By John Zada


The Montréal Review, March 2024



Anyone who’s followed the news for decades has noticed without fail that coverage has tilted more and more towards stories about celebrities and all manner of trivial conflicts between members of the public. What was once the sole domain of what we call “tabloid” news has spread to become a fixture of most mainstream news outfits. Hardly a day goes by without an ultra-bizarre and insignificant news item gracing our smartphone newsfeeds. “TWO CATHOLIC NUNS LEFT ITALY TO DO MISSION WORK IN AFRICA. WHEN THEY RETURNED, THEY WERE PREGNANT” ran one National Post headline that smacked more of salacious gossip than important news.

The cumulative impact of these stories is that they dumb us down—not just as individuals, but as a culture. Why is this happening at all, and why now?

The birth of the internet has ushered in a universe of competing content—not just from master storytellers but also from poor imitators who have undercut the news giants. The first online pseudo-news sites like Buzzfeed, Mashable, Upworthy, and The Huffington Post quickly learned to out-sensationalize more reputable news organizations by featuring gossipy stories with loads of celebrity side-boob. Others with slightly more journalistic bona fides like Vice simultaneously out-cooled the traditional news dinosaurs by more quickly embracing digital platforms and spinning a sub-genre of irreverent reporting catered to hipsters and millennials.

In the cable TV world, the hard slide into “reality television” with its thoughtless yet titillating shows featuring Kardashians, American Idols, and Apprentices, joined hands with Showtime’s and HBO’s higher quality dramatic series to take a big bite out of the entertainment market. Netflix, of course, has since shot to first place in the great entertainment game with its endless offerings to win us over. Amazon Prime and Apple TV came next. To top it off there is the endless stream of all other internet and social media content, including YouTube, which taken together, constitute endless permutations of newsfeeds and windows on the world.

There has never been more entertainment available to keep us distracted and preoccupied. To compete and survive, the corporate news media has had to up its game, paradoxically, by lowering its game.

This hard tilt towards the news as entertainment is not entirely a new development. Historically, as the news increasingly co-opted visual media into their storytelling—starting with photos in newspapers, and then film, and later video footage in TV news broadcasts—it has increasingly moved away from a rational, typographic culture to one which is image-centered, emotional and pleasure driven.

The world of celebrities, the closest thing to a pantheon of gods we revere in our secular culture, is the low-hanging fruit of news—and the most easily consumable by the population, including the young (the hardest demographic for the newsmongers to hook). Even once-stalwart and respectable news giants like the BBC News and CBS’s news magazine show 60 Minutes have buckled under the pressure to feature the exploits of the rich, famous and infamous. A 60 Minutes interview, in March 2018 with American porn actress Stormy Daniels who purportedly took hush money over an alleged affair with Donald Trump, attracted 22 million viewers. It was the show’s best ratings since a 2008 segment on the Obamas ratcheted over 24 million American viewers.

I’ve seen my own television newsroom at CBC News Network become infected over time by this tendency to feature celebrity stories. I was working on the day that the U.K.’s Prince Harry and American actress Meagan Markle suddenly announced their engagement in 2017. The entire day’s newscast was hijacked by disproportionate coverage featuring royal watchers and fashion commentators sharing rumours and speculations about the upcoming wedding, as lower third banners ran beneath them reading: “MARKLE ENGAGEMENT DRESS BOASTS REPORTED $95K PRICE TAG” and “THE ONE OF A KIND ROYAL RING.” When later, in 2020, the same news organization ran a story about Peter Phillips—a largely unknown grandson of Queen Elizabeth—becoming divorced from his Canadian wife, more than a few staffers were scratching their heads in the newsroom wondering why this was a story.

So desirable is celebrity content that even somewhat forgotten people who were once famous, or had the most fleeting brush with fame, such as former American Idol contestants, or Whitney Houston’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend, make the news when they die. Similarly, lots of crime stories appeal to news producers for the added reason that the criminals involved become instant celebrities—but of the news media’s making. It may even be that in some cases the would-be criminals perpetrate crimes, in part, to become celebrities since they know the news will turn them into icons of a sort.


Pettiness and triviality are the handmaidens of news that aims to appeal to the emotions. It’s what the American linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky calls “marginalia”—inconsequential information which serves to distract us from what is important.

News organizations have always on occasion churned out insignificant stories. But in the digital age the amount of content that is potentially publishable online on any given day is much greater than it was during the print era. News operations make use of what is, in theory, unlimited space. This can have positive implications like allowing coverage for stories that once wouldn’t make the cut because of space or time limitations. But it also allows news organizations to flood the market with chaff. They now feed an insatiable online beast with almost any content in order to compete, not just with each other, but with all other web and social media offerings. This desperate behaviour means that any news that smacks of the odd, the bizarre, the twisted, the silly or the marginally divisive including but not limited to things like petty crimes, viral videos, social media outrages and incidents of political incorrectness, now make the cut. Triviality and stupidity are routinely elevated to matters of importance and celebrated. Newsroom workers have become conditioned to this prime directive and now wait— like a cat crouched in ambush outside a mousehole—for the next potential outrage.

When Canadian musician Jocelyn Alice let out a mirthful giggle while singing Canada’s national anthem at the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star game, some bored and conflict-prone members of the public took to Twitter to attack her, saying she had debased the anthem. Her giggle (more of a live performance chortle) was hardly out of place, if at all noticeable. Yet CBC News Network seized on the Twitter feedback and featured the “story” in its early morning broadcast. The promotional bump for it, running before the commercial break, gives an idea of the sort of “news” Canadians can nowadays sometimes wake up to:

“Coming up… It's the giggle heard all the way from Miami. Last night during the MLB All-Star opening ceremony, Canadian singer-songwriter Jocelyn Alice let out a very noticeable giggle during the national anthem. And the backlash against the moment has been swift. So, it got us thinking—should we do away with singing anthems at sporting events? We're hearing from you and we'll share some of those responses…”

This sort of triviality obfuscates what’s really going on.

In the online world those consequences are amplified by the news media’s use of “most shared,” “most emailed,” or “most read” lists on their websites, which ensure that the sensational stories dominate the pile, getting even more visibility and clicks at the expense of others. This creates a feedback loop which incentivizes frippery. Back in the TV realm, producers are then encouraged to cover those same top web stories, because of their popularity.

These market-driven decisions to prioritize trivia over deep significance work to change societal norms of what is important in the world. Audiences are conditioned and brainwashed by this content which not only dumbs down our culture, but also dangerously polarizes it.


This article is excerpted from the book VEILS OF DISTORTION: HOW THE NEWS MEDIA WARPS OUR MINDS (Terra Incognita, 2021).


John Zada is a Toronto-based author and photographer, and a former CBC News and Al Jazeera journalist. He's produced work for the Toronto StarGlobe & Mail, BBC online, exploreMaisonneuve, and The Literary Review of Canada. He is also the author of the book, In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch.




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