|Like Belgian Chocolate for the Universal Mind. Interpersonal and Media Gossip from an Evolutionary Perspective. (Charlotte De Backer)|
“For those whose interests lie primarily with celebrity worship, the research opportunities are just beginning. There are a host of personality and situational variables that might potentially be related to celebrity worship in some as yet undiscovered way.” (Maltby et al, 2002: 1170)
When was the last time you saw a celebrity? Maybe an hour ago while reading a magazine, or yesterday while watching television? Still, chances that you have ever met, or will ever meet these kinds of people in real life are next to none. Since we never encounter celebrities in real life, these people will always be strangers to us. But on the other hand, the media overloads us with information concerning celebrities. We read gossip stories and become interested in those people’s private lives and start gossiping with our real friends about those famous persons.
This is one part of the media gossip mill. Another domain of media gossip covers stories such as “Baby boy drowned in swimming pool!”, “Passenger survived plane crash because he was locked in bathroom!”, “Woman cured of cancer with new revolutionary technology!” and so on. These stories can be both about celebrities and non-celebrities, and still have meaning to us.
As Tooby and Cosmides (2001:8) say: “In every industrialized society, every night after work the primary form of recreation is to immerse oneself in the broadcast or projected world of fictionalized lives and events (indeed, the appetite for recreation itself requires evolutionary explanation).” We are (almost) all attracted to media entertainment, to get information about the private lives of others. In this chapter I put forward both proximate and ultimate explanations for this interest in media gossip. However, before explaining our media gossip interest, I will first discuss whether media gossip can really be called ‘gossip’ or not.
2 What is Media Gossip
Before explaining why we are so attracted to gossip stories about media characters, such as celebrities, let me clearly outline what media gossip is all about. In chapter 1, I already overviewed the discussions on how to define Interpersonal Gossip. Most of these debates are applicable to media gossip as well, and I will not mention these again. What I want to stress in this section are the aspects wherein Media Gossip is different from Interpersonal Gossip, and which need some more clarification.
To review the conclusion of chapter 1, I defined Interpersonal Gossip (IG) in the most general sense as “information about the deviant or surprising (which both depend on the context) traits and behaviors of one (or more) third person(s) (most often non-present, but potentially present in the conversation)”. Media gossip as a noun can be covered by the same rules, but with the added notion that media gossip subjects are people who appeared in the media (once or more). As an act, both phenomena are less alike. Let me start with Media Gossip as a noun and explain who the media gossipees are. I will then turn to the differences between Media Gossip and Interpersonal Gossip as verbs, and conclude this section with a discussion on how much of media products can be considered as gossip.
2.1 Media Gossip as a noun
As a noun, or a message, gossip is about the traits and behaviors of human subjects, as I explained in chapter 1. An interesting aspect I touched on in chapter 1, is the discussion whether we can gossip about dead people. I then took the clear position that this is possible and I only excluded fictive characters from gossip as a message. In the context of media gossip it is clear that dead people are often the subject of gossip. Even years after she died, Princess Diana is still present in the tabloids, as well as many other stars that passed away years ago, such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and many others.
Another aspect I discussed in chapter 1, was whether or not the gossipee should be known to the gossipers. I briefly touched on the discussion whether celebrities can be gossipees in section 3.3.2 of chapter 1. I argued that gossip about unknowns is classifiable as gossip. Whether we regard media gossipees such as celebrities as known or unknowns does not really matter here, both can be included in the general noun ‘media gossip'. However, the debate whether celebrities are known or unknowns to us is very interesting, especially to explain our interest in media gossip. I will come back to this aspect later in this chapter.
I want to focus a little more on the human subjects of Media Gossip. This form of gossip covers stories about celebrities, to which I refer as Celebrity Gossip, but also covers stories about unknown people who only appear in the media once. I will refer to these people with the term Public Unknowns. They are different from Complete Unknowns because they have reached the media (became public), but still are not celebrities, who appear regularly in the media because of their occupation. Because these media gossipees are different from interpersonal gossipees, let me explain their features a little more.
2.1.1 Media gossipees: celebrities and public unknowns
126.96.36.199 What are celebrities
Defining celebrity is as difficult as defining gossip. Various researchers have given different definitions to explain what a celebrity is (for an overview see Turner, 2004). Circular definitions, such as Boorstin’s (1961: 58, as cited in Turner, 2004: 5), say that “the celebrity is a person who is well-known for their well-knownness”. This definition does not explain much. Being well-known because they are well-known, does not explain what contributes to their well-knownness. Still, this circular definition does embody the core idea for defining celebrity: celebrities, or ‘stars,’ are people who are ‘known’ to an average person because they appear frequently in the media. As Dyer (1986) writes:
The start phenomenon consists of everything that is publicly available about stars. A film star’s image is not just his or her films, but the promotion of those films and of the star through pin-ups, public appearances, studio hand-outs and so on, as well as interviews, biographies and coverage in the press of the star’s doings and ‘private’ life. Further, a star’s image is also what people say or write about him or her, as critics or commentators, the way the image is used in other contexts such as advertisements, novels, pop songs, and finally the way the star can become part of the coinage of everyday speech.” (Dyer, 1986: 2-3)
Mostly these people are movie stars, television hosts, soap actors, and so on, whose occupation involves media appearance. The same is true for politicians and royals, who are public figures as well, and appear in the media because of their political duties, or as the symbol of a nation (royals). The difference between royal celebrities and entertainer celebrities is, as Turner (2004) stresses, that the first are secured celebrities from their birth till their death. Royals’ celebrity status is defined by their family history. Whatever they do, they remain a royal and remain a celebrity. Entertainers on the other hand, have a less secure celebrity status: “Where the celebrity from the entertainment world is subject to shifts in fashion and taste that can wipe out their professional careers completely, the royal celebrity’s continuity is more or less assured.” (Turner, 2004: 95).
Celebrities have prestige, they are admired by many. Although it might seem to many as if this is due to their high salaries and expensive status items, these financial assets do not solely determine celebrity prestige. This is because prestige, as Henrich and Gil-White (2001) and Henrich et al (2001) say, equates with merit in the eyes of others, and it promotes a desire for proximity and sustained observation. Leaders’ positions either rest on prestige or on dominance. Dominance goes hand in hand with fear; others fear dominant people and obey their orders. While prestige is linked to credit from others; people with special skills are prestigious. People like Einstein are prestigious not because they are feared, but because we admire their skills (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001).
‘Being recognized’ is important to celebrities. They strive to eliminate comments such as “That blonde actress in Woody Allen’s latest movie did a good job!” and make sure people make comments such as “Have you seen Chloé Sevigny in Woody Allen’s latest movie? She was so great!”. Recognition contributes to celebrity prestige. The more people recognize you, and talk about you, the more prestigious you will become in the eyes of others. As Schely-Newman (2004: 482) says: “Appearance in gossip columns has a value of sorts – it provides visibility and recognition, which in turn may be transferred to a permanent position on the social scene.”
Based on Goldstein and Gigerenzer’s (1999) theory about recognition heuristics, I argue that people might have a heuristic to attribute status to celebrities, based on whether they recognize the star or not. Goldstein and Gigerenzer (1999) explained that we possess a recognition heuristic by which we make fast and frugal decisions—under uncertainty—that generally solve the problem at hand correctly. They offered the classical example that, when asked which of two cities is larger, subjects tend to pick the one they recognize, and they are usually correct (see also chapter 5 section).
From this view, some celebrities are attributed status and prestige simply because they are widely recognized due to their frequent appearance in the in the media. Regardless of their actual abilities and social importance (i.e., possession of genuine skills and social power), individuals are attributed prestige just because they are marketed repeatedly to large audiences and are thus highly recognizable. So, skilled artists like talented musicians, excellent sport figures, good actors, and great politicians can miss out on the boat of success if they lack media coverage. Compare a talented musician, who composes his own music and can sing very well, to musicians such as Britney Spears, and the picture becomes clear. To become a celebrity, being talented is not sufficient; you need to insure your face gets pictured in the media.
Even unknown people may become celebrities if they appear in the media and are recognized by many others. Andy Warhol once said that in the future every individual would get his or her fifteen minutes of fame. Reality television provides a venue for unknown people to acquire fame by exposing their relationships, survival skills, and even homebuilding skills to mass audiences.
The strange fact about celebrities is that, even though we all recognize them and may feel we ‘know’ them, we never actually encounter these people in real life. What we know about them is what the media tells us. A celebrity’s image might be very different from how he or she is in real life. And yet we gossip about them.
188.8.131.52 Other media gossip subjects
As I mentioned above, media gossip also covers stories about non-celebrities. Unknown people become public if they have done something that can be of interest to a broad audience. Their peculiar behavior is the reason for their public appearance. The major difference with these Public Unknowns and celebrities is that Public Unknowns only appear in the media once or if more, only a short time, while celebrities have long-time media coverage.
2.2 Media Gossip as an act
Post (1994) once said that Media Gossip is indeed gossip as a noun; it transmits a similar content of ‘backyard chatter’, but Media Gossip as an act lacks the gossip specific interactions, and is therefore more threatening than interpersonal gossip. “When it is situated within a certain kind of normative conversation, gossip supports community. But when it is liberated from that conversation and located instead within the mass media, gossip destroys community.” (Post, 1994: 71).
In my opinion, two features of Media Gossip are clearly different from Interpersonal Gossip as an act: the channels used to disseminate the information and the relation between the gossipers. I discuss both more in detail.
2.2.1 Channels of Media Gossip
I already discussed in chapter 1, section 3.4.1, that the channels used to disseminate media gossip differ from interpersonal gossip, transmitted through oral conversations. This results in the fact that media gossip is less reliable than interpersonal gossip. Before discussing this more profoundly, let me briefly explain which channels are used to disseminate media gossip.
184.108.40.206 Tabloids and gossip magazines
Most media gossip is transmitted through gossip magazines or tabloids. Other media channels also convey media gossip, but tabloids are the main source of information. Refer to the next section for a historical overview of tabloids and to section 5 of this chapter for over some studies of tabloids and gossip magazines.
Besides tabloids, which are the main source of media gossip, media gossip stories are spread through some other media channels as well.
220.127.116.11 News and the human interest stories
Especially in recent years, mass media have increased the amount of human-interest stories (Hauttekeete, 2004). Testimonies of people become common in television news, written newspapers, magazines, and internet news-sites. In a sense these reports can be considered as media gossip. I come back to this at the end of this section.
18.104.22.168 TV Entertainment!: Audiovisual gossip magazines
I will not discuss the increase of human interest in news formats here, as this is a different research topic (see Hauttekeete, 2004). What I do want to mention, as important sources of media gossip, are audiovisual products. Some television channels broadcast gossip magazines, and some channels are even completely gossip-channels (e.g. E! Entrainment). These formats are very similar to tabloids, in that they report about the professional and private lives of celebrities. What is different from written tabloids is that these channels do not cover non-celebrity media gossip. They focus completely on the stars, and the only unknowns appearing on such television programs are people who are in some way related to a celebrity (lover, child, etc.). They have higher credibility because of their images (see below). People are witness to the actions of celebrities, and see them literally saying what they hear. Brown, Basil and Bocarnea (2004) found that people rely most on television to get updated about celebrities.
22.214.171.124. Soap operas
Another audiovisual media source of media gossip that I want to mention are soap operas. “Soap operas are immensely popular cultural forms, attracting more than 10 million viewers each day, the majority of which are female.” (Riegel, 1996: 201). Focusing on the role of gossip in the context of soap operas, Riegel (1996) differentiates three levels of gossip that occur; gossip within soaps, gossip between viewers of soaps and gossip about soaps in the media. The first kind of gossip (occurring within the programs) has the following function, according to Riegel:
“Gossip between characters on a soap opera functions to give viewers a running commentary on the action, providing more information and details about the latest intricacies of the plots. It helps bind together various plots and characters.” (Riegel, 1996: 203)
Gossip within soaps is comparable to interpersonal gossip in real life. It serves to clarify deviant and/or surprising events. The audience of soap operas benefit from this gossip by better understanding the soap characters.
