The media’s role in promoting celebrity is a diversion from the social purpose of journalism

At this day in age, it seems that the press and celebrities walk hand in hand. It’s hard to brush past the news stands without seeing our favourite stars splashed across the front page, involved in the latest bust up, divorce, drug binge or sex tape. With this in mind, we must question our motives as the general public as to why stories such as the ever-growing Katie Price and Peter Andre saga take prominence over stories with higher magnitude, such as the global economic crisis. This also leads to the question of contemporary journalism and its quality, and what shape it may take in the future if it is to continue. This essay will attempt to investigate who celebrities are, how relevant they are to our society and the reasons for them taking up valuable journalism space.

Whilst looking through various dictionaries for the meaning of ‘celebrity’, the definition that occurs the most is ‘famous person’, however what is defined as celebrity by scholars and published books is entirely different to the general public view.

American author and historian Barbara Goldsmith said: ‘the line between fame and notoriety has been erased. Today we are faced with a vast confusing jumble of celebrities: the talented and untalented, heroes and villains, people of accomplishment and those who have accomplished nothing at all’.

This theory can easily be applied to any coexistent society or culture. For example, the recent array of various ‘talent show’ and ‘reality’ themed television shows.

I.T.V’s popular music contest, ‘The X Factor’ has most recently shot two talent less twins into the limelight, John and Edward Grimes, or as they are better known ‘Jedward’. Week after week the general public witnessed the duo tear apart every song they faced, with out of tune singing, clumsy choreography and general ignorance. Despite this, they remained to appear in the national papers and glossy magazines, even after their eviction from the show.

Another example of this would be during Channel 4’s reality T.V ‘Big Brother’. The show occasionally hosts ‘celebrity’ spin off series’, and in 2006’s series, there was a slight twist in which actually an individual who wasn’t a celebrity was entered into the house. Despite not being a celebrity, Chantelle Houghton went on to win Big Brothers fourth series of the show. This in itself questions the term ‘celebrity’ and all that it stands for. Andy Warhol once stated that everyone has there fifteen minutes of fame. In a our modern society, maybe this theory should be re-visited and updated. As celebrity culture is becoming more and more accessible, societies greed toward a life of luxuries and fame is more apparent than ever before.

When we see what appears on the news, whether it be celebrity stories or not, they are debated in the news rooms of what should appear on the news and what order it should appear in. This is when the story is decided if it is ‘news worthy’ or not.

Over time, what we consider as newsworthy is often debated. Galtung and Ruge in 1965 conducted research of what events are most likely to be reported in the news. They stated that factors such as continuity (covering a story which is expected to last a large amount of time e.g war in Iraq, FIFA world cup coverage), threshold (the significance or size of and event, for example a car crash involving a single person may not be reported, although a bus crash involving twenty people may be. This can differ between national and local news) and reference to elite nations (certain countries gain more coverage than others, England will dominate, followed by U.S.A, France, Germany, Russia and South Africa) will make a story newsworthy.

One of the listed reasons stated ‘Reference to elite persons’. This stated that some individuals are deemed more important that others and deserve more coverage, mainly focusing on politicians and world leaders.

When Harcup and Oneill revisited these theories in 2001, they thought that the ‘Reference to Elite Persons’ was vague and outdated, and needed expanding. They separated this into two sections, The Power Elite and Celebrities. The Power Elite much like Galtung and Ruge, focused on world leaders and politicians, whilst celebrities focused on people already being famous. Over the space of 40 years, the relevance of celebrity has come into it’s own category. The re-visitation to the theory I think was of great success, separating individuals who are involved in running the world with those for their fame. However, these factors can often over overlap.

A large part of the reason why celebrities appear in the newspapers is down to escapism. Reading about the latest celebrity gossip takes away the doom and gloom of other stories affecting the world. Dustin Barnes of Mississippi University stated: ‘After 9/11, and the ensuing mass of articles and special reports, the American public seemed to collectively throw up their hands and scream for something lighter, more gossipy and less doomsday’.

The reader is engulfed into the celebrities’ world, distorting any other outside stories. The reader can forget about the troubles of their own life and focus other peoples more glamorous ones.

Another aspect is that of seeing other peoples’ turmoil across the front page of gossip magazines’ help the reader to truly appreciate their own life. An example of this could be when married actor Jude Law cheated on Sienna Miller. The reader may think ‘Thank god my husband has never done that’. This can work as an unconscious ego boost for the audience.

The images printed in the gossip magazines also provide the same ego boost as the stories. Journalist Michael Arceneaux stated:

‘Entertainment magazines will shell out millions of dollars for shots of celebrity babies and networks will pay hundreds of thousands for the wedding of a Laker and a woman who’s famous because her sister had a sex tape with Brandy’s brother’

Seeing an image of the latest celebrity looking at their worst, rather than after a team of make up artists have been slaving away at their face with the most expensive make up products can uplift an audience.

For example, it seems that current London mayor, Boris Johnson is more renowned for his media related activities rather than his political policies. Appearing as a guest on various panel shows, chasing off ‘hoodies’ in city parks and rugby tackling Germans in charity football matches are just some highlights of his career we are more exposed to.

Another reason for the excess of celebrity stories is that of dumbing down of the news. Dumbing down is a term used by media theorists in which the media companies make the news significantly easier for mass audiences to consume. However, this dumbing down as stated previously, distorts more fundamental news issues.

Chris Hastings, Arts and Media editor of the Telegraph reported that:

‘Senior BBC bosses think that their current affairs programmes, including the award winning Panorama, are too dull and serious. Instead they want less serious shows which, they believe, will appeal to younger viewers.’

As young people are foreseen as ‘the future’, obtaining them as an audience is vital for broadcast companies.

In order for the companies to connect to the younger audience, exciting and celebrity driven programmes such as ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’ and ‘Strictly, Come Dancing’ are shown to capture this audience to boost ratings and increase the profits.

Dumbing down in itself has its positive and negative points. As a plus, it generalizes the news to a full audience. Explanations to those who are not as educated can easily digest the same information as those who are. However, the downside to this is often people may feel patronized by this effect. Dumbing down is done in various ways: Celebrities presenting factual and important issues, basic language, and even to the extent of attractive female news presenters. As Gaz from the popular BBC sitcom ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’ once stated ‘Maybe I should actually think about what comes out of Natasha Kaplinsky’s mouth instead what I can put inside Natasha Kaplinskys mouth’.

In conclusion, I think the relevance of the celebrity and their role in media is vital, whether we care to admit this or not. Seeing those who we are intended to look up to and aspire to become crash and burn gives the audience a unconcious sense of hope.

When the world has heard enough about the doom and gloom of reality, with it’s downward spiral of economics and countries at war, we can always count on celebrities to provide and escape through the dark clouds of negativity with a story of trivial pursuits we should probably care less about. Without the journalists, the celebrity culture would find it difficult to thrive, and the journalists would struggle without the celebrities for filling the pages and time slots in the news. In my opinion, this vicious circle is yet to continue and possibly increase in the near future. As bad news is considered ‘good’ news, the celebrity culture provides us with a fresh breath of air from the terrible word we live in.