Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Gossip in the media: Not so new

Posted by: Jordan Murray

Growing up, every summer we took a family vacation full of aunts, uncles and cousins. Every girl would bring their own stack of the "trash" magazines and we would take turns passing them around looking through each one. I grew up calling these magazines like People, Ok!, Star, etc. as "trash", yet we looked forward to that week where we all indulged and basked in the piles of gossip magazines all around us. Lately, I have noticed that these same gossip articles have now gone online, flooding my Facebook feed, trending on Twitter, and talked about constantly amongst my peers. Studying journalism, I have heard the critic that these "sleazy" articles are taking over the "real, hard hitting" news. But like anything these days, you see what you want to see. 

Gossip news has been around for centuries, this is nothing new.
My argument is that we must learn how to navigate through the flood of news articles available to us through this different medium: the internet. This post will outline a history of gossip in the media, the psychology of why society clings to that, and lastly, answering the question, how do we navigate through the "sleaze"?

When deciding to write on this topic, I posed the question on my Facebook page, asking my friends what they thought about gossip and the news. I asked, "Is gossip taking over the news?" The response I got was overwhelmingly "yes." Of the 19 relevant responses, 16 responded yes. (Note: not all comments are displayed below.)

selection of responses to my Facebook inquiry. The majority agreed gossip was taking over the news.
This concerned me as I am studying journalism and hope to enter the field soon. Having worked for a newspaper for the last year, I knew that we rarely, if ever, published anything that would be classified as "gossip", and a simple check through different news outlets websites also showed no signs of gossip articles. I then went to my peers as a newsroom staff and asked their opinions. This group responded with a majority of "no." What was the difference? My argument is that my peers in the newsroom knew how to navigate through the flood of news articles available to us through this different medium: the internet.

Early History

In the book Scandal!: A Scurrilous History of Gossip, Roger Wilkes maps out the countless examples of gossip in our media throughout the ages.

A woodcut from the 16th century.

Starting in 1500BC, the Mesopotamian people were documenting one mayor's affair with a married woman on cuneiform tablets. In the 16th century in the age of pamphleteers, many joined the success of the recent invention of the printing press and started printing their own pamphlets from satirical to gossip ridden.

Roger Ascham was the tutor to Princess Elizabeth of England. Ascham was sent to Germany in 1550 as the secretary to the English ambassador to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. With a high demand for news from Germany in England, Ascham started putting together a daily report of the affairs in court, written as a series of manuscript newsletters. Amongst Protestant England, gossip and scandals about the Pope and the Catholic Church were increasingly popular. A woodcut was circulated in Rome attacking corrupt Catholics and the papacy with an empty speech bubble allowing buyers to fill in their own unflattering caption. 

In 1641 the first newsman was accused of "wenching, lying and drinking" when Samuel Pecke launched a weekly newspaper. Topping the circulation polls, Pecke cleverly used small type and narrow margins to pack as much information onto his eight-page sheet. Gossip was commonly the subject of many headlines, re-telling the rumors and secrets that had been passed around taverns.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

In 1704, years before writing the classic Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe created what he claimed to be the world's first chatty newspaper column. Defoe pioneered the technique of many gossip columnists to follow of keeping names of sources and subjects secret (i.e. K----- was seen kissing M----).

In 1709, Richard Steele founded The Tatler, a society journal that was dedicated to publishing the news and gossip heard in London coffeehouses under the name Isaac Bickerstaff, leaving politics to be covered by the newspapers. Steele allegedly placed reporters in four of the popular coffeehouses, each one taking on a different subject. The Tatler was published three times a week, but only lasted for less than two years, with Steele scrapping the journal and starting up The Spectator, a daily publication dedicated to providing readers with topics to help them carry on meaningful conversations in social situations.
The Tatler was founded in London in 1709 by Richard Steele.

In 1886 The News of the World, a paper with a mix of crime and scandal, ran a 18 day play-by-play of the case of Campbell v. Campbell. Lady Colin Campbell had been accused of indulging in "steamy sex sessions" at her London townhouse, after being spied on through a keyhole by her butler. Lady Campbell was often referred to as a "common harlot" in the press, with the scandal causing crowds to form outside of her home.

In 1868 Vanity Fair made its debut in England as the first society journal. This new magazine was subtitled "A Weekly Show of Political, Social and Literary Wares." With outrageous headlines and articles, Vanity Fair did not hold back even when it came to the royal family. It is reported that it had many spies within royal households, dishing out secrets and scandals. Vanity Fair once hinted at an affair between the Prince of Wales and married woman and actress Lillie Langtry, naturally enraging the Prince. The magazine with its bold scandals and claims became wildly popular to the point of becoming a "mark of honor" to be named the victim in a report.

In the 1870s, Edmund Yates, a reporter at The World invented the personal voice that gossip columnists would mimic for decades, such as "I hear," "I understand," and "I learn."
Cover, September 1896 issue
Yellow Journalism and Sensationalism

In the late 1800s, newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer went to war. Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's New York Journal were among the most popular papers of the time during a fiercely competitive era of newspapers.