The second level of gossip, which takes place between viewers, also has a bonding function says Riegel: “Discussions about soap operas takes us into this second type of gossip, as it is somehow “personal” to discuss the lives of characters on soap operas as if they were real people.” (Riegel, 1996: 204). She refers to Gluckman’s view on gossip; gossip between soap opera viewers unites them. Important to note here is that Riegel says that people discuss soap opera characters ‘as if’ these were real people. I come back to this later, when I explain why we are so attracted to gossip about media characters.
Lastly, Riegel (1996) explains how gossip in the media about soap operas “[…] provides background details for viewers to savor and enhances the pleasures of watching, helping to broaden the paradigmatic complexion.” (Riegel, 1996: 207). Media gossip gives extra information; for instance when we read that an actor is leaving a soap opera, we might expect a dramatic plot to occur soon. All three kinds of gossip make gossip about soap operas dominantly present in our daily lives. Soap opera gossip therefore has a greater impact on our lives than we would suspect, says Riegel (1996).
Riegel's discussions involve both media gossip, spread through media channels, and interpersonal gossip, which involves the interpersonal gossip conversations about media products (such as soaps). I make a clear distinction between both. To make this clear, I will now outline the similarities and differences between regular Interpersonal Gossip (IG), Mass Media Gossip (MMG) and Interpersonal Media Gossip (IMG).
126.96.36.199. Interpersonal Media Gossip
In chapter 1, I mentioned that media gossip sneaks into our daily interpersonal gossip conversations as well. We gossip about media characters with our family, friends, and other members of our social network. In the above-described case study of Riegel (1996), Interpersonal Media Gossip is mentioned as well. This is a special form of Media Gossip. The channel used here to disseminate media gossip as a noun is interpersonal interaction. This form of Media Gossip, as an action, is closest (and maybe even similar) to regular Interpersonal Gossip.
As verbs, Interpersonal Media Gossip (IMG) and Interpersonal Gossip (IG) are alike and both different from Mass Media Gossip (MMG). Mass Media gossip, as Schely-Newman (2004) explains, is transmitted through a media channel; it appears in the public sphere, and therefore lacks a private setting, which is characteristic of interpersonal gossip as an act. Because MMG lacks the private setting that is so typical for IG, Morreall (1994) claims that MMG cannot be called real gossip. But, media gossip sneaks into our daily conversations as Interpersonal Media Gossip when we start gossiping about media characters in our interpersonal conversations, where the private setting is present. For both IG and IMG the medium is face-to-face communication, or similar. Both IMG and IG involve the transmission of information between two or more individuals who more or less know each other, and are connected to each other face-to-face or through communication channels such as telephone, email, mail and so on. Pure MMG is different because it involves a source and an audience who do not know each other, who do not establish a real connection.
2.2.2 Relations between media gossipers and gossipees
188.8.131.52 Media gossipers: the problem of reliability
Gossipers of Interpersonal Gossip and Interpersonal Media Gossip are people who know each other, and move over, who trust each other to exchange information about a third person. As I have argued in chapter 1, Interpersonal Gossip is reliable information because of the trust-based relation between the gossipers. Interpersonal Gossip is different from rumors, which lack this level of reliability. Since the intimate trust-based relationship between the sender and receiver of gossip is lacking for Mass Media Gossip, this form of gossip is less reliable than Interpersonal (Media) Gossip. For Mass Media Gossip the reliability depends on the reputation of the source, which here is the tabloid magazine or television show. Since the exact source of Mass Media Gossip is an unknown sender to the receivers, Mass Media Gossip is confronted with a reliability problem.
Mass Media Gossip senders (journalists) seem to be aware of the reliability problem and (un)consciously try to offer solutions to this. They present their media gossips in (1) interview style, (2) add pictures, and (3) don't always hunt for scoops, but cover stories other media sources have already released, because multiple sources increase credibility. I will discuss these solutions in a little more depth.
Media gossip sources can increase their credibility by using ‘confession’ formats. Interviewing media gossipees and presenting this in an interview format presents the information ‘as if’ the gossipee is present in the conversation and the audience gets the knowledge first-hand. It is arguable that these confessions cannot be incorporated in a general definition of media gossip, since I clearly excluded self-talk from my general definition of interpersonal gossip (see chapter 1). However, these media characters are not actually present in the gossip transmission. Media gossip sources only use interviews to solve their reliability problem, and in fact these formats should be considered as classical gossip transactions, where a sender reports how “I asked her this and then she replied with following answer”. For this reason, I do incorporate interview formats in my general definition of media gossip. For audiovisual media gossip, this might be even more confusing, since then the gossipee really reports the information herself or himself. In this situation, I argue that media gossip sources only do this to increase believability, and falsely make us believe that we are getting the information first-hand, while in reality it is second-hand (third-party) gossip information.
Images and pictures are also tools to increase believability. Saying X and Y have been spotted together in public gets extra credibility if a picture can be added ‘as proof’. Bird (1992) says this is the reason why tabloids are so heavy on pictures; they need to prove their written statements, because as an unknown source to their audience their believability is low. With their interview-styles, journalists can still easily lie or slightly manipulate the information. With pictures it is less easy to lie. However, they can come up with old pictures or manipulate the images, but this is still not as easy as lying with words. Moreover, since communication has such a long history over many generations, our ancestors were already faced with problems of false information. Facing these problems generation after generation for at least 100,000 to perhaps millions of years (as long as language has existed, see also chapter 3) has most probably shaped our brains to be skeptical towards the believability of language messages. Pictures have only come into existence in the later 19th century, and manipulation of pictures is an even more recent product. Such a short time in evolutionary history is not sufficient to adapt our brains to be as skeptical towards pictures as we are towards communicated messages. We more easily believe what we can see with our own eyes, and tabloids use this to add to the credibility of their gossip stories.
In addition to using interview formats and pictures, there is a third way to increase the believability of media gossip. As I outlined in chapter 1, multiple sources telling the same gossip story will increase credibility. The same is true for media gossip, where multiple sources can be separate tabloids or television shows. When People Magazine publishes the scoop that Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt filed for divorce, many did not believe this information. Even when they added pictures of Anniston not wearing her wedding ring and looking quite depressed, credibility of this gossip was fairly low. However, as other gossip magazines started to publish the same information, and internet sites and television shows gave similar reports, credibility increased.
Still, increasing the number of sources does not increase credibility for everyone. Hess and Hagen (2002, 2004b) found that reiteration of a gossip story about a young female celebrity increased the believability of the gossip story. However, this was only the case for respondents who were relatively uninterested in the gossip story. If respondents were more interested, reiteration did not significantly influences their credibility.
184.108.40.206 Media gossipers and media gossipees: no fear of retaliations
Not only does the relationship between gossipers contrast for Interpersonal Gossip, Interpersonal Media Gossip and Mass Media Gossip, also the relationship between gossipers and gossipees is different. For Strategy Learning Gossip, the relationship between gossipers and gossipees is not important; gossipees can be unknowns and facts about who they are and how they are related to the gossipers are of no importance. For Reputation Gossip, the relationship between gossipers and gossipees is important. Gossipers must know the gossipee for the Reputation Gossip to have value. And since they know each other, retaliation of the gossipee towards the gossipers is potentially present. Here Interpersonal Media Gossip and Mass Media Gossip are alike and both different from Interpersonal Gossip.
As Schely-Newman (2004) explains, when it comes to Interpersonal Media Gossip and Mass Media Gossip both senders and receivers do not know the gossipees. The enormous benefit of this is that no retaliations of the gossipee need to be feared. Gossiping about gossipees you never encounter is safe; they will not get back to you if you say something wrong. This not only applies to Mass Media Gossip spread through media channels, but is also the case for Interpersonal Media Gossip. However, tabloids might still fear retaliations of celebrities if they publish something that harms the reputation or private life of a celebrity. We are all familiar with cases where celebrities have fought camera people, and legal cases filed against tabloids. But celebrities will not come and punch you when you discuss their private issues with your friends. Interpersonal Media Gossip is a very safe way to gossip. Saunders (1999) confirms this statement with her conclusion that elderly women discuss social norms by gossiping about celebrities, because it is such a safe way to learn about rights and wrongs, she says.
2.3 If gossip is news, then news is gossip
To end this debate on how to define and outline the boundaries of Media Gossip (being both Mass Media Gossip and Interpersonal Media Gossip), I want to put forward one more critical point of discussion. In chapter 1, section 3.4.4 I have discussed that I do not restrict gossip conversations to the private sphere. I explained how two doctors discussing their patients are actually gossiping when they exchange traits/behavior information of a third person. Since such professional conversations are not excluded from the discourse of gossip in this theoretical framework, a lot of media products are categorized as gossip.
I already mentioned above some audiovisual products that are very gossipy, such as gossip channels and soap operas. What I want to mention here is that even media products such as news programs are gossip-loaded. News programs update us about other people, such as politicians or unknown people. We get traits/behavior information, and therefore news programs can be considered as gossip.
This is a stance that Pamela Shoemaker (2005) recently took, when she presented her latest research on news, linking her theories with evolutionary psychology. Just like gossip, news is about deviance and social relevance, Shoemaker (2005) says. The news reports about deviant issues that have social value to the audience. What is deviant might be different across cultures, but our interest in deviant news is universal.
Gossip is news in the sense that it either surprises the recipients, or if this is not the case, it still reports about deviant traits and/ or behaviors of others (see also chapter 1). Saying that news is gossip might be a surprise to many. Still many news items are about people, human beings. We either want to learn what others have done, because their behavior strategies can be helpful to us to make future decisions when faced with similar problems (Strategy Learning Gossip). Or we want to learn about specific others; what they did, how they will behave in the future, and which decisions they made. Politicians are popular gossipees of news items. They are of value to the audiences because they are high status; they are prestigious. Moreover, politicians are also higher status because they are dominant, because their (professional) actions and decisions can (in)directly affect our own lives. Therefore it is even more important to be updated about their actions.
The fact that news, both on television and in print, focuses more and more on the private lives of public figures since the last decades has been criticized a lot. The publication of private life matters is often referred to as gossipy journalism, turning newspapers into tabloids, and making news commercial. Still, the fact that more emotionally loaded news programs appeal to a broader audience can be negatively seen as commercializing of news, but can also be seen as a positive trend (for an overview see Brants, Hermes & van Zoonen, 1998 and Hauttekeete, 2004).
Either way, whether the news reports about the private lives of public figures, or solely reports about the professional actions of public figures, in both cases news is classifiable as gossip. As long as the common sense definition of gossip keeps the negative connotation it has today, statements such as “news is gossip” are hard to accept (even though a lot of our news is about negative events). But seeing gossip in the broadest sense, all news about third persons is gossip, and therefore news programs cannot be excluded from the debate. News programs deliver their audiences fitness-relevant information.
The boundaries of Media Gossip are therefore hard to define. A lot of media products will fit in to the discourse of Media Gossip. Because tabloids and gossip magazines about celebrities are still seen as the most gossipy of all media products, I will focus on these in the following sections.
3 Media Gossip: an eye blink in evolutionary terms
Written Media Gossip, still regarded as the dominant form of Media Gossip because of the tabloids, has the longest history of all forms of Media Gossip and has existed for about 300 years now. I will outline a short historical overview of the emergence and evolution of tabloids and frame this time period in an evolutionary perspective.
3.1 Gossip magazines: an historical overview
Gossip stories in newspapers have been a tradition in the American press ever since newspapers first appeared at the beginning of the 18th century. Important to keep in mind, as Sloan (2001) comments, is that our lust for sensationalism did not emerge with the rise of tabloids. Humans have been interested in sensational news long before the first newspapers appeared:
“This lust for sensation predates by many centuries the appearance of the first newspaper in Germany in 1609. It can be found in the bloodcurdling ballads sung by wandering balladeers in the sixteenth century, the crowds that flocked to public beheadings in the Middle Ages, the gruesome “games” of ancient Rome, and all the way back to prehistoric times.
