, the press only write what the public want to read. The media feeds off our own appetites for sensation and scandal, and our undeniable obsession with the elite celebrity bubble. In a world where journalists’ pay depends on readership, whether Tulisa’s “Cocaine Deal Shame” makes front page news is really up to us.