In response to Fred Khumalo’s article entitled “Tabloids are just making things worse” (The Media, February 2008) I would like to share findings of my own research on readers’ responses to the tabloid, the Daily Sun.
And this is the crucial point Ã¢Â€Â“ we need to focus our research on the audience’s responses to the tabloid and the impact of it on the actual users of the medium. It is no good taking traditional, and perhaps elitist, notions of the role of the media and trying to apply them to an emerging group.
The media are not doing anything to the readers Ã¢Â€Â“ they are themselves grappling with what is happening in our society and representing it to readers in a way that will help them to make sense of it. The readers are not passive; they take what they see and read and make decisions based on their responses and their Ã¢Â€Â˜talk’ with others about those issues. These readers may not necessarily react in the traditional or rational manner of the modernists; instead they use their emotions or their own Ã¢Â€Â˜contextual rationality’ to interpret their media texts and stories.
Interestingly, after the first six pages of the Daily Sun tabloid, for instance, much of the remaining content is informative, educational and entertaining, as well as uplifting and inspirational Ã¢Â€Â“ what, perhaps, Khumalo may refer to as self-worth and nation building elements of content. From my research, there is definitely not a lack of positive consciousness amongst the Daily Sun readers. On the contrary, they are consciously trying to learn from the information they see.
These are some of the positive or productive elements or outcomes of the tabloid consumption process. Use of the media is more than just the (passive) reception process (reading the headlines and seeing the gory visuals). It’s about actively taking what you receive and sifting through it all to make of it what will be the most meaningful or useful for you, the reader.
Yes, there may be those who view the tabloid content voyeuristically, but the average reader (and I interviewed more than 100 of them) sees the sensational pages as performing a function of shocking the community into wanting to do something about the high crime rate and corruption. Readers report that they can learn moral lessons from some of the sensational stories they read. So there is a sense of morality that is being engendered by the tabloid stories.
Traditional journalists need to expose themselves more to postmodern writing and thinking on how the media can operate within society, particularly in an emerging multicultural democracy where access to the media was previously denied, and in which many subcultures are emerging and beginning to form.
The current theoretical discourse, particularly from a Cultural Studies perspective, is about new forms of communication that are shaped by social and cultural conditions and expressed in various ways for different purposes. Cultural Studies investigates new formations of social and cultural categories, particularly “cultural transformations reconstructed by the subordinate class of society” (Marshall, 2004:7) and how the subordinate groups construct their own identity. The media (including tabloids) represent the starting point for the production of meaning for them within their own cultural setting. Indeed, there are current challenges to the ways we use and analyse the media, and to whether and how new forms of media affect identity and culture.
Therefore, no matter how critical people may be of tabloids, when investigating tabloids as new or different forms of popular media products, we need to appreciate that assessment of their success or failure rests with the consumers themselves.
Desiray Viney is a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Ã¢Â–Â This column first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine.