Celebrity Gossip: Guilty Pleasure or Real News?

News stories about Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian drive traffic to news websites and garner plenty of shares on social media, but can we really call this type of content a form of journalism? Is celebrity gossip truly newsworthy or just a guilty pleasure?

Representatives from five different media outlets came together in Toronto recently to discuss the nature of entertainment coverage and how it is changing in the age of social media. Hosted by The Canadian Journalism Foundation, the panel discussion featured Alison Eastwood, editor-in-chief of Hello! Canada; Jonathan Kay, comment pages editor of the National Post; Malene Arpe, writer for the Toronto Star’s Stargazing pages; and Ben Mulroney, anchor of CTV’s etalk. The Globe and Mail’s senior media writer Simon Houpt served as the moderator for the event.

There is no limit to what people will find fascinating about celebrities, explained Kay. “There is an inexhaustible amount of interest in everything they eat, wear, say and do.” There are different forms of celebrity journalism; some publications serve as aspirational escapism—a magazine like Hello! Canada is designed to build up celebrities—while other publications (such as the National Inquirer and the Toronto Star’s Stargazing pages) are designed to take them down.

People may deride celebrity journalism as vapid or unimportant, but all of the panelists agreed that pop culture and entertainment coverage is now a significant and often profitable part of today’s news media. Our curiosity about celebrity culture is nothing new, noted Houpt, and, in an environment where everyone is looking for revenue, it makes sense that publishers would cash in on our insatiable appetite.

A new poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid on behalf of The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF), shows that the majority of Canadians say they prefer domestic and international news over celebrity items and gossip—and they blame the media, not the stars, for sensationalism. Seven in 10 (68%) of respondents believe that the media use stories about celebrities simply to earn ad revenue.

In a discussion about these findings, Arpe came to the defense of media outlets explaining that “click bait” only works because people are interested. “Polls that suggest people don’t follow celebrity gossip are inherently problematic because people won’t necessarily want to admit to their media habits,” she explained. There is certainly still a stigma associated celebrity journalism even though the work these journalists do can be very difficult at times.

Mulroney spent some time highlighting the challenges of covering celebrities in comparison to hard news reporting. “Politicians have to give off the appearance of transparency, but celebrities play by a different set of rules,” explained Mulroney. “It can be a struggle to get the story from them when their publicists and handlers are there to lay out ground rules and restrictions on what can and can’t be asked before interviews.”

While celebrities might try to demand their privacy and work hard to control their public image, Arpe believes that they owe their audiences a certain amount of access to their lives. “There is a bargain made between entertainment consumers and celebrities. Stars can’t have it both ways; they can’t have total privacy and fame – they must give up a certain amount of their lives to the public.”

Many celebrities are turning to social media in an attempt to regain some control over how they are portrayed in the media. By