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Who reads supermarket tabs?

Many journalists, encountering the tabloids at the supermarket, have wondered just who enjoys reading about visiting aliens and Vanna White's personal life. Elizabeth Bird, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, provides some answers in her book "For Inquiring Minds: A Cultural Study Of Supermarket Tabloids."

The British-born professor befriended staff members at the National Examiner in Boca Raton, Florida, and had the newspaper run an announcement asking readers to write letters explaining why they read it. One hundred sixteen responded and Bird interviewed 16 of them. While this hardly constitutes a scientific survey, Bird believes the letters and interviews gave her a window on the tabloid reading world. In an interview for AJR, St. Paul writer Frank Jossi asked Bird about her findings.

What did you find out about the average reader?

[Many] were middle-aged white women with a high school education, although about a third were men. People think these readers are uneducated and gullible and dumb, but that's not really what I got from reading the letters. I see them as a cross-section of people--not intellectuals but middle-class American types of people, the same sort who read Reader's Digest or People magazine.

Do people believe what is written in the tabloids?

People tend to be selective about what they believe in the paper. When I interviewed [them] and read the letters of readers, they believed what reinforced things they already believed in, and they dismissed things they don't already believe. I found the results were surprising--people who put a lot of store in astrology think UFOs and ESP are garbage.

So readers are not gullible?

There are a few who think the papers carry the gospel truth, like a woman who really believed the story [that] dinosaur eggs had actually hatched, as if it had happened it would have only been [reported] on the back page of the Examiner. Some things almost anyone will believe. The paper once ran a story about a magical plant that makes people younger and people called up to get the name of people who had used the plant and to find out where you could get it. I think it even surprised the writer who made up the story, who didn't have the nerve to tell one of them, who traveled to Guatemala to find the plant, that it didn't exist after all.

You are saying reporters make up the stories?

The papers claim the stories are based on research, but...I got to know one of the writers who left the paper and he told me the stories are based on something but that something can be as simple as someone calling in information. For what they call the "top of the head" stories the editors will first have a photo someone comes up with, or a funny headline, and then they'll write a story around it. A lot of them are based on urban legends--being buried alive, appliances that go mad and kill people, machines that are potentially dangerous, like the garbage compactor that killed a child or flattened a dog.

How does American folklore fit in with tabloids?

Folklore is part of a great sense of oral tradition dealing with stories, legends and tales and so on. The way folklore appears in tabloids as a story or a legend is something like JFK still being alive or the "vanishing hitchhiker" or the "Elvis is alive" story. The tabloids act as a storyteller, picking up what's already in the culture and restating it in the tabs. Once the story gets printed [the writers] see if it takes off. If people write in with their own stories it becomes another story for the tabs. The readers and writers are sort of writing the story together.

The assumption is people read tabloids to fill a void in their lives. Is that true?

The tabloids do fill a void of excitement people have in their lives. Most people live lives that are mundane, not thrilling.... They are interested in stories about family breakdown because it makes them feel better about their families. There's a fantasy element in there about watching the exciting lives of beautiful people but seeing that what they are really looking for is a perfect family life. This person sees the life Linda Evans leads but also sees her own life is happier because she has a family. They feel a bit superior to these people who they kind of admire at the same time.

How have the mainstream media been affected by the tabloids?

I think they have been listening to the message of the tabloids for some time, which is [that] people are fascinated and engrossed by stories about other people. They have copied the tabloids' idea of writing about ordinary people dealing with problems. The growth of human interest sections show daily newspapers are picking up on that. And the tabloid shows on television would not really have come to be without the print tabloids.
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Title Annotation:tabloids
Author:Jossi, Frank
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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