Hearst (left), Pulitzer (right)
Becoming neck and neck in circulation, both parties started trying new techniques to raise their sales above the other competitor. A term called "yellow journalism" (from the yellow ink used in a cartoon series published by both papers) came on the scene in 1895-1898 after both media houses started sensationalizing the news to drive up sales. Below is an example of how both Journal (left) and the World (right) covered a ship explosion. Hearst offered a $50,000 reward for identifying the alleged bomber of the ship Maine, while Pulitzer emphasized the violence with a graphic picture.

In 1898, during the Spanish-American War and the heat of the competition, Hearst's New York Journal embraced the derogative "yellow" term, printing: "...the sun in heaven is yellow---the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism." The yellow press was a type of journalism that presented little or not legitimate well-researched news, instead opting for eye-catching headlines hoping for higher sales of the paper. Exaggerations of news events, scandal mongering, or sensationalism were common elements of articles in Hearst's and Pulitzer's paper at this time. An excerpt from Hearst's early paper The San Francisco Examiner shows Hearst's trademark style:

"HUNGRY, FRANTIC FLAMES. They leap madly upon the splendid pleasure palace by the bay of Monterey, encircling Del Monte in their ravenous embrace from pinnacle to foundation. Leaping higher, higher, higher, with desperate desire..."
Elements of this trademark style can be seen in today's media. Sensationalism has become a regular tactic amongst many news organizations, especially in the standard broadcast nightly news cycle. (For a compilation of examples see this video.)

The Gossip Columnist

"Cafe Societies" were coined during this era.
In the 1920s, New York took the lead in gossip journalism with the creation of "Cholly Knickerbocker", a fictitious name for a series of gossip columnists writing in the New York Journal. Cholly began referring to the city's elite as "cafe society" as it documented the social lives of people in arts, politics and business, citing their whereabouts, who was dating who, etc.

In the midst of the birth of the modern-day gossip column at the Journal, 23 year-old Walter Winchell was posting notes about his acting troupe on backstage Broadway bulletin boards. In 1929, the New York Daily Mirror hired Winchell, who went on to author On-Broadway, the first syndicated gossip column in America. Winchell's column eventually was featured in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide. 

Winchell found connections in essentially every field: entertainment, social, government, and used his insight to expose countless celebrity stories. He has been quoted as saying "I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret." Using his well-circulated column's power, Winchell traded positive mentions for more rumors and secrets, creating an endless supply of material. With readership reaching about 50 million readers per day for a span of 40 years, Winchell's success led to a flood of other columnists emerging over night. Winchell debuted over WABC radio in New York in 1930 airing to 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s. 


In 1940, St. Clair McKelway, a writer and editor for The New Yorker wrote in Time Magazine: 
"When Winchell began gossiping in 1924 for the late scatological tabloid Evening Graphic, no U.S. paper hawked rumors about the marital relations of public figures until they turned up in divorce courts. For 16 years, gossip columns spread until even the staid New York Times whispered that it heard from friends of a son of the President that he was going to be divorced. In its first year, The Graphic would have considered this news not fit to print... Gossip-writing is at present like a spirochete in the body of journalism.... Newspapers... have never been held in less esteem by their readers or exercised less influence on the political and ethical thought of the times."
To which Winchell responded saying, "Oh stop! You talk like a high-school student of journalism." Even in the 1940s, people complained that gossip was taking over their news. 

Winchell's style was impossible to mimic, leaving him King of the gossip world. He hated the traditional ornate style in which newspaper columns had been written in the past and completely flipped it on it's head writing in a style full of slang and incomplete sentences. Many words still in circulation today can be attributed to Winchell such as scram, pushover, and belly laughs.

During this peak of gossip frenzy, two women across the pond in California caught on to the craze: Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. In the 1930s-1940s Hopper and Parsons became the most well-known gossip columnists, taking what Winchell had created to a whole new height. Parsons and Hopper documented the lives of Hollywood's elite. 
Hedda Hopper and Marilyn Monroe
Louella Parsons and Marilyn Monroe
The rivaling Queen's were said to have had a combined readership of 75 million in a country of 160 million. After three mentions in Parsons column, a screenwriter is reported to have gone from $500 a week to $2,500. The power these women held was unprecedented, beginning a phase of public relations gossip, with motion picture studios approaching the columnists to plant or promote different stories about their stars. According to one actress, if you were to fall out of favor with one of the two columnists, "You might as well get on the bus back to Podunk because you were never going to do any more than wait tables."


So what is it about gossip that causes societies to become so intrigued by it?

In the book Gossip: The Inside Scoop by Dr. Jack Levin, Levin and his colleagues issues a study on a university campus analyzing 194 instances of gossip. The results that came back were 27% positive mentions and 27% negative. Levin argues that not all instances of gossip need be negative, and that gossip can actually be good for our emotional health.

