Columnist Discusses Gossip Reporting vs. ‘Serious’ Reporting

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By: E&P Staff

In the wake of the alleged extortion attempt by a New York Post “Page Six” writer, “RealStyle” columnist Patricia McLaughlin has some interesting insights about newspaper gossip content.

Writing in a column slated for April 23 release, McLaughin said the Jared Paul Stern case has sparked “endless curiosity about the exotic advantages that may accrue to editors and reporters of gossip … and lots of interest in the quid-pro-quo approach to gossip prospecting. [But] nobody seemed to care all that much whether the gossip that gets published is true or not — as long, that is, as it isn’t actionable.”

McLaughlin, whose column appears in about 100 papers via Universal Press Syndicate, added: “This is may be not so surprising. Many newspaper people — and plenty of readers, for that matter — are deeply ambivalent about fluff. It embarrasses them. Journalism is a sacred trust. It’s a search for truth. It’s the bulwark of democracy…. What does any of that have to do with … what way-too-blonde movie star was French-kissing what zillionaire industrialist in a dark corner of what ridiculously expensive restaurant last night? Not a thing!”

Yet when papers “leave out the fluff,” continued McLaughlin, “readers complain.”

And this fluff doesn’t always meet the journalistic standards most papers strive for in their news pages. McLaughlin noted, by way of example: “A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a survey on spending that ran in Time magazine’s spring design supplement. 72% of the people in the survey said they’d spent more than $100 on a handbag. … Then I read — in excruciatingly small print — where it explained that the people in the survey had a median income of $206,300. That’s almost five times the median income of all U.S. households. It’s inconceivable that Time would base a story on public opinion of the war in Iraq or immigration policy or tax cuts or any other ‘serious’ subject on so unrepresentative a survey.”

McLaughlin added: “Bigfoot journalists, deep thinkers, muckity-muck editors, policy wonks, pundits, hard-news junkies, hard-driving investigative reporters — obviously these people have no problem shifting cognitive gears as they flip from the serious news in the front section to the fluff in features. But can we expect regular people to do the same thing? Do most readers know we really mean what we say on the front page and on the editorial page, but that the fluff [including gossip content] that finds its way onto the feature pages isn’t meant to be read in quite the same way?”

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