When the New York Times adopted its famous motto, “All the news that’s fit to print,” more than a 100 years ago, it was a none-too-subtle jibe at its major competitors for engaging in “yellow journalism.”
Similar accusations were levelled in Vietnamese media recently, with a couple mainstream newspapers lambasting a popular publication for stooping to sensationalism to boost circulation. That this was the first time such criticism was aired publicly in the country is noteworthy.
Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Sai Gon) and Phu Nu (Women), both newspapers based in HCM City, accused Doi Song & Phap Luat (Life and Law) of publishing scandalous and shocking news. They then called for tightened control over coverage geared toward celebrities and the sensational.
Sai Gon Giai Phong and Phu Nu have reason to complain. Once among the country’s bestselling newspapers, especially in HCM City, both have lost readership, particularly among younger demographics.
Officially, there are no tabloids in Viet Nam, but a process of tablodisation has certainly taken place, as evidenced by the abundance of celebrity-based “infotainment” in both daily newspapers and magazines.
In the west, tabloids originated as alternative news providers, filling the information gap left by the mainstream media. But their content soon descended into celebrity gossip, which certainly sells better than hard news, as attested by the popularity of Ruperty Murdoch’s The Sun and News of The World.
Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Affairs at Harvard University, describes the tablodisation process as a "downgrading of hard news and upgrading of sex, scandal and infotainment."
Unfortunately, Vietnam is catching up with this trend in print and even more so online.
Under this pressure, many newspapers are lowering their standards to retain or regain their share of readership by providing content that sells, if not in their main publications, then through supplements.
As one journalist working for a tabloidised website put it, “Now there is no need to verify information.”
Where’s the limit?
Recently, a 7th-grader from central Thua Thien-Hue province tried to commit suicide with her 23-year-old boyfriend, after her pregnancy made headlines in most tabloidised papers.
Dan Viet was one of those papers, publishing the girl's real name, photo, residence, school, and family details.
In other papers, there have been several “exposes’ of late that focus on the bodies of celebrities. Doi Song & Phap Luat's online supplement, Phunutoday, scored a spike in page views when it ran a photograph of an actress’ 3-year-old daughter, with her underpants partially uncovered.
Sensationalism in the news media creates a vicious circle. It makes the abnormal normal, and encourages deviant behavior that is sometimes benign, but other times malignant.
Increased crime, violence, and corruption are realities that need to be reported. But the quality of coverage affects how the public, especially impressionable youth, respond.
Who’s to blame?
Assigning fault for the tablodisation can get somewhat tricky.
HCM City Vice Chairman Le Manh Ha once blamed the city’s Department of Information and Communications for loosening its management of online websites after licensing them. Fines are so low as to have little deterrence value.
But the city can have a hard time regulating sites headquartered in Ha Noi and licensed by the Ministry of Information and Communications.
Newspapers’ drive for profits is another culprit. But there will always be a market for accurate and objective news.
When journalists don’t do their job properly, the public can’t make informed decisions and loses faith in the media. Countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have seen this firsthand, as newspaper circulations dwindle amid flourishing alternative media.
Murdoch should serve as a symbol of caution. British journalist Francis Wheen once said Murdoch “has made a fortune from selling excrement and, in the process, has debauched our culture and corrupted our youth, producing a generation of lager louts, sex maniacs, and morons.”
In Vietnam, the tabloidization will continue to spread unless the government and news industry take serious measures to stop it.