Curiosity obsession summons the famous and the infamous to public attention. Minute detail of those in public limelight is lapped up by information disseminators keen on catering to the tastes and interests of keener target groups starved of information concerning those they are obsessed with. Juicy, titillating information constantly whets the thirst for more among the starry-eyed or fans floored by the prominent personalities. Notoriety also triggers similar curiosity.
Callous kiss-and-tell as well as daring-baring stories make juicy contents for many an audience. And the lure of money and the prospects of being in the public limelight prompt people to be partners in sensational stories. The sensationalist cannot be delisted as a professional as long as no law is broken. Social taboos could collapse in the process even if ethical issues do crop up. As long as facts are verified and partisan lines do not rule, a journalist may pass a professional test. Those who tamper with facts and create distorted narratives without contextualising the conditions and background of the related story serve yellow journalism.
Stuck in greed, the money-minded might make their commercial cruise sail smoothly but could be rebuked as profiteers from the discomfort and tragedies of others. Scholars estimate language to date back no less than 20 million years, though the written form of communication is widely believed to be about 5,500 years. Whether in orality or written form, story-telling must have been family and community culture since the remotest periods of social units.
Voices from the past
The stuff that goes by the genre of instant journalism catering to the titillating instincts of sizeable sections of society has earned both notoriety and commercial profits. In some Western print, the “Page 3” girl presented in various stages of undress or birth-suit boosts newspaper copy sales when compared with the circulation figures of “serious” counterparts in their daily variety. The Sun and Daily Mirror tabloid dailies sell more copies than does The Times.
Paying for stories is another ploy to extract private and gory detail about incidents and life pertaining to someone linked to those in the limelight or having donned the mantle of important positions. It does not matter what happened personally or institutionally as long as the information sells. The sales value is placed at the pedestal of priority no matter whether the revelation has a close brush with ethical standards or not. The adventurous and cavalier ones among media owners and those in their employ, at times, risk facing legal summons if they see grey areas or room for interpreting the procedure with reasonable argument submitted by legal eagles roped in for handsome fees.
There’s a difference between a sensationalist and a yellow journalist. Chasing sensationalism is technically a legit undertaking even if risking a close brush with ethical questions. But those who bend information out of context and put words in the mouths of their information sources to draw maximum mileage of sensational type do yellow journalism. They distort and even lie in their bid to create facts out of fiction - an abdominal pursuit but carried on by the unscrupulous just the same.
Both want audiences in large numbers. But a sensationalist cannot flout professionalism when on the lookout for anything that attracts readers. However, news outlets are not the only avenues that spawn such paths to audience attention. Book publishers, on smelling the prospect of creating big curiosity and registering quick sales, make a beeline for signing the target as a story source.
For example, the Ray L. Elizabeth story entitled “The Washington Fringe Benefit”, published in 1976, is about the girl recruited as a steno to a US Congressman Wayne Levere Hays and spilled the beans regarding the inside tale of the sex scandal. Hays represented Ohio at the House of Representatives for 27 years from 1949 until the 1976 scandal ditched his political career in the US capital.
The blonde could neither type nor did she possess shorthand skills. Her face and figure were qualities that hooked the long-time politician. Her publishers promised in the book cover: “The bombshell novel by the blonde who became ‘The Washington Fringe Benefit’.” A sensational bubble, the book did not have a second printing, as public interest evaporated quickly. Most books of such genre have limited public interest span.
Go through the newspaper stories, visual interviews or book pages, the narratives are smooth and racy but with due care for sounding authentic in order to fit the central character’s perceived image. The tone and lines are tailored to sell. TV talk shows, newspaper interviews and books by many folks are often ghost-written by scribes with vivid word power and knack of sounding like the key character in their presentations. The recently launched “Spare”, a memoir by Britain’s Prince Harry, had a ghost writer.
Writing in The New York Times on “The ghosts in the prose”, Elizabeth A. Harris said: Ghost-writers channel someone else’s voice — often, someone else’s very recognisable voice — all without leaving fingerprints. Doing it well requires a tremendous amount of technical skill and an ego.” The definition makes a lot of sense.
Some reviewers and commentators dismissed “Spare” Harry and his spouse Meghan’s exercise in washing their “dirty linen” in public as an “unnecessary stunt”. A major book store, in its display window, strategically placed “Spare” side by side with another book, “How to Kill a Family”. That’s for some genres of books whose intent and purpose are more than pure literature something serious for the discerning ones.
News media function in different forms. Sheer sensational has a short span. Yellow version of journalism is deliberately unethical and ill-intentioned. Relentless pursuit of partisan journalism is a stunt of the dubious mode. It throws to the backburner the acclaimed tenets of independent and fair journalism.
At a time when mass faith in news media is surveyed as eroding, this might explain why people across the world are losing faith in the institutions that claim to be hailed as the “Fourth Estate”. A wake-up call to the more serious among news hounds.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)