We seem to be a society obsessed with what other people are doing; we have the stars of Hollywood, reality, and YouTube, not to mention social media influencers. Many of these people would not be famous without our increasing hunger to know about every aspect of their lives. This is not new, Gossip about those known to society has been around since the beginning of time, but our never ending need for it is at an all time high.
The history of news has been an ongoing tension between serious news and sensational news. Much of what got called muckraking and yellow journalism blended these at the turn of the 20th century with journalism’s professionalization efforts in the first few decades of that century. Sensationalist news found its way into tabloids, including Hollywood star gossip and true crime stories. Newspapers eventually also had “Entertainment” sections to contain the spaces where such information would circulate.
The rise of social media challenged the financial model of online news. As traditional news outlets competed with newcomers like Buzzfeed, they found that click bait headlines as well as celebrity news could be hooks to get people onto platforms.
Traditional news has been focused on celebrity for some time if we think about how U.S. Presidents have been covered. The idea that a candidate is a brand or commodity to be sold goes back at least as far as Richard Nixon. While in 1980 the U.S. elected a former Hollywood leading man to be the President with the election of Ronald Reagan. It is not that far removed to think a pop culture star from reality TV and entertainment wrestling could make it into the White House in 2017.
Ultimately, the boundaries between traditional and entertainment news was a product of a certain time, and so we are seeing a different era now.
According to Jack Z. Bratich author of the book Conspiracy Panics and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers; There has been a trend away from classic celebrity worship, which presupposed a distance from everyday life; they are “stars” after all, not of this earth. During the 21st century, we’ve seen a rapid return to earth of such celebs. That has come through such media as reality television, which made the backstage lives of celebrities one of the selling points. And social media, where fans can get brief contact with their celebrity objects. Over time this has become a deliberate promotional strategy for celebrities, who now have to compete with what Terri Senft calls “micro-celebrities”, namely online influencers, for relatability.
It’s hard to remember a moment when celebrities weren’t sensationalized. Looking at the manufacture of celebrities around early film, even silent film, you see that their star qualities were used to sell both their films as well as other efforts such at WWI and WWII. What’s happened recently is that more of their intimate, personal lives are being exposed. Often in a very brand-strategic, calculating manner.
Traditional journalism, which often trafficked in “respectable” celebrity worship of political leaders, now is faced with an early dilemma, how to rely on selling news, which requires narrative no matter how much objectivity is valued, while maintaining it’s authoritative status.