Clearly, then, sensationalism wasn’t invented by the modern press, much less the architects of the supermarket tabloids. What the tabs did do, though, over the almost half century between the mid-1950s and the late 1990s, was add an irresistible new flavor to it – one so delectably irreverent and seductively spicy that a vast segment of the reading public became addicted to it” (Sloan, 2001: 18)
The first real gossip column began in 1730, when Benjamin Franklin wrote columns for the Pennsylvania Gazette (Levin & Kimmel, 1977; Sloan, 2001). These short gossip contributions were not enough to call certain newspapers tabloids yet. Tabloids are filled cover-to-cover with juicy, human-interest stories and pictures:
“Although the term ‘tabloid’ refers only to the half-broadsheet size of papers, it is now almost invariably used to refer to the ‘sensational’ tabloid – the paper whose stock in trade is the human-interest, graphically told story, heavy on pictures and short, pithy, highly stereotyped prose.” (Bird, 1992: 8)
These kinds of formats have their roots in the emergence of the commercial press in the 1830s.
3.1.1 The 1830’s and the rise of the commercial press
The real commercial press started in the 1830’s with the appearance of so called ‘penny papers’. These were cheap newspapers that were self-supporting, earning resources from advertisements and cash purchases (Hughes, 1968). The first sensational newspaper to appear was the Sun, founded in September 1833 by Benjamin H. Day. The stories in this newspaper were short, clear and written in active style. This new journalism format would influence the journalistic style in general for years to come (Bird, 1992).
Benjamin Day distributed his papers on the street, ‘between the apples and the cakes’ as people said, and filled his pages with what he could afford: personal gossip, anecdotes, and stories circulating.
“New York was too large for oral gossip to circulate everywhere, and the mechanics and artisans, bought gossip in the Sun and enjoyed it. Day had no philosophy about the popular taste; he discovered it accidentally when he printed the only things he could afford, namely, items detailing the unconsidered trifles of local city life which better-established papers neglected.” (Hughes, 1968: 9)
Day’s four page journal became a great success and reached sales in the thousands (Hughes, 1968).
3.1.2 Technology and the graphics journals
In the 1880s, as technology developed and graphic illustrations became possible, the Daily Graphic, founded in 1872, was the first to make use of this new way of communicating stories to an audience (Bird, 1992).
3.1.3 The yellow kid
What is commonly known as the start of tabloid journalism is the rise of the “yellow press”. Joseph Pulitzer started this new journalism tradition in 1883, with introducing cheap newspapers, printed on yellow paper. With his newspaper World, Pulitzer created the American consumer society. His “yellow penny paper” was the first to mention detailed physical descriptions of the stories’ subjects (Sloan, 2001).
His invention was soon imitated by others, such as William Randolph Hearst, who started the Examiner in San Francisco, and later (1896) the New York Journal. With this last publication, Hearst would really compete with Pulitzer, resulting in the fact that at the end of the 19th centuries their tabloids were very similar to the tabloids we know today (Bird, 1992; Hughes, 1968; Sloan, 2001).
In 1924 Hearst introduced the American Daily Mirror, and promised 90% entertainment and 10% information that would not be boring. At that time, just like nowadays, these tabloids were criticised, and even called slander, that scandalised the minds of innocent readers. Still, “By the 1930s, the tabloid form was established as a permanent feature of American journalism.” (Bird, 1992: 23).
An alternative explanation for the use of the name ‘yellow press’ to refer to tabloids is about comic strips. Pulitzer was the first to publish a comic strip, ‘Hogan’s Alley’, in his newspaper, World. In their battle for success, Hearst bought out the inventor of this comic strip, Outcalt, and let him design a comic strip to appear in his Journal. Both papers advertised the ‘Yellow Kid”, who was the hero of comic features, and from then on the word “yellow” came to mean blatancy (Hughes, 1968).
3.1.4 The kid from MIT
“Picture the young Al Pacino in the original movie version of The Godfather, and you have a fairly accurate image, circa 1950, of Generoso Paul Pope Jr., the father of the modern supermarket tabloid. He was clean-cut, fresh-faced, and twenty-three years old, armed with a recent engineering degree from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and engaging smile, and an abundance of connections – in both high and low places.” (Sloan, 2001: 29)
Generoso Pope was a very influential person in the rise and evolution of modern tabloids. He was the man behind the success story of National Enquirer. William Griffin founded this tabloid in 1924, and it remains popular to this day. But it was Generose Pope, known as “GP” or “The Boss”, who turned it in an extremely successful tabloid in the 1980s. A magazine full of unexplained mysteries, unusual human-interest tales and celebrity gossip attracted millions of readers. No wonder many others copied GP’s creation later, resulting in an explosion of the tabloid market in the 1980s (Sloan, 2001).
3.1.5 From street violence to supermarket clean
One of the success strategies Generoso Pope established was changing the content of the Enquirer from slanderous, spicy stories to more cleaned-up versions at the end of the 1960’s. With this strategy GP successfully got his tabloid sold in supermarkets. Others, who did not follow this cleaner strategy, did not manage to get their ‘dirt’ displayed at supermarkets check-outs, and had to sell their stories through the news stands on the streets, which were becoming scarce. While the other tabloids suffered due to scarce selling points, GP managed to get the Enquirer carried in all the supermarket chains by 1979, and left other tabloids to mimic him in the end (Sloan, 2001).
3.1.6 Oh-oh Jackie O: the rise of celebritytis
The last success story of Generoso Pope that I want to mention here concerns the rise of celebrity gossip. Today’s tabloids are automatically associated with celebrities. However this was not always the case:
“But the surprising thing is, it wasn’t always that way. For the first decade after tabloids infiltrated the chain stores in significant numbers, celebrity coverage was an important, but still relatively small, part of their editorial mix. They devoted far more space and attached much higher priority to stories that embodied the “gee-whiz” factor – unexplained phenomena (space aliens, UFOs, psychics, telekinesis, out-of-body experiences, life after death), unsung heroes, rags to riches, wacky inventions, weird pastimes, people overcoming handicaps, and the like. Even medical breakthroughs, government waste and skullduggery, burning social issues, and self-help articles were often played above celebrity pieces.” (Sloan, 2001: 95)
The change to celebrity gossip occurred on January 17th 1969, to be exact (Sloan, 2001). The Enquirer issue of that day portrayed a negative image of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, a Greek playboy who was nearly twice as old as she was, shocked a lot of people. Generose Pope smelled a success story in this. He interviewed the former Kennedy nanny who reportedly spilled some bad words about Jackie. “To many media people, including some of Pope’s own staff, it seemed like a waste of good money. Did American readers really care about the spiteful grumblings of a grouchy old Englishwoman?” (Sloan, 2001: 97). Readers did, and Generose Pope again hit the records.
Generoso Pope opened up a new spectrum for tabloids: celebrity gossip came to existence and was greatly appreciated by the audiences. For stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, this (what Sloan (2001) calls, celebritytis) came a little late. Although they were still alive at the time, the press did not care yet about their daily business or success stories, and only covered scandals or horrendous events such as Jayne Mansfield’s car crash. Still, after Jackie O many others would follow to become gossipees of screaming tabloid covers. The biggest celebrity stories of the 20th century are Jackie O’s marriage that covered the press during the 1960s and 1970s, O.J. Simpson’s trial in 1995, and of course the sudden death of Lady Diana in 1997: “When and where this aggravated case of celebritytis ends is anybody’s guess, but it unquestionably started with Jackie O.” (Sloan, 2001: 101).
3.2 Media Gossip is an eye blink in evolutionary terms
Audiovisual media and consequently audiovisual media gossip have an even more recent history, first appearing in the 19th century. Though it might seem that tabloids have a fairly long history, and especially gossip columns in newspapers, which first appeared over 300 years ago, this is nothing compared to other cultural artifacts, such as cave paintings that appeared 30.000 years ago (Scalise Sugiyama, 2001).
Media gossip in general is nothing more than an eye blink in evolutionary terms. A short period of 300 years is not sufficiently long enough for media gossip to be a product of evolution when we take into account that natural selection is a blind and slow acting process. However, this does not exclude media gossip from an evolutionary explanation. Though our ancestors did not face problems of dealing with media, the present media environment may trigger some adaptations designed to solve problems that did occur in the EEA. As I explained in chapter 3, the outcome of adaptations in different environments than the environment for which they were designed can still be adaptive, but can also produce non-adaptive or even maladaptive outcomes. I will now frame media gossip in an evolutionary functional analysis, focusing on both adaptive and non-adaptive outcomes.
4 Why we like Media Gossip
I distinguish two hypotheses to explain media gossip from an evolutionary perspective. The two diverse approaches are based on the first level of discrimination for gossip, as I outlined in chapter 4. On the first level, I contrasted Strategy Learning Gossip (SLG) which focuses on the behavioral information, regardless of the gossipee's identity, and Reputation Gossip (RG), where the transmitted traits- and behavioral information is attached to a specific person, known to the sender and receiver of gossip. The functions of Strategy Learning Gossip and Reputation Gossip oppose each other, but both functions can be applied to media gossip, but have dissimilar outcomes in terms of adaptiveness. I will begin by explaining Media Gossip as Strategy Learning Gossip, and then discuss Reputation Gossip in Media Gossip.
4.1 Media Gossip as Strategy Learning Gossip
To refresh your memory, Strategy Learning Gossip (SLG) is gossip information about behavior experiences. I further divided this category into Survival-SLG where life-death experiences are exchanged, Mating-SLG that concerns information on how to attract and guard a mate, and Social-SLG, which supplies right-wrong information about cultural rules in a given society. Receivers benefit from SLG, because they can vicariously gain information about which strategies to promote and which strategies to avoid in the future. They get experienced without investing their own time, energy and risks. Senders of SLG benefit from manipulating the knowledge of coalition- and non-coalition members, and can be rewarded with social status for showing off social knowledge.
4.1.1 Strategy Learning Gossip and the unknowns
An important aspect about all kinds of SLG is that the exact identity of the gossipee is of no importance. The focus is on the behavioral experience, and gossipees are mere carriers of SLG. Receivers might pay attention to some identity traits of SLG gossipees, such as their age, sex, or other features that influence whether the experience of the gossipee is of relevance for the receiver. For instance, boys will be less interested in SLG that transmits information on how to deal with problems of menstruation. “Have you heard Sophie’s niece refused to take the birth control pill to control her heavy periods while she suffers from blood anemia already? She passed out yesterday and was kept in hospital for observation!” Boys and men, because they do not menstruate, will not care as much for this SLG as girls and women will. SLG about this topic is not helpful for men, and if they are interested it might be because they can help female coalition members with the information. Regardless of these constrictions, SLG is interesting, even when the gossipee is unknown to the receiver.
This aspect of SLG offers a possible explanation for our interest in media gossip. Media characters are celebrities or public unknowns. The latter are automatically not known to an average audience member. Celebrities might be familiar to many because of their media presence, but since we never encounter them in real life they remain strangers to us; they are unknown to the average audience. Still we could argue that celebrities, being unknown subjects to an average media audience person, are mere carriers of fitness-relevant behavior strategies, which can explain our interest in media gossip that takes the form of SLG.
Considering media gossip as a source of information to learn from, media characters become excellent role models to advertise cultural norms. Spreading cultural norms through face-to-face gossip has limited effects; it is a slow and small-audience way of advertising what is right and what is wrong, say Levin and Kimmel:
“In a mass society, face-to-face gossip still plays an important, albeit more limited, role with respect to communicating information and enforcing cultural rules. But the vastness and diversity of mass society also requires the presence of a form of communication which reaches a mass audience with news of the approved and disapproved behavior of its culture heroes and villains.” (Levin & Kimmel, 1977: 169)
And, as Saunders (1999) mentioned in her analysis of gossip conversations of older women, media gossip is also a safe way to discuss social norms, implying no threat of being confronted with the gossiped subject.
“In this example about famous individuals, a discussion ensues about appropriateness and social norms, thus allowing the group to moralize without referring to people in their own social circles, which might provoke a confrontation.” (Saunders, 1999: 283)
She noticed that these women gossip about celebrities, discussing social norms and criticizing celebrities who violated these norms.
