The tabloids are the media success story of the moment, creating a significant new readership with their diet of screaming headlines and outlandish stories.

Circulation figures for papers like the Daily Sun are climbing ever higher, but criticism from some quarters has been sharp.  Veteran editor Joe Thloloe told a recent debate at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism that the Daily Sun was a rag that stood in the tradition of the Bantu World of the fifties.  It was steered by white hands to “keep the natives quiet” with a toxic mix of sex, soccer and superstition, he suggested.
Defenders of the tabloids counter that critics are simply suffering from overblown suburban sensitivities.  The papers reflect the lives and beliefs of their working class readers: if the audience likes them, that’s all that matters.

There is a subtext to this debate around the tabloids: is it journalism?  Guy Berger, professor of journalism at Rhodes University, was unequivocal: “They look like newspapers, they feel like newspapers, they even leave ink on your fingertips.  But they’re not really newspapers,” he said.

It’s a debate of sweeping generalities, which would benefit from a much closer look at what is going on in these papers.  There’s some fascinating stuff. 

For one thing, there are significant differences between the South African breed and their overseas cousins – and between the various local titles. Some have copied the British “page 3 girl”, but the leader of the pack, the Daily Sun, has not, because it feels that its audience would be offended.

There is far less emphasis on celebrity news in SA than overseas, and once you get past the sensational news stories in front, you find advice and concrete assistance to readers.  Daily Sun readers can even get their plumbing fixed courtesy of the paper.

A recent study of the Sun’s treatment of major stories threw up some interesting results.  Wits student Sumayya Ismail found that the paper could not be accused of ignoring major stories like the tsunami, the election of a new Pope, London bombings, the dismissal of Jacob Zuma and others.  

They were not given nearly as much prominence as in the mainstream media, but they were there.  Significantly, there was a strong educational imperative – the paper sought to explain how things like the Pope’s election worked, for instance. 

All of this only makes the cut as journalism if it meets the basic ethical standards of the profession. Significantly, the tabloidists have been vociferous in asserting that they do – they badly want to belong. Ray Joseph, former news editor at The Voice, said: “The reporting rules were no different to those I applied as editor and news editor in previous jobs; like multiple sourcing, ensuring all sides of a story are canvassed and ensuring right of reply.”

There are a range of ethical principles that could be considered, but the most basic one  is that stories can’t be invented. And the accusation from some critics is that the tabloids fail this test. Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya has said: “I don’t believe that readers believe the Daily Sun.”

Certainly, when it comes to some of the stories America’s US National Inquirer has become known for – Elvis Presley being spotted yet again, alien abductions and the like – there’s no question that they have crossed the line into fiction. 

In the SA context, one has to doubt stories with headlines like “Gorilla raped me”.   Phalane Motale, editor of the Sunday Sun, said about this particular story that it was reported “because people genuinely believe in superstition.  Readers are the customers, the kings; we give them what they want.” 

In other words, we run it because people believe it happened. But this is not enough of a reason.  Journalists have to take some responsibility for what they put into the public domain.  They are not machines that simply process information uncritically, no matter how outlandish it is.

The great strength of the tabloids is their close connection to the audience.  They  tell stories of working class life that manage to be both humdrum and dramatic – children reclaiming stolen school furniture, elderly farmworkers evicted, struggles with officialdom.  The Daily Sun famously has a large figure in a blue overall prominently displayed to remind its staff constantly who the audience is.

As Anton Harber, professor of journalism at Wits University, has said, the tabloids have given voice and visibility to people who were previously ignored. 

That’s all to the good. The question is whether that connectedness means a paper should uncritically buy into even the worst prejudices and superstitions of its audience.  When the Daily Sun headlines: “The honest Nigerian! Honest, other Nigerians are after him!” it is feeding into the worst forms of xenophobia. 

The tabloids are a vibrant addition to the media landscape.  They don’t need smaller headlines, longer stories and more talking heads to be seen as real journalism.  But they do need to meet some basic standards, particularly of truthfulness. 

And that means being just a little more selective about the things they give credibility.

* This column was first published in the Mail&Guardian as The ombud column on 24 March 2006.