Notwithstanding their unprecedented commercial success, the South African tabloids have not been welcomed widely in the journalistic community. They have received criticism for their sensational approach to news, accused of fabricating stories and attacked for fuelling xenophobia. For many of their critics, it seemed sacrilegious that in post-apartheid South Africa, the freedom of the press should be used not to scrutinise the tumultuous post-liberation politics on the big stage, but instead to focus on the sensational events concerning little people in small towns, informal settlements and townships.
Yet it may be argued that the emergence of these tabloids represents one of the most interesting developments in the South African media landscape in the post-apartheid era when they are considered as manifestations of a society in transition.
The picture that emerges from an in-depth study of tabloids, the people who produce them and those that read them, is a complex and contradictory one. Some of the features of this picture include the following:
• Local tabloids cannot be dismissed as “trash journalism”
Although tabloid journalists insist that they uphold ethical codes, they do often engage in dubious reporting. But care should be taken not to confuse unethical behaviour with matters of taste. The fact that tabloids approach news from a sensationalist point of view, or use colloquial language, does not necessarily make them unethical. Dismissing tabloids as “trash” prevents the opportunity to use popular journalism as a window on broader societal processes and cultural, economic and political power networks. A simplistic dismissal of tabloid readers as gullible victims, uneducated and in danger of being influenced negatively by tabloids, ignores the interesting ways in which audiences interact with media texts and make these texts relevant to their daily lives and lived experience.
• Tabloids can be read politically
While it would be difficult to assess their influence on political behaviour, evidence from reader interviews suggests that it would be a mistake to conclude that tabloids serve to de-politicise their readers by merely peddling entertainment and diversion. Whether tabloid news will eventually inform voting behaviour, inspire social activism or instead only defuse the frustration and disillusionment of the poor without leading to meaningful political action, remains to be established over time.
As papers owned by big conglomerates intent on maximising profit, it is unlikely that these tabloids will ever question the logic of capitalism or encourage readers to join social movements. What did become clear from interviews with readers is that the political relevance of the tabloids lies in what can be referred to as the “politics of the everyday”. Tabloid stories about lack of social delivery, about struggles to get ID books or about communities’ fight against drugs are experienced as more relevant to the way politics are understood by tabloid readers than reports on the machinations of Parliament or party-political infighting.
• Tabloid journalists take their work seriously
Although the common perception might be that tabloid journalists’ attitude towards news is one of fun, gossip and irreverence, South African tabloid journalists for the most part display a very serious attitude towards their work. They display a remarkably strong commitment to the communities they report on and experience a significant amount of trust being invested in them by readers and communities. Editorial policies emphasise investigative work and time spent “in the field”; journalistic values that have fallen by the wayside in many of their mainstream counterparts where “cut and paste” desk journalism has become prevalent.
Tabloids deserve to be taken seriously – not only because of what they tell us about the society in which they operate, but also because they highlight the shortcomings of the mainstream press in reaching significant sections of the public. The role of the press in South Africa today cannot be understood if tabloids are lost from sight.
Dr Herman Wasserman is a senior lecturer in Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield. His book True Story: Tabloid Journalism In South Africa After Apartheid is forthcoming from Indiana University Press, USA.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (March 2009).