Reaching a larger audience and lacking recursion threats of the gossipees makes all three kinds of SLG attractive in the context of media gossip. Ben-Ze’ev (1994) says that media gossip has a very comforting feeling because we can learn from others’ experiences at very low costs. Knowing how to solve a problem, by getting information on how others have dealt with this problem, relieves us. And even more importantly, he argues, we can feel very relieved that something bad did not happen to us, and we can learn how to avoid this to happen to ourselves. Our own mistakes and disadvantages might suddenly appear minor when compared to the failures of others: “Celebrity gossip also allows us to draw comfort from other people’s misfortune; our own small problems pale in comparison to the severe misfortunes of other people.” (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994: 17). As a matter of fact, especially bad things that happened to other people can give us this comforting function, and will draw our attention.
4.1.2 High status celebrities and the General Copying Bias
There are still more pieces to the celebrity gossip phenomenon. When it comes to celebrity gossip, we are not only drawn to gossip stories with clear outcomes. Gossip stories such as “What do Pamela Anderson, Madonna, and Demi Moore have in common? They all wear UGG boots!”, “Brad Pitt was spotted eating sushi in Soho New York!”, “Audrey Hepburn preferred beer over champagne!" are stories that reach tabloids, and catch the attention of audiences. However, wearing UGG boots, eating sushi in New York or preferring beer over champagne are all behavior strategies with no clear fitness-relevant outcome. So why do these Media Gossip stories sell? They sell because the gossipees of such stories are high status celebrities.
Here I talk about Celebrity Gossip, thus not Media Gossip in general which also covers gossip stories about public unknowns. Celebrity Gossip, as part of Media Gossip, has a special extra aspect, namely that celebrities are prestigious people. It has been shown that mimicking the behavior of higher status people is an adaptive strategy, leading to an increase of your own status (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001; Henrich et al, 2001; see also chapter 4). In this perspective, it is far from being ridiculous to show interest in celebrities’ private life and read various gossip stories about them.
Because of a General Copying Bias (Boyd & Richerson, 1985; see also chapter 4) we copy the overall behavior of higher status individuals, with the aspiration of increasing our own status. This explains why we are eager to hear which shoes are popular among celebrities, and we want to wear them as well. Shoe stores and other commercial companies know this, and even advertise this. They hang pictures of celebrities wearing these shoes, display media articles that scream this information and so on. The same is true for restaurants. If a famous person had dinner at their place, they will hang a picture to advertise this, in the aspiration that people will want to mimic the behavior of the famous person and dine at the same places too. When former president Clinton visited Ghent and was offered a coffee from a local bar, the bar even displayed the cup he drunk from in their window for several years. And young girls, wanting to be as prestigious as Audrey Hepburn, might put aside their disgust of beer and change their appetite for champagne to beer, to resemble her and become prestigious as well (at least in their imagination).
In chapter 5, I outlined how this General Copying Bias can distort the decision process for sharing and acquiring SLG in two different ways. As I have argued, this is most important on the receiver’s end, where people not only acquire information but decide to mimic the strategy or not. In a first option of how the General Copying Bias (GCB) distorts the way we act on receiving celebrity gossip (see chapter 5 figure V.4), receivers go through a more elaborated decision making where they first weigh costs and benefits of the clear outcome of the gossiped about strategy. They will only mimic the fitness-promoting and unclear strategies of higher status people. In this case, fitness-endangering strategies of higher status gossipees are not mimicked. In the second model I proposed (see chapter 5 figure V.5), gossip receivers use a less-elaborated decision process, relying first on the GCB before looking at the outcome of the gossiped strategies. In this option they will copy all behavior of higher status individuals, including fitness-endangering strategies.
The General Copying Bias is present in gossip situations where the gossipee has higher status than the receiver. For Celebrity Gossip this is almost always the case. High status celebrities are more prestigious than many average receivers of Celebrity Gossip. To illustrate the impact of the General Copying Bias in the context of Celebrity Gossip, let me illustrate with some examples.
Consider following three Celebrity Gossip stories: (1) “Stars love Retro! Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry and Cate Blanchett all wore Old Hollywood couture at the last Academy Awards event!” (2) “Hollywood’s new beautiful body is below 100 pounds! To achieve this look lots of stars take diuretics, but experts agree that constant use can be very harmful. ‘You deplete your body's essential minerals’ they warn.” And (3) “Hollywood’s latest work-out trend is kickboxing! Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Madonna and Jennifer Garner are enthusiastic fans. ‘It is fun to do and good for your body and mind’ Diaz reported”.
Now consider that some receivers of these Celebrity Gossip stories will use an elaborated decision process when hearing this and decide whether to mimic these strategies or not. As I outlined in chapter 5, figure V.4, they will first consider the reliability of the gossip source. Let’s consider all three stories are rated as reliable, and pass this first criterion. The second question these elaborated decision makers ask themselves is whether the outcome of the gossiped about strategy is costly or not. Celebrity Gossip story (2) clearly has a warning that the gossiped about strategy (using diuretics to loose weight) can harm your body. The use of an elaborated decision process will insure that receivers store this information as a ‘do not mimic’ strategy. The two other Celebrity Gossip stories pass this criterion as a 'not costly' strategy. The next criterion asks the receiver if the outcome of the gossiped about strategy is beneficial to the gossipee and to the receiver if mimicked. For Gossip Story (3) the outcome is clearly beneficial. Kickboxing is a fun and healthy activity. The use of an elaborated decision process will make receivers remember this information as a ‘to mimic’ strategy. Only for Celebrity Gossip story (1), an extra criterion is still needed to decide whether the elaborated decision making receiver will mimic this strategy or not. The last question to be answered is whether the gossipee is higher status or not. This is where the GCB invades the decision tree. In this elaborated model, the GCB comes at the end of the decision process. For the above given examples, Celebrity Gossip story (1) is tested against this criterion. The gossipees are high status celebrities, and when higher status than the receiver, she will decide to mimic the strategy (wear retro style clothing). If they are not higher status, the receiver will not mimic this strategy with an unclear outcome.
Those receivers who do not use an elaborated decision process to decide whether or not to mimic the gossiped about strategies will opt for the less-elaborated decision process (figure V.5 in chapter 5). Decisions for all three Celebrity Gossip stories are made after two criterions. First, receivers will again ask whether they believe the source of the stories or not. Let’s consider again that all three Celebrity Gossip stories are regarded as believable, and therefore pass the first criterion. The second criterion in the less-elaborated decision process involves the GCB. Receivers who take a less elaborated decision route first look at the status of the gossipee before paying attention to the outcomes of the gossiped about strategies. If the gossipees are higher status, these receivers automatically copy the gossiped about strategies. In the examples I gave, all gossipees are high status celebrities, so it is very likely that less-elaborated decision making receivers will mimic all three strategies. They will start wearing retro clothing (1), use diuretics (2) and start kickboxing (3). By mimicking gossiped about strategy (2), these less-elaborated decision making receivers risk a costly outcome of this strategy. Since they did not pay attention to the outcome of the gossiped about strategy, but simply reasoned ‘Oh, stars use diuretics to loose weight, so I will do the same’. They have not considered the consequences of their mimicking strategy.
The fact that some receivers use a less-elaborated decision process when deciding to mimic the behavior of high status celebrities, can explain why many engage in fitness-endangering strategies. Some start smoking because celebrities do, or crave dangerous diets because celebrities do, and in the worst-case scenario, some fans commit suicide after their idol has done so (as was the case when Kurt Cobain committed suicide).
4.2 Media Gossip about one-way-members of our social network
A second hypothesis to explain our interest in Media Gossip focuses more on Media Gossip as Reputation Gossip. Thus far I have only explained how Strategy Learning Gossip functions when the gossipees are media characters. But what about Reputation Gossip? Do we only care for Media Gossip stories if we can learn from and mimic the behaviors of media characters, or do we want to manipulate the reputations of these people as well? In what follows, I will outline how media gossip is not only about Strategy Learning, but the manipulation of celebrities’ status as well.
4.2.1 Celebrities: our special friends and enemies
All the different types of Reputation Gossip, which I defined in chapter 5, function to learn about or manipulate the reputations of specific others. For instance, Ally Maintenance RG insures that reputations of coalition members are kept high and increased, while reputations of non-coalition members are kept low and decreased. An individual can benefit from the prestige of his or her coalition members, and by keeping the reputations of non-coalition members relatively low, he or she increases their own status. Applying this in the context of media gossip gives rise to the problem that celebrities are not part of our social network, and therefore not eligible to be coalition- or non-coalition members. Learning about and manipulating the reputations of people you never encounter or interact with seems to be a waste of effort in evolutionary terms. Thus, how can we explain that media gossip stories such as “Matthew Broderick is a good father to his son”, “Jennifer Anniston is the most wanted single in Hollywood”, and “Tom Cruise struggles with fertility problems” appear as well? It could be argued that we are interested in these facts because we want to mimic every little thing celebrities do (General Copying Bias), but this only covers part of what is really going on. We are also interested in the different reputations of celebrities (i.e. their reputation as a potential mate, parent or cooperation partner and ally status). Hearing that Jennifer Anniston is single again can have some learning value that relationships come to an end, but if receivers were only interested for the learning aspect, then why do some receivers feel sad that Jennifer and Brad Pitt broke up? The fact that people start showing higher cognitive social emotions towards celebrities, such as compassion, envy, and jealousy indicates that celebrity gossip is more than just Strategy Learning Gossip.
In 1984 Caughey wrote a book on ‘Imaginary social worlds’, in which he explained that many overlook the fact that most people have ‘imaginary friends’ such as fantasy figures, spirits and media stars. As Caughey (1984: 33, cited in Bird, 1992: 155) says: “people characterize unmet media figures as if they were intimately involved with them, and in a sense they are…” Thus, according to Caughey (1984, cited in Bird, 1992), we somehow perceive media stars as being part of our social networks, which explains why we want to manipulate their reputations, just like we do with real members of our social network. Lacking in Caughey’s theory, however, is a reason why we perceive celebrities as being our friends. He, as a standard social scientist, described the phenomenon and explained how it operates; we consider celebrities as friends and become interested in these people’s lives. What would give these proximate explanations extra power is an ultimate explanation why this happens.
4.2.2 Whom we see is whom we meet
Framing Caughey’s (1984) idea in an evolutionary perspective, Barkow (1989, 1992) explained why we perceive celebrities as part of our social networks. Barkow (1992) argues that celebrity gossip is a recent by-product of interpersonal gossip. Our minds are stone aged minds (see also chapter 3), not adapted to modern environments, such as media environments, which are an eye blink in evolutionary history. Photographic and audiovisual images of people are too recent a phenomenon for our minds to adapted. What happens when we see an image of a media character (a celebrity), our brain processes this information as an encounter with this person. If this happens regularly, as is the case with celebrities who appear in the media a lot, our brains start accumulating these encounters and whom we encounter frequently are people from our social network. Seeing images of celebrities on a regular basis, causes our brains to fool us and make us (falsely) believe these people are part of our social networks:
A possible answer is that the mass media may activate the psychological mechanisms that evolved in response to selection for the acquisition of social information. […] We see them in our bedrooms, we here their voices when we dine: If this hypothesis is correct, how are we not to perceive them as our kin, our friends, perhaps even our rivals? As a result, we automatically seek information about their physical health, about changes in their relative standing, and above all about their sexual relationships.”(Barkow, 1992: 629-630)
Our brains register celebrities as part of our social networks. We ‘meet’ celebrities every day, and though the encounters are not real, our brains process the encounters as if they were real. What Barkow (1992) explains to us is that images play the most important role in the influence of the media. It is not (only) the hearing and reading about celebrities –although this might also affect us- that triggers our mind to perceive these people as members of our social networks, but it is the power of the images that is the most important.
