Is the press really dumbing down or is it just that the news agenda has changed? Harriet Swain reports
Shock news. Fat-cat media tycoons scrap dumbing-down trend and wise up. In other words, worries in newspaper and television corporations about how to keep their audiences seem to have taken a new turn. In recent years Britain's tabloid press has gone downmarket, probing the private lives of celebrities and splashing one lurid sex scandal after another in an effort to appeal to a mass audience.
Now things seem to be changing. The arrival in June of a new editor for The Sun brought suggestions that the newspaper would try to follow The Daily Mirror upmarket. The move was sparked, in part, by the success of The Daily Mail, which has overtaken The Mirror as Middle England's popular read.
And last week came the news that the BBC was to cover more serious issues in an "adult to adult", rather than "parent to child" fashion. Tony Hall, the BBC's news chief executive, said the key would be examining complex topics in clear language.
The so-called dumbing-down phenomenon is hotly debated in academic circles. The question is at what point do efforts to present complex subjects to a large audience simplify the issues so much that people are misled? Academics are divided over whether the news media should give up chasing a mass audience in order to offer a more focused selection for particular groups. Many also disagree over whether dumbing down is happening at all.
Some argue that an increase in "soft" tabloid-type stories about celebrities' private lives in the broadsheet press does not necessarily mean less coverage of "hard" news. Such items simply reflect our society's interest in people's lifestyles, they say. For instance, Dan Hallin, professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, says one reason newspapers in the United States deem it legitimate to cover President Bill Clinton's sex life is that the women's movement has made extramarital affairs increasingly unacceptable.
On the other side of the debate, some critics say that broadsheets are adopting tabloid values to such an extent that people are no longer informed about the economic and political issues that affect their daily lives and democracy itself is threatened. The fear has led to the tags "broadloid", describing broadsheets adopting tabloid values, and "newszak", for news converted into entertainment.
It is a point picked up recently by former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. In London's Evening Standard, he bemoaned the fact that newspapers were failing historians by not printing the key stories of the day: "It is not possible to buy a British daily newspaper today which gives anything like a full, factual account of what was said and done in the world yesterday. There is plenty of comment, some of it brilliant, but that is not the same thing." He concluded by saying that the press in other countries had not "fallen into decay" like Britain's.
This appears to be true. A recent conference at the University of Westminster brought together academics from around the world to discuss how, where and why dumbing down was happening, if at all. None of the other countries represented had a tabloid culture like the UK's. While US television is increasingly sensationalist, newspapers still take seriously their responsibilities, primarily as reporters of the day's events. In Germany, the only national tabloid has increased circulation by going up- rather than downmarket (see box). Some may complain of softer news stories creeping into the quality press, but many of these represent a different, not a dumbed-down, news agenda.
Research to be published in January by Peter Golding, at Loughborough University, suggests that the UK press has significantly increased the proportion of show-business and human-interest stories in the past 40 years, while the gap between coverage of political and social issues in the tabloid and quality press has narrowed.
As with all such debates, the first controversies arise around definitions. For Professor Golding, dumbing down, or tabloidisation, is a "messy idea to work with, but it usually describes a change in quality media to a form more akin to popular tabloid entertainment media". Others describe it as a move from report-writing to story-telling.
Such definitions reflect the tension in debate over how far focusing on the personal story, a characteristic of tabloid journalism, can explore universal issues and how far it impedes it. Myra Macdonald, lecturer in communication and media at Glasgow Caledonian University, says that as personal and human-interest angles are clearly here to stay, future research should concentrate not on whether they are legitimate but on how they can coexist with rational analysis. She argues: "As academics, under pressure to make our teaching more pedagogically interesting, lively and user-friendly without abandoning scholarly rigour, the task should not be too alien."
THE FOREIGN PRESS: LESS SLEAZY THAN BRITAIN'S
Bild Zeitung, Germany's only national tabloid, began as "printed television". Having irritated students during the upheavals of 1968, it was, in its early years, nationalistic and anti-communist. Then in the 1980s it began to concentrate on sex and violence. In 1992, it changed direction. It started to feature political and cultural issues and became far less aggressive, but it kept a simple, concise language style. By 1996, circulation had risen 51 per cent.
Germany's regional tabloids are also becoming more serious. "They think they cannot attract readers with sex and crime stories, which are run every evening on TV", says Ulrike Klein, lecturer at the Institute for Communication Studies at the University of Mainz. "They must go back to giving more background and more serious and political issues. It seems to be working."
Before 1989, Hungary's only newspapers were communist titles. None was a tabloid, but now there are four. They run economic and international news, along with human-interest stories and gossip.
Agnes Gulyas, lecturer in media at Christ Church Canterbury, says that although tabloids are unlikely to be leading titles in the next five years, their long-term future could be good because most young people read them. Quality newspapers are the most popular, and about 80 per cent of tabloid readers also take a more serious newspaper.
In Japan, newspapers have huge circulations, but they are desperately trying to fight growing lack of interest in their product, especially among young readers. They are introducing more pictures, more colour and softer news angles to try to compete with television.
Of the five national newspapers, two were originally tabloids. But they have gradually become more serious, keeping their tabloid character mainly in their "home and family" sections.
To try to keep up circulation, some newspapers now produce serious morning editions and tabloidised evening editions. Kaori Hajashi, research associate at the Institute of Socio-Information and Communication Studies at the University of Tokyo, says the tabloidised editions have not proved popular: "Many people feel insulted. They say they are nothing like a newspaper."
Traditionally, there has been little separation between mass-audience and quality newspapers in the United States. But President Bill Clinton's sex life has caused a crisis of confidence in how news is covered. The public professes to hate stories that delve into politicians' personal lives but they still read them, says Dan Hallin, professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, US journalists, who for the most part consider pursuing these angles beneath their profession, feel obliged to cover them for competitive reasons.
Professor Hallin says: "Newspapers are worried about losing readers and competing with television, especially since television has become deregulated. But behind that there are debates about whether newspapers are just doing what they need to do to keep readers or whether they are being driven more than they were to increase profits on behalf of owners."
The news agenda, Professor Hallin says, has broadened from its serious, sometimes narrow outlook. While many television channels have adopted a tabloid approach, newspapers, he believes, are likely to go for the middle rather than mass market. Nevertheless most have begun to sensationalise and neglect coverage of local and national government in favour of crime and animal stories.