Some recent news items: Celebrity Big Brother contestant’s possible affair, Oscar nominee takes his clothes off, Madonna’s son seen with ‘suspicious-looking’ cigarette. This kind of trash journalism is everywhere. It clutters social media and arrogantly masquerades as socially relevant information. Every serious journalist should choke on stories about Kim Kardashian’s arse and Made in Chelsea break-ups. And like a neighbour who’s built a heap of rotting rubbish in his garden, pseudo-news is more than just an eyesore – it’s genuinely dangerous.
Newspapers justify these stories by saying ‘they sell papers’ and ‘we give the people what they want’. Do people want this, really? We’ve been raised to believe we should find celebrity gossip interesting. From the time we can pick up a magazine and look at the pictures, we’re surrounded by trash news. Modern media is a propagandist’s wet dream. An endless stream of loud, pervasive media tells us what kind of information we want to consume. Constant bombardment and psychological trickery have moulded an audience into what powerful media want it to be – obsessed with celebrities, poorly informed and easily distracted from real problems.
The weakness of individual trash news stories is obvious from their brief half-life. A photo of a celebrity smoking weed today will be forgotten tomorrow, so there must be a constant stream of effluvia to satisfy the need that rubbish media has created. Today people have constant access to almost limitless media, making the artificial demand for trash hard to maintain. The response has three facets: first, inflating otherwise boring stories through clickbaiting, disingenuous rhetorical questions in headlines etc., second, creating a new class of sub-celebrities, like talent show contestants and undistinguished relatives of other famous people (see the Kardashians) and finally, putting a trashy spin on non-trash stories (what people are tweeting about news stories).
So where’s the harm? Isn’t it all just in good fun? If you think the press should be a check on government and a way to keep people informed, the rise of trash news should worry you. Average citizens may find real news boring, but that has a lot to do with decades of polluting news sources with distractions. It should surprise no-one that the worst peddlars of pseudo-news are often pushing a worrying agenda with their real journalism. Right-wing tabloids titilate their readers with gossipy garbage on one page and scaremonger about immigrants on the next. It’s a classic bait and switch that harms peoples’ ability to engage with real issues.
The philosopher John Rawls once asked how we would create a society if we could start from scratch without knowing if we’d be born rich or poor, healthy or sick. Rawls believed most reasonable people would create the fairest possible society. If we apply that test to media, if we could create a news environment from scratch, would we choose what we have now? Would we insist on millions of words every week about celebrity beach bodies and viral articles on boyband feuds? I don’t think so. If we had to design a free press to hold politicians to account, reveal hidden abuses and help us choose how to vote, today’s media would look like a monstrous abberation.
One last argument in defence of trash journalism is the market one – it makes money. It’s impossible to deny that. But the market exists to serve people’s needs. When capitalism harms something essential to democracy, we call that corruption. If big companies paid voters to stay at home on election day, we would loudly condemn it, though preventing certain politicians from winning could prove profitable. Cheapening journalism because it makes money is immoral. Creating a culture where information is choked by irrelevant nonsense prevents unsuspecting voters from using their rights to improve their lives. How many working class voters will notice neo-liberal doublespeak while they’re speculating about Rear of the Year and worrying about non-existent jihadi toddlers?