I found Support for this in the research of Furnham et al (2002) about the recall of news information through different media channels. They concluded that, contradictory to previous research, people recalled more from television news than print news, when the television news contained pictures. Solely audio information did not lead to better recall results, but when pictures were added, both adults and children aged 11 to 13 years old scored better on recall tests. Furnham et al (2002) explain this effect with the dual-coding hypothesis, which claims that audio-visual information, containing both pictorial and verbal codes, is more powerful than a single representation. From an evolutionary perspective, I think that the effect of television can be explained with the powerful effect of images. Seeing things happen, ‘as if’ you were part of what happened, should elicit stronger emotions and remembering triggers than just hearing or reading about it. Our minds, not adapted to the media environment, fool us by making us believe we are caught up in the situations we see, be it in real or through media images. The results of Furnham et al (2002) definitely support this idea, since they show that adding pictures on television enhances the recall performances.
So, what happens is that our brain perceives images as encounters; whom we see is perceived as whom we meet. Valid, though scary, examples as proof that celebrities are regarded as part of our social networks are the stories of extreme stalkers. Clearly John Hinckley did not keep track of Jodie Foster to learn from her behavior, but he regarded her as a potential mate, for whom he would sacrifice as much as killing President Ronald Reagan to get her attention (Ferris, 2001).
Just like real life members of our social network, these people become friends or enemies, and subject of conversations with others. I will now discuss first our relations with these celebrities, and then how celebrities as media gossipees influence our social behavior.
4.2.3 Imaginary-, parasocial friends or one-way-members
Since friendships with these media characters or not real, Kanazawa (2002) refers to media characters as being our Imaginary Friends. I will not use this term, since it is both confusing and it does not cover the whole story. First of all, the term is confusing. Kanazawa (2002) refers to the friendship relation that is imaginary, but using ‘Imaginary Friends’ to refer to media characters might confuse us into believing that those characters are not real. Of course, media characters and celebrities are existing human beings, even if the character they play on a sitcom does not exist in real life, we do not invent these people ourselves. What is special about our interactions with celebrities is that celebrities reveal their private lives to us, and we show emotions towards them; but we don’t share our private lives with them, and they don’t show emotions towards us (personally). Interactions in which reciprocity is lacking are called parasocial interactions (Horton and Wohl, 1956; Rubin, Perse, and Powell, 1985, Turner, 2004), so we could call celebrities our parasocial-friends or one-way friends.
But this still does not cover the complete process, because media characters are more than just parasocial friends. Some may regard Madonna as a friend, others will consider her an enemy, and still others may think of her as a potential business or romantic partner. Celebrities can take different social positions—authority figure, romantic partner, protector, assistant, teacher, political ally—just like the real members of our social networks. Celebrities are one-way members of our social networks.
Because celebrities are not imaginary and can take several social positions in our lives, I talk about our parasocial or one-way members of our social network when talking about media characters from evolutionary perspective. Parasocial, or one-way, refers to the fact that our interactions with these people lack a feedback loop. Celebrities reveal their private lives to us, through media gossip (regardless of whether they really want to or not) and we show emotions towards them; we feel glad, compassionate, angry, we envy them, encourage them etc. But we never expose our private lives to them (although some of us might love to do so) and they never show any emotions towards us (not taking into account solidarity actions celebrities sometimes undertake). By using the word ‘members’ instead of ‘friends’, all different positions a celebrity can take towards us are covered as well.
4.2.4 Parasocial members call for time
Brown, Basil and Bocarnea (2003) argue that once these parasocial (or one-way) interactions exist, people have a bigger tendency to consume media products, in order to ‘meet’ their one-way-members. Once you get involved with a media character, you will want to spent time with this person, just as you want this to happen with real members of your social network:
“Parasocial interaction research generally supports the notion that audience members who become more psychologically involved with a television personality or persona, whether a newscaster, a famous athlete, or a soap opera star or other type of fictional character, will be more likely to use the media to see that person or persona and to seek information about him or her. People who closely follow the lives of celebrities are more likely to acquire the celebrity’s attitudes and beliefs concerning specific social issues.” (Brown, Basil & Bocarnea, 2003: 590)
The interaction between media exposure and degree of involvement with celebrities is a two-way process, say Brown et al (2003). Comparing their results about the way their respondents felt connected to Princess Diana to other case studies of celebrity-worship (for an overview see Brown et al, 2003), they conclude that “[i]n each of these celebrity studies, media exposure to the celebrity was a strong predictor of involvement through processes of parasocial interaction and identification.” (Brown et al, 2003: 601). But there is a feedback loop on this effect as well. More involvement with media characters leads to more media exposure, which again can cause involvement with other media characters and so on. The process can be visualized as follows:
Figure VII.1. The establishment of parasocial interactions with celebrities
4.2.5 Media Gossip: from bowling alone to bowling with our one-way friends
220.127.116.11 Bowling alone: the social decline
In 2000, Putnam published his national bestseller “Bowling Alone” in which he describes the drastic decline of social activities of the American people in the twentieth century. Concerning the social connections of Americans, Putnam (2000) discriminates schmoozers from machers. The latter points to official social contacts with other citizens; machers are the good citizens of a community, who attend church, give blood, do charity work, etc. The schmoozers are those who keep up their social contacts through informal conversations. Schmoozers are often flexible people, who rent a place instead of buying a house and move more often than the machers. Throughout the twentieth century, Putnam (2000) noticed a general decline of the number of friends, contacts with these friends, and contacts with neighbors. Machers are disappearing in the American society, and schmoozers are increasing. How come? What replaced the social life of most Americans? Well, one of the replacements Putnam (2000) mentions is single sport activities, such as swimming, aerobics, walking, etc. But the most stunning thing he concludes is that people practice social sports activities, like bowling, on their own. While bowling used to be a social event done with friends, Americans at the end of the twentieth century seem to go bowling alone (Putnam, 2000: 93-115).
Figure VII.2. Guesstimated Explanation for Civic Disengagement 1965-2000 (Putnam, 2000: 284)
In general, Putnam (2000: 283-284) sums up five key factors that influenced the decline of the social life of Americans. First of all, time and financial pressures play an important role. Two-career families are financially necessary, and leave less time for leisure. This accounts for about 10% of the social decline. Another 10% of the social decline is due to suburbanization, commuting and sprawl, he says. The third factor, electronic entertainment (especially television), contributes up to 25% of the effect. But most important is a generational change, which might count for half of the overall decline. Fifth and last, some (yet) unknown factors might influence the social decline as well. In figure VII.2 I overview the most important factors for the social decline of the past decades, and as you can notice television plays an important role in this.
18.104.22.168 Television provides artificial friends
Artist and writer Kurt Vonnegut compromised these ideas nicely in the statement that “TV is providing artificial friends and relatives to lonely people”. Highly influenced by both the work of Putnam (2000), and the evolutionary explanation for our interest in media characters as stated by Barkow (1989, 1992), Kanazawa (2002) tested the hypothesis that people who watch more television programs have higher friendship satisfaction. Kanazawa (2002) assumes that people who watch more television have a more expanded social network, filled with parasocial network members, than those who do not watch television. Because those who watch television and have parasocial friends have, on average, more friends than those who lack these parasocial friends because they do not watch televisions, the first should feel greater friendship satisfaction. Testing this, he used data from the 1993 US General Social Survey. The results of his analysis first confirmed his idea, and even revealed significant sex differences. For women, the friendship satisfaction only results from dramas and sitcoms which deal with family issues, whereas men get friendship satisfaction from watching television programs that depict men at work, such as news programs and Public Broadcasting Services. According to Kanazawa (2002), this sex difference is simply due to the fact that women have more family members and close friends in their real life social networks, while men are more likely to have colleagues in theirs. This sex difference in real life social networks, simply translates in people’s extended social network of television characters.
Kanazawa’s findings were criticized by Freese (2003), who said that friendship satisfaction correlates with other variables measuring overall life satisfaction, and when those variables are taken into account, the correlations Kanazawa found are not significant anymore. Kanazawa (2003) replied to this comment, by reanalyzing the data himself and taking overall life satisfaction into account. He concluded that only the correlation for men watching television and being more satisfied by friends is non-significant when controlling for overall life satisfaction, whereas the correlation for females remains significant. Considering that women are the socially most active sex (see chapter 3), Kanazawa’s (2003) latest results that the friendship support of media characters only affects women, does make some sense. Though extra research is needed to investigate the relation between media exposure and friendship satisfaction.
A fact that has been tested and has shown significant results is that lonely people are more drawn to celebrities. McCutcheon et al (2002) analyzed celebrity worshipping of 157 women and 92 men using the Celebrity Worship Scale (CWS) and from their results they speculate that celebrity worshippers have an introvert nature and lack meaningful relationships. Celebrity worshippers feel lonely in real life and celebrities can fill this social gap. As I said earlier, referring to Ben-Ze’ev (1994), media gossip is comforting because we learn from it. By regarding celebrities as some kind of friends and enemies, celebrity gossip is again comforting; it acquaints us with celebrities, fills our friendship niches, and we can share our world with theirs:
“Through the public media we learn the intimate and personal details of celebrities’ lives. We become familiar with these celebrities and more easily identify with them, as we vicariously share their pleasures and come to believe that our own little world is not much less valuable than theirs.” (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994: 17)
Especially elderly people feel lonely, when many of their social contacts fade away. Saunders (1999), who investigated gossip among elderly people, noticed that they followed up on celebrities and gossiped about them with other fellows from their elderly home.
4.2.6 Interpersonal Media Gossip: can celebrities cure our de-voicing societies
22.214.171.124 The de-voicing of our societies
"Telling what's happening in your life and the lives of those you talk to is a grown-up version of telling secrets, the essence of girls' and women's friendships." (Tannen, 1991: 97). According to Tannen (1991), gossip is essential in the construct and maintenance of friendships. This is because gossip establishes feelings of unity, as Max Gluckman (1963, 1968) has outlined in his functionalist approach to gossip (see chapter 2). Recalling an explanation from chapter 2 of this dissertation, gossip is used by individuals to better understand other network members and to maintain relationships (Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996). Since gossip is about people who are known to the gossipers, it creates a sphere of intimacy; people who gossip are connected in a way and they trust each other (e.g. Ayim, 1994, Bergmann, 1993; Nevo & Nevo, 1993). Gossip unites, maintains our social networks and makes us feel good.
But our daily gossip conversations are fading away. What John Locke (1998) calls the social de-voicing of our societies refers to the stunning fact that in our western societies, people talk less and less to each other due to urbanization, relocation, television, individualism, economic success and disappearance of social programs. We now live in larger cities and talk across the fence with our neighbors has disappeared; in fact, people living in large cities nowadays hardly even know who their neighbors are. We also move more easily to new social settings than our grandparents or previous generations did. The world is become one big village and everyone travels a lot. People become more and more individualistic and economically independent; they no longer need the support of friends and neighbors to take care of their children, to repair their house, to water plants, etc. Now we simply pay unknowns to do such things for us. A new type of person, called a ‘Sinmoo’, which stands for ‘single-income never-married owner-occupier’, has emerged and is growing fast in our western societies; they tripled over the past 20 years (Locke, 1998).
Another big influence on the de-voicing of our societies, according to Locke (1998), is again the influence of television. People don’t leave their house as often as they used to since they started watching television and are less social and communicative in their own house, because watching television is a single-person activity. Computers and the internet made this effect even stronger the last few years, since the internet offers us the opportunity of not having to leave the house anymore, not even to go grocery shopping. People are becoming more and more isolated and are talking less (Locke, 1998).
Locke (1998) warns readers of the negative consequences of this de-voicing phenomenon. Gossip might appear to be idle chitchat, but Locke attributes important functions to it. By gossiping people feel less lonely and depressed; de-voicement of our societies decreases this effect and can increase feelings of loneliness and depression.
126.96.36.199 Celebrities as mutual acquaintances
The trouble with our modern industrialized societies is that we know less and less about the people who surround us. This causes two problems for gossiping; first we have less people to gossip to if our social contacts are declining, and second, we have fewer people to gossip about.
Looking at the first problem, having less people to gossip with, refers to Putnam’s (2000) warning that our social life is declining. Szwed (1966) noticing this happening in the 1950’s, when he was observing a parish in Newfoundland and noticed that men were excluded from important information that was spread through gossip because they had started working outside the parish and lost touch with the local gossip circuits. The gathering of men in pubs for ‘social drinking’ resolved this problem. While having a drink, men discussed what had gone on in the parish while they were out working, and thereby were kept up to date about ‘who was doing what with whom’. To this end, social contact opportunities should be encouraged. Big firms, and also smaller companies, can benefit from implementing coffee rooms on the work floor. Co-workers will feel more united when they have their daily chitchat, which will in turn increase productivity (Noon & Delbridge, 1993).
