If sensationalist means turning the latest story about a celebrity fad, haircut, tryst or misdemeanour into an attention-grabbing headline then perhaps the 21st century media really is guilty as charged. But what we have here is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario. The profusion of star-studded stories doing the rounds has only gathered pace because there is a genuine interest out there among readers to imbibe their latest gossip fix. But did the media engender this hunger for celebrity news, or is it merely feeding an appetite that already existed?
This month our mailbag has been bulging with both positive and negative feedback – the latter of which focused largely on accusations of being sensationalist, of being too celebrity-led and of fuelling hysteria.
One correspondent wrote: “Your whole site is quick-fix rubbish. Sensationalism is obviously the name of your game. Still, who can blame you – I suppose the whole [of it] represents a shot in the arm to millions of semi-literate people who lead dull, boring lives.” Another user commented: “Some of us require more than a story about so-called celeb haircuts etc. Please grow up and write something people with half a brain might enjoy.”
That we featured an article on Britney Spears’ extreme head-shaving incident is not up for debate. We ran several news stories on her behaviour, a news video and a piece from one of our columnists, psychologist Dr Pam Spurr. In fact, we ran several celebrity-focused features this month, perhaps more than usual. But, to set the scene, there was an unusual amount of stories concerning high-profile stars during February – Britney, the Oscars and the tragic death of former model Anna Nicole Smith to name the major ones. MSN was not alone in choosing to feature these stories prominently – indeed BBC and Sky News followed them closely, as did the quality press, with the Observer, Sunday Times and Independent on Sunday going big on the Britney story when it broke.
I’m not for one moment trying to use the ‘if it’s good enough for the broadsheets, it’s good enough for us’ excuse as some sort of disclaimer, allowing us to print as much celebrity-led content at the expense of other news stories that would doubtless be considered more serious and high-brow by our two correspondents above and many others besides. However, the blanket coverage these events received across the world’s media illustrates that stories about the stars are no longer the preserve of the red-tops and the women’s weeklies, and perhaps this reflects a shift in the interests of modern society as a whole.
It is impossible to pigeon-hole readers according to their social demographic and interests. If it were our jobs here would be so much easier, but society permits nothing so comfortable. Despite what stereotypes tell us, there will be traditional Times readers who are dying to know about the reason Britney lopped off her locks, and likewise there will be tabloid readers who couldn’t care less if she and K-Fed got back together and bought matching Elton John wigs. This means that, despite our correspondent’s assertions to the contrary, the ‘people with half a brain’ and many of those deemed to be more intelligent are equally as likely to be interested in the celebrity features as they are the up-to-the-minute breaking news and commentary pieces.
Our aim on the homepage team is to feature timely, informed but provocative content, which is varied and reflects the interests of you, our users. Because MSN’s audience is so vast, this will include the big stories of the day, whether celeb-led or hard news-based. What we do endeavour to do, however, is balance the page with stories from all sectors.
We also try to give issues three-dimensional coverage. With the Britney story, for instance, our psychologist looked deeper into the issue of celebrity and its often devastating effect on young, often naïve, stars. This approach was welcomed by some.
One user wrote: “Nice slant on the whole issue of mental health and celebrity. It’s good to know that some people – doctors and professionals – view this as an illness and not a well-timed stunt or a sign that they are too spoiled for their own good. They are human after all. Maybe all the so called journalists in the country need to read this and weep for the damage they inflict on top of the pain these people are already going through.”
We also came under fire this month for discrimination – against men and Scots. Let me first address the point about sexism. “I find your pages a bit sexist sometimes‚ today there is an article with a heading, Why men cheat,” asserts one correspondent. “Why do you make it sound like only men cheat? Women cheat too. How about you put that in the headlines? I respect your journalism but please try enhance [sic] some values of equality.”
We take these comments on board and agree it is very important to be mindful of making generalisations in this way. However, we also ran an article in the same week on why women cheat – and at the weekend included a feature covering both points of view. Hopefully this goes some way to redressing the balance. But we do like to be kept in check, so do get in touch if you think you have other examples of imbalance on the homepage.
As for accusations of being too England-centric, we do try to represent the various, diverse regions of the nation. As mentioned in last month’s mailbag, we have run pieces focusing on Scotland in recent weeks, and today we are linking to a St David’s Day message board item, hoping to prompt debate not just among our users in Wales, but those across the UK and beyond.
And finally, the time has come to address the monthly spelling and grammar inaccuracies. And this month, more than ever, should we feel ashamed for making mistakes, as this correspondent rightly points out: “I find it extremely funny that‚ having recently published an article on grammatical errors commonly found in the UK‚ inviting browsers to volunteer their own stories/ photos of grammatical errors they had seen‚ you then proceed to write in an article concerning a Big Brother contestant that ‘Towers of London frontman Donny Tourette‚ Dirk Benedict‚ Jermaine Jackson and Cleo Rocos where all at the central London party last month‚ with presenters Davina McCall and Dermot O’Leary’. Comical.”
I’m glad they saw the irony. However, as I write this our heads are slightly bowed with shame that we got caught out at our own game. And this was not the only example. Thanks to all of you who wrote in to highlight typographical errors in articles and on the homepage. But the award for the most debate-sparking error comment goes to the user who pointed out that a headline featuring the word “bowlfuls” should actually have read bowlsful. Now, despite my error, I remember being taught to always use spoonsful, not spoonfuls, and I was busy berating myself for not applying this same principle again. However, after consulting two dictionaries (weighty tomes, not the pocket variety) on the matter, one concluded that bowlfuls was the correct plural and the other gave either -SFUL or -FULS as possibilities. This simply will not do. Here in pedant’s corner it’s a black and white world. We need an answer either way. That’s why we’re asking you for your input. Either post a comment or use the vote tool to the right to let us know your thoughts.