Media Watch is the program that exists to tell us when the media fucks up. So who covers it when the Media Watch host royally fucks up? Well, most of Twitter, and now us.
In case you missed it, this morning Media Watch host Paul Barry shot off this tweet after Caitlyn Jenner featured on the cover of Vanity Fair.
FFS, Why do I have to keep (not) reading stories about Bruce Jenner? Why in heaven's name is he such big news?
— Paul Barry (@TheRealPBarry) June 3, 2015
The first big mistake was to misgender and misname Caitlyn Jenner. If the story was as saturated in Barry’s channels as he says it was, then he should have realised that she quite clearly, in fact quite literally, asked the world to “Call me Caitlyn.”
Really, not that hard.
But Barry admitted to that one. He didn’t apologise, or admit that he was pretty transphobic, but at least he later referred to her as Caitlyn.
The fact remains though Paul, you’re still wrong. Caitlyn Jenner is news, and so she should be.
Many other wonderful commentators, have articulated exactly why Jenner’s public transition is so important (spoiler alert: making trans narratives visible is fundamental to the wellbeing of young trans kids, as long as we continue to acknowledge Caitlyn’s privilege in being able to afford a physical/surgical transition and passing privilege).
I’ll leave it to other voices (particularly trans voices) to speak to why Barry is wrong on that point.
The Media Watch host seems to have also vaguely acknowledged he was wrong there, insisting that the Vanity Fair cover is fine, but the “119 million Google hits” prior to her transition are the problem.
Finding himself in some great company, Sharri Markson, media editor at the Australian, backed Barry. Markson, the woman who, I remind you, went along “undercover” to a media and communications lecture at the University of Sydney (a course I once took in my formative years) and then splashed her findings across the front page as “Super Important Big Deal News” is now trying to claim that “the Kardashians and everything they do are not real news”.
— Rob Stott (@Rob_Stott) June 3, 2015
Perhaps if Markson had continued sitting in on those media lectures, she would realise her and Barry are off the mark on this point too.
Whether we like it or not, celebrities are news.
Without getting all scholarly on you, academics generally refer to news as a ‘disclosure of facts’ that helps us better understand the world. What is most newsworthy is that which generally tends to fulfil several of what we call ‘news values’, or different elements that make those facts about the world around us more relevant.
Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a shift in those news values and now, one of the factors that makes a story most newsworthy is its human aspect. And for that, we can almost exclusively blame (or thank) Markson’s mate, Rupert Murdoch.
As news became more commercialised and tabloid, thanks to Murdoch and the transformation of news into a commodity in a capitalist market, it needed to be able to sell. And what sells best? Drama, of course. It works for movies, television, so why wouldn’t it work for news?
A crying woman standing beside the ruins of her burnt down house? That’s front page stuff right there.
This process has generally been referred to as the tabloidisation of news, and it has seen the astronomical rise of celebrity news as a consequence. Scholars and journalists alike (including Markson, it paradoxically seems) have lamented this process, crying out for the “death” of “real news”.
But I think they’re wrong.
News is about understanding the world around us. On a surface level that means covering things like earthquakes, wars, politics. But the world isn’t just at surface level. There are social and cultural factors that exist below, which give us cues on how to behave, how to interact with others, what to think, feel, and say.
Celebrity news is our social and cultural world, manifested. It’s snippets of people’s lives, commentary on their actions, discussions about their behaviour. How we understand our own social and cultural interactions informs how we understand celebrity news, and debates in the media about celebrities in turn inform the moral codes of our day to day lives.
Throughout the course of my research, I analysed over 300 news stories about Miley Cyrus. Ultimately, I discovered that what was most pertinent about these stories was not the individual things Miley did to make news, but the overall pattern that was evident.
The stories weren’t really about Miley. They were a social commentary on how young women should behave. A place to start discussion about morally acceptable behaviours, and to better understand the thoughts, actions, and feelings, of young women.
The stories about Caitlyn Jenner are important. We’ll look back on this and note it as the first time trans narratives really made headlines. The first time we got a true chance to understand the transgender world around us, and start the discussion. And that’s precisely what news is.
“FFS” Paul, you should know that.
Lucy Watson is currently researching her PhD on the social and cultural functions of celebrity news in the queer public sphere. Her 2014 research into celebrity news values, which used Miley Cyrus as a case study, won a university medal.
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