Still, having opportunities to gossip is not sufficient. Our social contacts nowadays are very scattered; we know some people at work, we know some people at the gym, we know some people from high school, but usually these people do not know each other. So whom will you gossip about when it comes to reputation gossip? Caughey (1984) pointed out that media figures could become shared interests to talk about with real social contacts, and facilitate real life social contacts. Celebrities, indeed, are known by many and can function as mutual acquaintances to gossip about. Gossiping about celebrities as one-way-members of our social networks with real members of our social networks makes us feel connected. Even when starting a conversation with unknown people we meet at social events, engaging in interpersonal celebrity gossip can make us feel as if we are connected to this stranger. Celebrities as gossipees become the social ties of our modern world. Even though we do not know celebrities in the real world, and we might not have any real connections with our gossip partners, they make us feel ‘as if’ there is some kind of connection.
188.8.131.52 Can celebrities substitute religions
Going to church was and still is, though declining, a form of social contact. People met (and still meet) every week on Sunday (or another weekday according to their religion) to prey together. People of the same religion feel united; they worship the same god(s). Maltby et al (2002) argued that attitudes towards celebrities might be similar to attitudes towards religion. Both are about worshipping feelings. They wanted to test two conflicting hypotheses: first, that religious people would be more inclined to worship celebrities, because they have personality traits that affect worship behavior. The second, counterhypothesis is that religious people will restrain from worshipping celebrities, because their religion does not allow to ‘worship other gods’. The results from questioning 126 men and 181 women (all American) tend to confirm the second hypothesis, but the correlations are rather weak (0.20). This indicates that religious people seem less likely to worship celebrities, but do not totally refrain from it either, as their religion demands of them. Because of this unclear result, the Maltby et al (2002) urge further research into this issue.
4.3 Two explanations for our interest in Media Gossip
From the above-described theory, two distinguished hypotheses can be formulated to predict how media gossip operates today.
4.3.1 The Learning Hypothesis
The Learning Hypothesis says that we are all interested in media gossip if and because we can learn from the information. We learn about strategies that media gossipees have tested and that help us to survive, attract and guard mates, and we learn about cultural norms, how to behave.
In this perspective, media characters, both celebrities and public unknowns, are mere carriers of fitness-relevant information. Gossip stories where the gossiped strategy has a clear outcome to the gossipee, either positive or negative, will be spread around to inform and warn others (receivers). Gossip stories where the gossiped strategy does not have a clear outcome will only be spread around if the gossipee is of a higher social status than the gossipers, which is the case for celebrities. The Learning Hypothesis says that a broad range of behavior of celebrities is gossiped about to learn how to achieve their status.
From the Learning Hypothesis, I distilled some specific predictions that can be tested. What is important to keep in mind for all predictions here is that this hypothesis only explains why Strategy Learning Gossip is present in Media Gossip. Celebrities are regarded as unknowns, and we are not interested in investing our time and energy into manipulating the reputations of these unknowns through Reputation Gossip.
First of all, I predict that, although both celebrities and public unknowns are gossipees of Media Gossip, what will be written about them will differ. Public unknowns will only be gossipees of SLG with a clear fitness-relevant outcome. This is SLG in the form of “If x does this, then that happens”, from which can be learned “If I mimic this, then that will happen”. Celebrities will be gossipees of SLG with a clear or unclear fitness-relevant outcome. SLG with unclear outcomes take forms like “This happened to x”, without giving the cause of what happened, or “x did this” without giving the outcome of the behavior. Behaviors where the outcome is unclear will be gossiped about because it may be that the behavior causes the celebrity to be so prestigious. We do not want to miss out on any single thing they do, because all things they do can be the cause of their success.
Next, for SLG with a clear outcome, fitness-endangering SLG has a higher value. As I outlined in chapter 4, it is more valuable to learn “If I mimic this I can die”, than ‘If I mimic this I can increase my fitness”. Since public unknowns are only subject of SLG of the form “If x does this, then that happens”, and because this is most valuable when SLG warns about fitness-endangering events, we will show most interest in SLG where public unknowns are subject to fitness-endangering strategies and we will want to avoid the danger at all costs.
4.3.2 The Parasocial Hypothesis
Where the Learning Hypothesis predicts our interest in media gossip about both unknowns and celebrities, what I call the Parasocial Hypothesis only explains our interest in gossip about celebrities: Celebrity Gossip. Another difference is that the Learning Hypothesis predicts the interest in media gossip for all people, while the Parasocial Hypothesis only explains the interest in media gossip for people who regard celebrities as being part of their social network: as parasocial or one-way members.
Some people regard celebrities as one-way members of their social network, and for those the Parasocial Hypothesis says that they gossip about celebrities for all the same reasons they gossip about real, two-way members of their social networks. This includes both Strategy Learning Gossip and Reputation Gossip about information relevant to reputations. The Learning Hypothesis explains our interest in Strategy Learning Gossip; the Parasocial Hypothesis adds to this an interest in Reputation Gossip for some receivers. The Parasocial Hypothesis says that we want to mate with attractive celebrities; we want to attack the reputations of celebrities we view as sexual rivals; we want to boost the reputations of celebrities we view as allies; and we want to identify cheaters. Celebrities are our one-way friends, one-way love interests, one-way rivals, etc.
The Parasocial Hypothesis includes more gossip stories than the Learning Hypothesis. Gossip stories about traits or behaviors that are attached to a specific person and loose their value when detached from that person (reputation information) such as “X is a bitch”, “Y is such a nice person”, “A&B are dating”, and so on will be discussed to learn about specific others as well as manipulate the reputations of our one-way social network members.
The Parasocial Hypothesis predicts that some people will be interested in Mating Reputation Gossip about celebrities in order to learn who is a good potential one-way mate: who is a good partner, who dates whom and who broke up with whom. We want to learn who are one-way rivals are, and we will slander them. We will control our one-way lovers and the one-way lovers of our allies. For all this, just like for Mating Reputation Gossip in the context of Interpersonal Gossip, clear sex differences can be expected. Mating Reputation Gossip topics will be different for male and female celebrity gossipees, and male and female receivers will want to acquire different kinds of Mating Reputation Gossip. We can expect men to be more interested in Mating Reputation Gossip about female celebrities and women to be more interested in Mating Reputation Gossip about male celebrities.
The Parasocial Hypothesis also predicts that some people will be interested in Social Reputation Gossip about celebrities to learn about one-way social network structures (who is related to whom, who is befriended with whom), to learn about good one-way potential allies, to manipulate the reputations of our one-way friends and one-way foes, and to detect and punish one-way cheaters.
In summary, the Parasocial Hypothesis predicts that a broader range of topics will be gossiped about, but for a smaller group of gossipees (only celebrities) and to the interest of a smaller group of respondents (those who regard gossiped about celebrities as one-way members of their social network).
4.3.3 Not one or the other, but one and the other
Keep in mind that the Parasocial Hypothesis does not contradict the Learning Hypothesis, but just implies that some receivers will have additional gossip topics. All predictions I made above, in the context of the Learning Hypothesis are still valid, but are added with extra predictions.
Most of the media gossip stories will be explainable by those two hypotheses. If only Strategy Learning Gossip is present in a Media Gossip story, only the Learning Hypothesis predicts interest of all receivers. If only Reputation Gossip is present in a media gossip story, only the Parasocial Hypothesis predicts the interest of the receivers who regard the media gossipee as a one-way member of their social network. If both Strategy Learning Gossip and Reputation Gossip are present in a media gossip story (which is the case for most gossip stories), the Learning Hypothesis predicts a degree of interest for all receivers, and the Parasocial Hypothesis adds to this a stronger interest for the receivers who regard the media gossipee as a one-way member of their social network.
5 Research on Media Gossip
In the following sections, I will give an overview of some of the most important and relevant studies about Media Gossip. I first run over some studies that focus on the content of Media Gossip, and then turn to the receivers’ side.
5.1 Research on Media Gossip content
Although this media genre is such a widely spread phenomenon that elicits so much interest, content analyses on media gossip are very rare. Newman (2004), therefore, urged new researchers to study this topic more profoundly. I will now overview five studies on the content of media gossip. The first three studies are from a standard social sciences perspective. I then discuss a case study from a Media Gossip journalist. The fifth and last study is the first (so far) study of Media Gossip content from an evolutionary perspective. I have already referred to my content analysis of three Belgian tabloids, which you find in paper 4.
Before continuing, I want to note that the writers of gossip columns are not aware of the factors that contribute to reader interest as outlined in my evolutionary approach above. They use their gut feelings to decide which story appears in the gossip columns and which stories don’t. But, if my theory is true (either the Learning Hypothesis or the Parasocial Hypothesis) then my predictions about the functioning of media gossip should reflect in everyone’s interest in media gossip. It should reflect in the journalists’ interest in media gossip, and therefore be reflected in the content of tabloids.
5.1.1 Gossip columns from the 1950s to 1970s
Levin and Kimmel (1977) analyzed gossip columns that appeared in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in Philadelphia newspapers. With their research they wanted to know who were the gossiped about subjects in tabloids, and what was told about them. Their results indicated that media gossip subjects are mostly men (60%), and more white (90%) people than colored. Media gossip subjects are dominantly show business people (68%), but Levin and Kimmel noticed an increase of ‘politicians’ over time (from 2 to 10% from 1950s to 1970s). Media gossip topics were most concerned about the job of the subjects, and less so on solely private life. Still, the most discussed topic was the love lives of the subjects:
“An important context for private gossip during all the time intervals was romance and relationship, consisting of the establishment, maintenance, or termination of dating, engagement, and marriage. Twenty-two percent of all gossip was concerned with romance and relationship.” (Levin & Kimmel, 1977: 172)
Besides investigating whom was gossiped about and which topics where most common, they also focused in the normative comments of gossip columnists. The normative basis of the American gossip columns, at their time of research, focused most on appraising good behavior of celebrities. About 30% of all columns reported about good behavior and only 6% explicitly disapproved bad behavior. Levin and Kimmel (1977) regard this as being a major difference with interpersonal gossip. Different from face-to-face gossip, where gossip acts as a normative tool to punish disapproved behavior, media gossip seems to focus on transmitting information about the appropriate handlings of celebrities.
Interpreting their results in the theoretical framework I outlined above, Levin and Kimmel’s (1977) findings that love affairs are central topics support both the learning- and the Parasocial Hypothesis. The first would say that we are interested in celebrities’ love lives to learn from them. The Parasocial Hypothesis would say the same, but add to this that part of our interest is due to the fact that we want to control who is single and who is not, who is a rival and who is not among these one-way-members.
The fact that more good than bad is written about celebrities is in line with what I predicted within the Learning Hypothesis. Celebrities are successful; we want to mimic their success, which triggers our greater interest in their successes than their failures.
Combining their results that relationships are the most written about topic and that most articles have a positive connotation indicates that more is written about the gossip columns gossipees’ mating successes than their mating failures. As I explained in chapter 5, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective when it comes to mating-SLG. Learning about the mating successes of others has greater value than learning about the mating failures of others.
5.1.2 Media Gossip content in American tabloids in the 1990s
A second, more recent and more detailed study about media gossip content comes from Bird (1992). She analysed four American tabloids (National Enquirer, National Examiner, Star, and Weekly World News) during a fourteen-week period in 1985. The content of these tabloids, according to her analysis, is composed by the following categories: celebrities, 'off-beat human interest' stories, politicians, 'strange phenomena', and 'current news with a twist'. Each tabloid varies in the amount of space devoted to the life of the ‘rich and famous’, but they all write about celebrities. Especially negative events seem to be popular with the readers, since this makes those celebrities ‘more human’. Ferris (2001) says that tabloids talk about the ordinary life of prestigious celebrities in order to bring them down to earth:
“Celebrities talk about their daily routines and how they carve out time for family and friends – topics meant to make them ordinary and accessible to the readers, whose everyday concerns resemble those portrayed in the magazine articles. The function of this strategy seems to be to bring celebrities “down to earth,” to make them easy to relate to, to cut through the glitz and glamour. When the strategy is successful, fans feel a rapport with the celebrity, based on knowledge about shared elements of everyday life.” (Ferris, 2001: 31-32)
This opposites Levin and Kimmel's (1977) findings; they concluded that celebrities were more appraised than controlled about their negative behavior.
