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My trip down the grubby tabloid rabbit hole


The best thing I ever did was give up reading the Daily Mail's online edition, Mail Online. I'd stumbled upon it before the Australian version was launched, and would occasionally log on at the end of a long day of work for a dose of what I thought was harmless, easily digestible fun — quirky news stories, gossip from the glossy world of celebrity.

Mail Online screenshotThis portal — the world's most visited online English-language news website — provided me with the entertainment equivalent of chocolate: a hit that was satisfying, relaxing and permissible in small doses.

But it wasn't long before this mental junk food started to bloat my mind, to pollute my psyche. The so-called 'news' was really sensationalised reporting; the celebrity gossip was really the nasty appraisement of film stars and models — their bodies, their parenting habits, their personal relationships.

I had always understood that people who readily consumed paparazzi shots were responsible in some way for the resulting misery caused to many of those in the photos. But my dalliance with Mail Online shocked me into fully comprehending the price celebrities paid for the public's demand to see images of them taken outside their work context: the complete sacrifice of every scrap of privacy for both themselves and their children.

The internet's need for dynamic, frequently refreshed images with which to feed its readers was leading, I realised, to the widespread harassment of people simply going about their day.

By scrolling through and sometimes clicking on stories in which celebrities had been photographed without their permission, I had effectively become part of the problem. The paparazzi photographer was the supplier, and I was one of his users, creating a demand for more of his product every time I clicked.

I was one of a vast network of people sitting behind their computers and guzzling the unflattering, critical, unauthorised images plastered across Mail Online's so-called 'wall of shame' sidebar.

When actors Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry appeared before a committee at Sacramento's state assembly to press for the introduction of laws aimed at protecting children from the activities of paparazzi photographers, I realised that I was engaging in a despicable act: the consumption of other people's private stories.

On a personal level, my Mail Online habit was also having disturbing side-effects. My general sense of contentment and wellbeing was dulled, especially in the moments after I visited the site.

I felt a bit grubby reading those salacious stories, spying on people who didn't want me to, reading news stories whose impact was amplified through the use of objectionable images — severed heads held aloft by ISIS members, broken bodies lying in a Ukrainian field following the downing of MH370.

The feminist in me balked, too, for I was no longer able to distinguish between the abundance of sexualised, objectifying images interspersed with the stolen celebrity shots: women posing in bikinis, women posing naked, women pouting in ubiquitous selfies. If I squinted, the Mail Online's homepage would blend into a hodgepodge of female flesh.

Even the 'meatier' female-directed content disquieted me, the articles on women discontented with their bodies, the columns advising women how to reverse the aging process, how to lose weight, how to improve their imperfect selves.

Thankfully, I diagnosed the problem early and quit the habit. But the dumbed down, superficial content-publishing model adopted with such success by the Daily Mail seems to be seeping gradually into more reputable, mainstream online media.

The tabloidisation of once-serious news publications is almost complete: headlines no longer capture the essence of a story; rather, they hint cryptically, often posing a question instead of stating a fact. Real news can't be relied upon to lead the news; instead, celebrity-related stories or sensational incidents take precedence over far more important — if less salacious — events.

Glossy public figures and social media 'celebrities' are heralded as newsmakers so that a story about an 18-year-old Instagram 'star' takes precedence over the apparent murder of a foster child. Justin Bieber's ability to identify with Amy Winehouse trumps Indonesia's raging, devastating forest fires.

And perhaps most affronting of all, for those still fighting for equal rights: women seem to make news most often when they are attractive or naked; and their body parts are routinely used to illustrate stories, even when those stories are gender neutral.

It's difficult to entirely avoid popular culture and its insidious effects. Junk-filled though the internet is, it is also a portal for those who are interested in the world and the ordinary, unsung people who populate it. These days, instead of reading Mail Online at the end of the day, I log onto Maria Popova's brilliant blog, Brain Pickings or the excellent alternative to our often news-less newspapers, The Conservation.

I download podcasts on a diversity of thought-provoking, mind-building subjects. On Instagram and Facebook I follow human rights organisations and foreign correspondents and photographers who are capturing the world at its diverse, magnificent best. They've rebalanced my bloated consciousness and scrubbed away the grubbiness.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based journalist and award-winning travel writer (Best Foreign Journalist for India, 2015 (India Tourism Ministry), Best International Story over 1000 Words, 2015 (Australian Society of Travel Writers), Best Travel Story about the AGM Host Destination, 2015 (Australian Society of Travel Writers)).

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Existing comments

You are exactly right! A lot of media only deal in sensationalism and gossip with no regard to how it affects people's lives and they couldn't care less, all they want is that 'exclusive'.

fiona field | 19 November 2015  

A wonderful reflection Catherine. I too have been caught in the Daily Mail's sidebar of doom so your thoughts on its shortcomings are most welcome.

Madeleine | 23 November 2015  

You have brilliantly outlined why I gave up newspapers! I now rely on a weekly catch up at the local Library, get news once from tv and particularly like radio.

Mary | 04 March 2016  

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