During the 1980s, the proliferation of popular television shows focusing on sex, crime, and gossip, such as A Current Affair, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition, led some media critics to fear that the lines between responsible journalism and sensationalism were being blurred. These "tabloid television" shows, so designated because of their resemblance to supermarket tabloid newspapers, relied for their content on gossip, barely credible sources, an appeal to emotion, and the use of checkbook journalism, staged reenactments of events, and home video footage. These practices have had an impact on mainstream broadcast journalism, which has been charged with downplaying more serious news in order to compete for viewers and advertising revenue.
Tabloid television began in earnest in 1986 when media magnate Rupert Murdoch created A Current Affair and put it into syndication. The half-hour show featured anchorman Maury Povich and stories focusing on sex, crime, and sleaze. At the height of its popularity, it claimed ninety million viewers in the United States. This show spawned a series of copies, such as Hard Copy and Inside Edition, which for many uninformed people blur the distinction between responsible journalism and gossip. In the 1990s, such events as the O. J. Simpson murder trial and the death of Princess Diana offered much fodder for the purveyors of tabloid television.
The methods used by the producers of tabloid television are at odds with acceptable journalistic practice as defined by mainstream television news. Checkbook journalism is one of the most hotly contested practices. The tabloids commonly pay their sources for interviews, especially exclusive ones. Mainstream journalists argue that this encourages sources to embellish their stories in order to make more money. Likewise, the use of re-enactments of crimes or other activities blurs the line between what actually happened and a fictionalized account of what may have happened. Yet, even as mainstream journalists condemn these practices, they are increasingly using them in their own shows.
The O. J. Simpson trial offered an important case study in tabloid television. Coverage of the trial became continuous, and mainstream journalists began to compete with the tabloids, often by employing many of their methods. NBC News, for example, using computer modeling, "re-created" the murder for viewers. In another example, Dateline NBC rigged the gas tanks on some Ford trucks to explode as a way of dramatizing their alleged danger. Some mainstream broadcasters have also begun citing tabloid reports as "news" in their own reports, justifying it with the disclaimer that they are reporting information, though its truth or falsity could not be verified. This sort of "peeping tom" journalism—reporting on what the tabloids are saying and even criticizing it—offers to the mainstream journalists a way of carrying the same information, but with reduced risk. Yet, the continued use of this activity means that ultimately, there is little differentiation between the tabloids and the mainstream.
Author Matthew Ehrlich argues that this separation between mainstream and tabloid news has never been that concrete. In The Journalism of Outrageousness: Tabloid Television News vs. Investigative News, he points out that the principle characteristics of the tabloids have always been similar to the characteristics of investigative news. For example, both take a stand on the guilt or innocence of the particular parties involved, both take a moralizing tone, and both examine crime and sex. The only difference, Ehrlich argues, is that investigative news uses this material to inform and possibly rectify the world, while the tabloids use the material merely for entertainment.
The zenith of tabloid journalism may have come with the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. In a statement made after her death, her brother, Lord Spencer, expressed his belief that the "press would kill her in the end," a reference to the high-speed car chase involving paparazzi photographers in Paris. Although print tabloids were most implicated in the event, the criticism implicated tabloid television as well.
Bishop, Ronald. "From Behind the Walls: Boundary Work by News Organizations in Their Coverage of Princess Diana's Death." Journal of Communication Inquiry. Vol. 23, No. 1, 1999, 90-112.
Ehrlich, Matthew J. "The Journalism of Outrageousness: Tabloid Television News vs. Investigative News." Journalism & Mass Communication Monographs. No. 155, 1996, 1-24.