Second, Bird (1992) reports that tabloids contain ‘off-beat human interest’. These stories are about all kinds of people. In contrast to the 1960s, they now (1980s) focus on positive rather than negative events. These are cheerful stories that entertain the public. A third kind of story, that she labeled as ‘rags to riches’, reports on the lives of self-made millionaires. Fourth, she mentions stories about ‘volunteers and heroes’, which are stories about people saving the lives of others, or offering help. A fifth category, ‘the handicapped overcoming odds’, covers stories about seriously handicapped people, who still manage to survive their illness. Similar to this are the ‘medical miracles and discoveries’ stories, and the stories about ‘self-help and how’. Remarkably, only Bird’s first category is about celebrities as subjects, and all other so far also have unknowns as gossipees.
Besides celebrities and unknowns, politicians are subject to media gossip as well. Bird’s (1992) analysis reveals that tabloids mainly talk negatively about them. She labels the stories about politicians as ‘bureaucratic waste and incompetence’, often reporting about the malfunctioning government and bureaucracy.
The last two categories of tabloid stories which Bird (1992) mentions are ‘strange phenomena’ such as UFOs, ghosts, occults, unexplained things, etc. and ‘current news with a twist’, which speculate about the news of the day. These stories became less and less covered, eventually losing space to celebrity stories.
Bird (1992) further comments that the stories that brake the sale records are the ‘gee whiz stories’, which refers to Pulizer’s definition of the “gee-whiz emotion”. Those are the amazing stories, eliciting strong emotional reactions.
5.1.3 Israeli gossip columns
The next study is a very recent study about the content of gossip columns that appeared in Israeli newspapers. Schely-Newman (2004) analysed gossip columns, but her research focused mainly on the linguistic style rather than the content in these media formats. Still, she does mention some interesting results about the content as well. For instance, concerning the gossipees of gossip columns, she reports that these are most often young, beautiful women and relatively older rich men. Framing this in an evolutionary perspective, young attractive women and older rich men are the two prototypical ideal potential partners in the biological perspective. If Schely-Newman’s findings can be replicated, and this results tends to appear cross-culturally in media products such as tabloids and gossip columns, this could indicate that media provides one-way-potential mates, in line with what the Parasocial Hypothesis predictions.
Schely-Newman (2004) further comments that genuinely powerful people, such as business people and people who occupy central positions in governments, are not often the subject of media gossip because their power relies on their skills and not as much on their general reputation. As I outlined above, celebrities’ prestige rests on the recognition and adoration of their audiences. Their status is very fragile; not having enough media coverage can be dramatic for their careers. And they are very vulnerable to what their audience thinks about them. Getting a negative reputation can ruin their careers as well, if their success relies merely on prestige and not on their skills. Schely-Newman (2004: 483) writes about talented, powerful people: “Their absence [in media gossip] is another mark of power: they are immune to gossip because their power does not hinge on reputation alone.”
Beyond giving some information about media gossipees, Schely-Newman (2004) also supports both the Learning-, and the Parasocial Hypothesis with her findings. She reports that media gossip columns transmit social norms, which I frame into group-norm-SLG. Gossip columns constantly remind their audiences about the importance of norms and values. But next to this, she also reports how gossip columnists often criticize media gossipees: “The critical and mocking perspective serves as a leveling mechanism, recognizing the uniqueness of celebrities while deflating them, refusing to accept their status at face value.” (Schely-Newman, 2004: 482). Gossip columnists attack the reputations of media characters, which is in line with my Parasocial Hypothesis.
5.1.4 A study from practical experience
As a fourth study that I want to mention is Bill Sloan’s (2001) work on Media Gossip. He published the book "I watched a wild hog eat my baby! A colorful history of tabloids and their cultural impact." Although Sloan did not really study the content of tabloids or gossip magazines, his work is interesting because he reports about his own practical experiences in the Media Gossip business. He worked for National Enquirer, Midnight (now Globe), and National Tattler in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sloan (2001) reports how titles need to be catchy; they have to surprise the audience. Surprise and deviance are central to gossip, as I have outlined in chapter 1 in my discussion on how to define gossip. It is, therefore, no surprise that tabloid editors pay attention to this.
Although Levin and Kimmel (1977) noted that love affairs are the most popular topic in media gossip columns, this has not always been the case for gossip magazines and tabloids. Having worked for Generoso Pope - the Media Gossip guru (see above), Sloan (2001) reports that Pope was aware quite quickly that violence sold better than sex:
“Pope had apparently decided, that even when the biggest names in show biz were involved, violence and mayhem was simply a bigger turn-on to his audience than sex. He’d surmised that his regular leadership was as self-righteous as it was bloodthirsty, and that trying to titillate them with sex would be counterproductive.” (Sloan, 2001: 45)
Sloan’s (2001) most interesting finding in his practical experience study, however, is that tabloids focused on reporting about the scandalous and terrifying events that happened to unknown people until the early 1970s. Only later, in the 1970s and 1980s gossip about celebrities emerged and became popular. Framing this in my theoretical framework, this means that Strategy Learning Gossip preceded Reputation Gossip in the recent history of Media Gossip in tabloids.
5.1.5 When average Joe hits the front-page
The fifth and last study I mention here is a longitudinal study of media gossip. Davis and McLeod (2003) analyzed sensational front-page newspaper stories from eight countries, published between 1700 and 2001. They collected and classified 736 stories in 12 categories. Their research did not concern celebrities, but rather public unknowns. Therefore, their gossip stories would only fit in the three sub-categories of Strategy Learning Gossip (SLG), since, as I have explained, reputation gossip is only functional for known gossipees. They wanted to investigate what an average person should do to appear on the front page of a newspaper. Translated into my terminology theses researchers wondered what an unknown must do to become a public unknown. They also kept track of how frequent certain behaviors were reported about and ranked the different behavior categories according to frequency. An overview of all the categories they found in their classification of all articles can be found in table VII.1. These categories remained stable over the six time periods they investigated, and the ranking also remained the same over time.
Top three ranked categories concerned stories about accidental injuries, death, murder, robbery and vandalism. These are all gossip stories that most probably can be classified under what I call survival-SLG: gossip stories from which receivers (here a media reader) can learn life lessons about life and death. These categories all seem to concern life-threatening situations (murder, assaults, death, robbery, …), and therefore correlate to negative survival-SLG. This is not really a surprise, since the costs involved with these gossiped about strategies are extremely high; ending up in such situations can cause your death.
Remarkably, their fourth ranked category is ‘reputation’. In my point of view this seems strange, since they only investigated stories about ‘average people’, not about public figures such as celebrities. I have explained that reputation gossip, functioning to manipulate the reputations of specific people, only has potential adaptive value if the gossipers know the gossipee. In Davis & McLeod’s (2003) research these average subjects of their investigated gossip stories are unknown. The fact that the category is stable over the researched time period and gets such a high ranking indicates that I might have to revise my ideas on reputation gossip. However, I think that their result is due to their definition of ‘reputation gossip stories’. As Davis and McLeod (2003: 211) report: “The category titled reputation consisted of stories about people who had falsely tarnished the reputations of others […]”, which already can be classified under group-norm-SLG. Falsely accusing other people violates a social norm (do not falsely accuse others) that most probably rules in any culture. Besides this:
“[t]he reputation category also included stories about persons fighting to clear or improve their own reputations. For example, the following headline from the May 13, 1881 New York World: ‘Atoning for Many Sins – The good Michael Dunn is doing after serving 35 years in prison” accompanies a story of a former prisoner running a halfway house to help undo the wrong he had done earlier in his life.” (Davis & McLeod, 2003: 211)
Indeed the example they give concerns the manipulation of reputations, in this case of the gossipee's own reputation. However, still I argue that this kind of gossip can better be classified under group-norm-SLG, since it clearly informs the receivers ‘how to behave correctly’, according the rules of a give society. Davis and McLeod’s (2003) reputation gossip stories (if all are similar to their given example) are different from what I call pure reputation gossip, where the reputation of a third person is manipulated by the gossipers in such a sense that the gossip story looses its value if the gossipee is replaced by any other given name. The stories they categorized under ‘reputation gossip’ most probably were stories that had both reputation- and strategy learning gossip value. The reason they appeared on the front page of newspapers is due, to my opinion, to the presence of the strategy learning information.
Other categories (see table VII.1) cover heroism, altruism, and harming others. Again it can be argued that these stories can fall under what I call altruist-detection-RG and cheater-detection-RG (harming or defecting on others). Though, most likely these stories will again fall under group-norm-SLG. Since their subjects are average people, unknown to the audience, I think it is very unlikely that pure reputation gossip stories, without a single life lesson, would appear on the front page of newspapers. I have to admit that I have to speculate about this, since their data was not investigated using my classification system, and their categorizations leave questions such as ‘can reputation gossip about unknowns become front-page news’ unanswered.
Table VII.1. Davis & McLeod’s rankings of 12 newspaper story categories
Categories Davis & McLeod
Specifications (if given)
Accidental/ natural injury/ death
Murder/ physical assault
Different types of robbery, from counterfeiting to theft at gunpoint
People who had falsely tarnished the reputations of others and persons fighting to clear or improve their own reputations.
Bizarre or unusual events and people breaking specific rules.
Suicide/ self-inflicted injury
Marital courtship/ anomalies
weddings, engagements, etc.
Harm to child
Kidnapping and child abuse
Abandoned/ destitute family
Taking a stand/ fighting back
Rape/ sexual assault
5.2 The consumers of Media Gossip
Beyond examining these studies about the content of gossip columns and tabloids, I will now briefly mention some studies about the audiences’ responses to Media Gossip. I am aware of the broad field of research about reception studies that investigate how audiences deal with soaps, and other television products. However, I will not delve into these matters here, since this would lead me too far from my subject. What I want to discuss here are some studies that answer questions such as ‘who receives media gossip’, and ‘what effect do these media gossipees have on us’. Finally, I end this chapter with a happy note, explaining why all this media gossip is not so bad after all.
5.2.1 The Media Gossip audience
When analyzing tabloids in the 1980s, Bird (1992) not only looked at the content of those papers, but also tried to learn more about their public. She mimicked Ang’s (1985) method to recruit respondents, by placing an announcement in the tabloids. She asked people personal information questions; why they read tabloids and which tabloids they read. From the 96 letters she received, the majority were female readers (69 vs. 27 men). This result confirms my general hypothesis that women are the more socially active sex, due to different selection pressures in the past.
Hermes (1995), who conducted a more general audience-study about the readers of women’s magazines, also interviewed 7 women and 3 men who read gossip magazines. All 10 respondents were Dutch. From her results also show that gossip magazines are automatically associated with women. The men she interviewed were less serious readers, who even reported to be ironic about these magazines.
To the contrary, Bird (1992) reports that both women and men were not embarrassed to admit they read tabloids, and men tend to view tabloids as ‘information-seeking’. In chapter 2 I already discussed that men refer to gossip as ‘exchanging important information”, and that this is very true when it comes to Strategy Learning Gossip, where life lessons are exchanged. Bird (1992) further concluded that female readers mentioned their family and social contacts more often; they put more emphasis on their social network than male responders did. “Women do seem to read the tabloids very much in terms of this role as care givers and maintainers of personal relationships.” (Bird, 1992: 139) and “While women use tabloids to negotiate their personal world, a central male reading strategy seems to be a positioning of the tabloids as “news” or “information” that helps them find out about the world outside them.” (Bird, 1992: 144). This is no surprise given the fact that women, in general, have more kin related members in their social networks, and have stronger ties as well (see previous chapter).