"Is it possible that people tend to say just as many nice as nasty things about other people? Perhaps we are mistaken to reserve the label gossip for nasty talk only. Moreover, we may tend to remember only the nasty things that people say about one another."

Levin explains the concept of the mum effect, a phenomenon in psychology where people avoid having to inform someone else about his or her misfortune, but might not hesitate to give a the persons friends the exact same information. 

"Therefore, gossip becomes a vehicle for the transmission of bad news.
Under such conditions, gossip can become negative, even vicious, being a convenient method for attacking those we despise or seek revenge against. Gossip allows individuals to say otherwise private things without taking responsibility...This attitude may have therapeutic benefits for someone who might otherwise not be able to 'let off steam,' but it also gives gossip its bad reputation. Just as gossip relieves tension, it also tends to relieve nagging guilt," Levin said.

On the other hand, in an article published by Dana Dovey of Medical Daily, Davey cautions that gossip is a "standard currency of human connection," the lure of being in the loop has a strong pull. "Humans have a powerful drive to know about other people's lives. It's the fascinations...that have made celebrity gossip a more than $3 billion industry. 'Your life may be more glamorous than mine,' we might think as we scan the covers, 'but I'm not an alcoholic.'"

Another study done by a Northeastern University professor Eric Anderson shows that gossip imprints on our brain. "Not only do we better remember and recognize faces associated with negative gossip, but this recognition operates outside conscious awareness." This suggests that human beings are hardwired to pay more attention to someone if they were told they were dangerous or dishonest or unpleasant." 


As I highlighted some of the examples of gossip in history, I'm sure many stories came to mind of modern day parallels: affairs, scandals, career gossip columnists, gossip as an industry. It is an industry that I see continuing on in the future. "The media, they're us. Or at least the media are the people who buy newspapers and magazines...our tastes and desires affect how we take in the world around us," according to Tom Payne in his recent book FAME: What the Classics tell us about our cult of celebrity.

The difference I saw in my peers in the newsroom I work at and my friends on Facebook was one thing: those in the newsroom knew where to look for the news. In follow up questions with a few of the friends that commented on my initial Facebook post, most of them were getting their news from Facebook or Twitter. While those are great sites for aggregation, it was never intended to be a main news outlet. It is simply a news aggregation site.

In an article from the Huffington Post, Stop Overdosing on Celebrity Gossip, author James Clear explains the difference between browsing the news and seeking it.

 "I don't browse the internet passively and stumble upon articles. I seek them out with intention and purpose...The world doesn't need more people who mindlessly digest whatever information is around. What the world needs are people who learn with purpose, who take action on the things that are important to them and who seek out high quality information as a way to spark creativity -- not as an excuse to consume even more."

Clear points out that the difference is being selective and intentionally searching out media. The only friend who commented on my Facebook post who disagreed with my statement and backed it up with a claim was someone who was seeking his news out on CNN's website, among others. He was not relying on a trending hashtag or an article to roll up through his news feed, but instead was seeking the news consciously each day.

I don't believe that gossip news is bad, and I don't believe that getting your news from social media is bad if that is how you prefer to do it. But I do find fault in the statement that gossip is taking over all news. Although it is in itself becoming a large industry, it is not the only news industry, and I urge you to seek out different online sources if you believe there is nothing but gossip in the mainstream media today.

Works Cited

Wilkes, R. (2002). Scandal: A scurrilous history of gossip. London: Atlantic. 

Levin, J., & Arluke, A. (1987). Gossip: The inside scoop. New York: Plenum Press. 

Burns, K. S. (2009). Celeb 2.0: How social media foster our fascination with popular culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Is it the new journalism or just plain old gossip? (1998, February 1). Retrieved June 05, 2016, from

‘Yellow journalism’: The back story to a sneer, 115 years on. (2012, January 31). Retrieved June 05, 2016, from

Payne, T. (2010). Fame: What the classics tell us about our cult of celebrity. New York: Picador. 

Clear, J. (2013, October 16). Stop Overdosing on Celebrity Gossip, the News, and Low-Quality Information. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from 


  1. I found your personal angle on this subject matter to be very interesting and relatable. I think gossip and intrusive articles have been and can be found just about anywhere. I enjoyed reading the sections about the history behind gossip and discovering that it has always been prevalent - even if the media has changed.

  2. I like your anecdote at the beginning of the article. I think that your assertion that gossip is by no means a new thing but has been around for centuries is a fascinating idea. However, I was rather disappointed that you didn't bring your argument around full circle and discuss more analytically the 21st century at the end of your post after discussing the 1930's and 40's. You could discuss you the history of gossip that you delineated both influences the present situation in relation to gossip and also how modern technology, communications, etc. have changed the landscape of gossip. Nice job, though. Fascinating topic.