Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The tabloid touch

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In Touch Weekly

“Oh, I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
“I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
“It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”

The Thin Man

A couple of weeks ago, Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen published a long article on In Touch Weekly and the evolution of the modern tabloid. It’s a fun piece, full of juicy insights, and it’s worth reading in its entirety. Yet what caught my eye the most were details like these:

In Touch piqued that fascination by manufacturing elaborate, multipart, melodramatic narratives—the stuff of soap operas…Several former employees remember [editor Richard] Spencer laying out a four-act cover drama for what would happen between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the beginning of each month—a pregnancy, for example, followed by a breakup scare, a reconciliation, and then marriage rumors.

The beats of the drama may have been fictionalized, but it was easy to find sources—including rival publicists, other celebrities, former friends, estranged family—to support the claims…It’s not that In Touch made things up, it’s that the publicist and family members and celebrities themselves did…

“For [editor David] Perel, each story is a chapter in a novel,” one recent staffer reported. “He decides on the narrative, then has his reporters work sources to match the narrative.”

And this is just a more blatant version of what every writer, nonfiction and otherwise, does on a regular basis, although not always so brazenly. When you’re writing a story, even if you’re a reputable journalist, you often find yourself selecting facts to bolster the thesis implied in the headline or first paragraph. In some cases, you go looking for a quote from an outside source to support a conclusion you’ve already reached, and fortunately for reporters, the world is full of people willing to supply quotable material on demand—which is why the same expert sources repeatedly crop up in business or pop culture reportage. It isn’t a question of bias, but of structuring a decent news story: even the most apparently objective articles provide a narrative that helps us fit facts into a pattern that we can use or enjoy. Not every story we tell about the world is equally accurate, of course, and thoughtful readers and viewers have long since learned to recognize false balance. What puts a tabloid like In Touch into a different category is how cheerfully it severs the link, already tenuous, between reality and the “sourced” stories it produces. And the punchline is that this approach can shade imperceptibly into real reporting, as we’ve seen recently with the magazine’s coverage of the Duggars.

In Touch Weekly

What makes tabloids so fascinating is that they display a funhouse version of a process that we’ve learned to accept unthinkingly from more legitimate forms of nonfiction. An article in yesterday’s New York Times interviewed a range of documentary filmmakers about the ways they shape their material, from turning on a television set to provide a source of lighting in a scene to gently coaching interview subjects to arrive at a deeper emotional truth. And choices about selection of footage, arrangement, juxtaposition, and chronology are central to the documentary form. Occasionally, as with The Jinx, these liberties are obvious enough to raise questions about accuracy. But in every case, filmmakers walk a fine line between fidelity to the facts and the structural judgment calls that every story requires. In theory, the only kind of documentary evidence that resists that kind of manipulation is a raw, unedited chunk of footage, but in practice—as we see, for instance, in the varying responses to the Eric Garner video—even an apparently unambiguous record can be colored by context, where the excerpt starts and ends, and the viewer’s own preconceptions. We’re all constantly editing reality to conform with the mental pictures we form of it; what sets apart a documentary, or journalism, is that this editing has been outsourced to someone else.

And we’ve implicitly agreed to a measure of editorial intervention as the price for having information delivered to use in a form we can absorb. I’ve spoken at length elsewhere about how relentlessly podcasts and radio journalism are shaped to retain the listener’s attention: “Anecdote then reflection, over and over,” as Ira Glass says, which means that we’re not just being given a story, but constantly being told what to think about it. Otherwise, the result would be boring or unintelligible, as we often see in podcasts that don’t consider their structure so insistently. Asking journalists and other writers to refrain from sculpting the material betrays a misunderstanding of how we all think and learn. Everything is subject to a point of view, even the unmediated experience of our own lives: the best we can do is be aware of it, skeptical when necessary, and selective about whom we trust. In Touch makes for a great case study because the bones are exposed for all to see, but even a tabloid headline can influence us in subtle ways, as Petersen notes:

A typical…cover promised to answer a question the reader didn’t even know he or she had: “What Went Wrong,” “Why It’s Over,” or “Why They Split.”

All storytelling poses and resolves such unconscious questions, which only makes it harder to distinguish from what we might be thinking on the inside. And when a story moves us, intrigues us, or makes us feel, we can truly say that it got us right in the tabloids.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2015 at 9:42 am

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