A last and very interesting finding of her study is that women compare themselves more with celebrities, says Bird (1992). They use celebrities’ actions for self-control; celebrities give information about what you can do and what you should avoid. One of Bird’s respondents wrote:
“I don’t always think that listening to gossip is malicious, I think subconsciously we’re sort of interested in learning by other people’s mistakes hoping that you can prevent them happening to you, that’s why I’m interested in gossip, I like to know what’s happened to somebody, how it happened, why it happened, what they did about it, and quite often actually when I haven’t investigated a subject through gossip and other people’s experiences, I’ve become a cropper” (anonymous responder as cited in Bird, 1992: 149)
In chapter 4, I explained that men and women might show equal interest in Survival-SLG and Mating-SLG, but that I expect women to have a greater tendency to exchange group-norm-SLG. Bird’s (1992) results confirm this hypothesis.
Beyond confirming this hypothesis, Bird’s (1992) analysis of media gossip audiences also proves my Parasocial Hypothesis that media gossip is about our one-way social network members. Another female respondent in Bird's study explicitly reported that tabloids help to fill the role of missing friends. Bird noticed that women especially are excited about celebrities and become very involved with them. Males do not seem to create these parasocial interactions with celebrities, she says. However, there was one exception. One male respondent admitted his explicit interest in celebrities. Bird reports that this young guy (28) lives very isolated, taking care of his ill parents, and hardly has a social life. She thinks that he seeks compensation in tabloids to fill this gap. This, of course, indicates that the ideas about our parasocial interactions with celebrities are more than mere speculations. Bird’s results also give food for thought that women, as the socially most active sex, are more prone to regard celebrities as one-way-members of their social network.
The people Hermes (1995) interviewed also reported that gossip magazines extend their real life social network with celebrities. Gossip magazines report about the extended family of their readers, as Hermes (1995) calls it. Her respondents report that gossip magazines are enjoyable because they report about the misery of others, which relatively brightens up the life of the readers. Lastly, gossip magazines construe shared norms and values. Readers report learning what is right and what is wrong from the doings of others. This last statement, again, supports of my Learning Hypothesis, while the other uses Hermes’ respondents report of are more in support of my Parasocial Hypothesis.
In summary, from Bird’s (1992) and Hermes’ (1995) study I conclude that audiences are attracted to Media Gossip because they can both learn from the information (Learning Hypothesis) and fill the gap of missing friends (Parasocial Hypothesis). In both cases, women show more interest in media gossip than men. However, I stress that men do not refrain from media gossip. Levin and Arluke (1985) even state the opposite; that men gossip more than women about celebrities. Their statement was even confirmed in a recent study about celebrity worship. Using the Celebrity Worship Scale (CWS), McCutcheon et al (2002) concluded that:
“It may be surprising that the men in our sample scored significantly higher on the CWS than the women, but this is consistent with Levin and Arluke’s (1985) finding that men gossip more than women about media celebrities.” (McCutcheon et al, 2002: 80)
Future researchers should investigate whether the findings of Levin & Arluke, and McCucheon et al’ can be generalized or not.
5.2.2 Our interactions with one-way-members
Bird (1992) already indicated with her study that media gossip is not merely about learning, but also updates us about our one-way-members. Here, I will briefly discuss who our one-way-members are, what effect they have, and if they can really substitute our two-way members.
184.108.40.206 Alliance seeking Media Reputation Gossip: who becomes a one-way-member
One-way-members are celebrities or other public figures such as politicians or royals, whom we encounter through media images. The population of potential one-way-members is extremely large, and we cannot keep up contacts with all of them, even if these contacts are only one-way. What defines whom we will regard as one-way members and whom we will ignore? A study that sheds some light on this question is McAndrew and Milenkovic’s (2002) study about why humans value sensational news. In the first part of their paper, they discuss how we tend to spread good gossip about our allies and bad gossip about our non-allies (see also chapter 4). Also, when applying their ideas on media gossip, they wondered specifically which celebrities are of interest to whom. Showing interest in a certain celebrity might indicate whether this celebrity is regarded as a one-way-member or not. Their starting hypothesis stated that we should show highest interest in same-sex and same-gender celebrities. This idea is based on the findings of Wilson and Daly (1996) that same-sex others are our evolutionary principal competitors, and Shackelford’s (1997) cross-culturally found support for the importance of same-gender friendships. Same-sex others are most likely to be our friends and competitors, our allies and non-allies.
McAndrew and Milenkovic (2002) presented 128 participants (61 males, 67 females) aged from 17 to 62 with twelve articles about celebrities, which they had to rank according to their interest. Results indicated that their respondents, as predicted, show the highest interest in stories about celebrities of their same sex and age. My first comment on their research is that the twelve stories where different in content, so their conclusions should be interpreted with much care, since the difference in topics among these twelve stories might have influenced the interest of the respondents. If McAndrew and Milenkovic wanted to control for this, they should have used the same story with twelve different characters.
Similar ideas and results to McAndrew & Milenkovic’s (2002) findings stem from the study of Brown, Basil and Bocarnea (2003) about responses to the death of Princess Diana. They based their hypothesis on Bandura's (1986, as cited in Brown et al, 2003) argument that for social comparison individuals look at same-sex and same-age others. So, Brown et al’s ideas do not concern exactly who we regard as one-way-members, but rather which celebrities are suitable gossipees for SLG. Still, as soon as celebrities are suitable gossipees for SLG, their chances of becoming one-way-members rise, because they get media attention. And even although Brown et al (2003) fund their idea on Bandura’s thoughts, what they investigated was who followed up on the stories about Diana until six years after her death. Their research question therefore involved the investigation of which people regard Diana as a one-way-member and want to be updated about her personal life. Their results indicated that women aged between 25-35 showed the biggest interest in follow-up stories about Diana. These are same-sex and same-age group as Diana, which confirms McAndrew and Milenkovic’s (2002) results.
Although, an alternative hypothesis to this would be that we are not interested in people from our same-age group, but rather in people who are older than us. Perhaps our interest in celebrity gossip is primarily defined by the social learning function I attributed to gossip. If so, I argue that learning has the greatest value when it concerns higher status individuals or older individuals. One does not benefit from learning what he has already experienced in the past. Older people have the advantage to be ahead in life stage. I expect one-way-members to be slightly older than their fans, having a step-ahead in life and therefore becoming ideal role models to transmit some life lessons. I tested this idea, and the results can be found in paper 6, in the second, empirical part of this dissertation.
220.127.116.11 Our one-way-members influence us like real members do
Next, regardless of the age and sex of our one-way members, some researchers have wondered to what extent these people impact our lives. Inspired by Caughey’s (1984) work, Boon and Lomore (2001) analysed how celebrities impact the self-image of young adults. They asked 79 young adults, who all idolized a celebrity, about their relation towards their idol. Their research basically revealed two important things. First, idols are mostly male celebrities, with a media occupation (movie stars or singers). Even the female respondents they questioned reported more about male idols. This result already contradicts McAndrew and Milenkovic’s (2002) finding that one-way-members are the same-sex as their fans.
Second, they noticed that the impact of these idols on the self-image of their respondents is dependent on the (para)social relationship between them. In line with what Caughey (1984) outlined, Boon and Lomore’s (2001) data confirms that the relationship of an individual with a celebrity impacts the life of this individual and also his or her self-image. The more people feel attached to a celebrity, and invest time and energy in a parasocial interaction, the more influence this celebrity has on the individual.
18.104.22.168. One-way-members substitute real members that are missing
Finally, do shy and lonely people have more parasocial interactions? That is what Ashe and McCutcheon (2001) wondered when they questioned 150 people about their attitude towards celebrities and their personality. Their results showed indications that shy and lonely people seek more contact with media characters, but the correlations were too weak or non-significant, so that their hypothesis could not be confirmed. Shyness and loneliness do not seem to motivate people to interact more with media characters, even though these relations are easy to establish and maintain.
I think the weakness of Ashe and McCutcheon’s (2001) research is that they did not ask people how often they watch television or are exposed to other media channels that can play a part in parasocial interactions. They just used psychological scales to measure celebrity interest, shyness and loneliness. I think respondents might not be very consciously aware of their parasocial interactions. You do not need to be completely overwhelmed by an interest in certain celebrities to construct and maintain parasocial interactions, these relations can exist at less profound levels.
5.2.3 When Media Gossip becomes interpersonal again
I want to conclude this chapter and to end this theoretical part of my dissertation on a positive note. I’m sure that many might not like the idea that celebrities become our one-way friends, one-way enemies and so on. Media impacts our life, that is for sure, and it can be argued that this negatively affects our social life, as Putnam (2000) stressed, and even de-voices our societies, as Locke (1998) called it. People become lonely, feel depressed, isolated from real family and friends, desperately seeking some ‘cheap’ compensation in artificial television friends. However, this whole process has a positive effect as well. I have mentioned earlier in this chapter that media gossip invades in our interpersonal gossip conversations. We not only read tabloids, gossip columns, watch gossip-filled soaps, or channels such as E! Entertainment, but we also discuss Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston’s divorce with our friends. When Princess Diana died, phones rang all over the world. “Have you heard the sad news?!” everyone was gossiping about it. The sad event of her death suddenly unified many people, we all felt connected, because we all had lost a friend (see study Brown, Basil, Bocarnea, 2003).
Interpersonal media gossip unifies people. Media gossip provides food for talk; celebrities are the mutual acquaintances we gossip about today. Riegel (1996) and Brown and Barwick (1987) analyzed women’s consumption of soap operas and gossip about the actors. They argue that gossip and soap opera’s are central to intimacy and can be considered as positive values in women’s lives. Soap opera’s are very much like gossip, since they contain dialogues and the stories are about third persons. The viewers sometimes know what has happened to a character, before the character himself or herself knows, just like gossip can act in real life. And reporting specifically about interpersonal media gossip, Brown and Barwick (1987) mention that viewers of soap opera’s feel connected, since they share information about mutual acquaintances, even if those are fictive characters. The soaps form a basis to gossip about in real life. Brown and Barwick (1987) argue that soaps and gossip are both pleasurable; we love to talk and love to watch soaps. They both reinforce feelings of community and are powerful sources of information for women.
And as much as women take part in interpersonal media gossip, men do as well. Analysing the increasing of popularity of men’s magazines, Benwell (2001) looked at the male readers’ gossip in the letters pages. She noted that men gossip mainly about celebrities, and public knowledge, but without engaging in too private or emotional talk, which is mostly the subject in women’s magazines. “Similarly gossip about unknown celebrities is sufficiently removed from real experience so as not to constitute a threat.” (Benwell, 2001: 23). Male gossip is comparable to the talk about “football”, says Benwell (2001). Males create friendships and outline the boundaries of their group by gossip. In the magazines, most of the gossip is about ‘those who do not belong’, referring to men who do not fit in the picture of the group identity of the male reader’s public and women. This is a clear example of alliance-maintaining gossip. The fact that this form of Reputation Gossip occurs about media characters proofs that we regard these celebrities as ‘known gossipees’, and therefore as part of our social networks.
Closely related to Benwell’s thoughts, Johnson (1994) analysed men’s gossip about football. Examining an episode of a British television program about football, ‘Saint and Greavsie’, Jones noticed that men, just like women, gossip to feel united and exclude non-members of their social group, which is Ally Maintenance RG again. However, the content of the gossip conversations of men and women differ, since women focus on private issues, delving deep into the gossiped topics, whereas men discuss the professional instead of the private lives of football players and do so in less detailed. Still, it is a fact that men engage in interpersonal gossip as well, and they should not feel embarrassed to admit so. Our colleagues do not know our friends, and all of our friends no longer know all of our other friends. Let us be happy that celebrities are there to fill the gap of mutual acquaintances to gossip about. If celebrities were not mutual acquaintances, then we would be de-voicing our societies, we would go bowling alone, we would have no one to talk about and then become sad and lonely. In summary, celebrities, or let me call them stars, brighten up our lives. Whether you like it or not, it is for your own good to occasionally gossip about them, and even though they complain about harassment of journalists, celebrities benefit as well. Or else it's out of sight, out of mind, out of one-way membership and out of Hollywood.