Tabloid newspapers are seen as sensationalist – but South Africa’s Daily Sun flipped that script during COVID-19
Tabloid journalism usually refers to short, easily readable and mostly human-interest news, presented in a highly visual and sensationalist style. “Tabloidisation” has become shorthand for the deterioration of journalistic standards.
Newspapers like this are often criticised for diverting readers from serious news and analysis towards entertainment. They are viewed as low-quality because of their focus on sports, scandal and entertainment over politics or other serious social issues.
When tabloids first emerged in South Africa in the early 2000s, observers in mainstream journalism criticised them for their potential to undermine democratic values by peddling gender stereotypes and treating serious issues superficially.
Scholarship on tabloids, however, has also shown how they are attuned to their readers’ needs, and the experiences of poor and working class South Africans – more so than their mainstream counterparts.
Against this background, the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how tabloid coverage of it differed from that of mainstream news. The media play a key role to keep the public informed about health issues and shape citizens’ perceptions.
Our previous research showed that the front pages of mainstream media in South Africa presented the pandemic largely as individual events, and in negative and alarmist terms. They focused mainly on the impacts of the pandemic.
We were interested in how the coverage provided by tabloid newspapers compared.
The Daily Sun has not escaped the trend of plummeting circulation figures for print newspapers. But it is still the largest daily newspaper in South Africa, with an audited circulation of around 31,000 a day. Its closest rival is the isiZulu-language tabloid Isolezwe, which sells around 29,000.
The Daily Sun, however, has a much bigger readership, as each copy is estimated to be read by about 20 people. Daily Sun recently extended its digital offering to reach readers outside Gauteng, its major market and now the only province where printed copies are still sold. More than 2 million people read the paper on Facebook a month. Its website receives a million unique visitors a month.
Contrary to what might have been expected by its critics, we found that its coverage was contextually relevant and informative. It was in typical tabloid genre style, but focused on the social impact of the pandemic on its urban, aspirational readers, who fall largely in the Living Standards Measure (LSM) 5 to 7.
These findings emphasise the importance of tabloid news in South African society. Researchers interested in media coverage of major events should therefore include tabloids like the Daily Sun in their scope.
We sampled 1,050 news stories from the Daily Sun website during the period March 2020 to August 2021. This timeframe includes the start of the outbreak of the pandemic in South Africa and the first lockdown in March 2020. It concludes as the “third wave” of the pandemic began to wind down in 2021.
We analysed the content of all the sampled stories and conducted a close reading of a smaller sample of 130 stories. We coded the stories for 14 variables. These included the headline, date, narrative modes, type of reporting, frame of story, primary focus of story, use of language and emotional appeal. We also checked for sensationalist language or misinformation, provision of health information, sources quoted, overall tone of article and whether COVID-19 or the vaccine was the main focus of the article.
Daily Sun’s COVID coverage
Daily Sun news stories encompassed a range of narrative modes. Only 36% fell into the category “sounding the alarm”. This refers to a predominance of fearful claims made in an attempt to convince the public that a threat is real and serious. Daily Sun had much less of this than mainstream media.
There was no overt use of sensationalist language, though reporting often relied on shock aesthetics like colourful headlines, exclamation marks and capital letters. Most stories fell into what we categorised as “mixed messages”. These had some elements of fear, but reassured readers by highlighting systems in place to cope with the pandemic.
The Daily Sun often used the pandemic as a framing tool to highlight social issues that COVID-19 made worse. Electricity price hikes, wage cuts and job losses, for example, affected its readers more than wealthier readers. COVID-19 was framed contextually to increase its relevance for the newspaper’s readership by focusing on social impact and their everyday lives.
One area where tabloid reporting fell short, similar to mainstream coverage, was its lack of practical information for readers on how to limit the spread of the virus. Similarly to mainstream coverage, government officials were most quoted (41%), rather than voices from civil society and the public. In this sense, tabloid newspapers also privileged elite sources despite their working class audience.
Our research also found, however, that 90% of stories were thematic: they provided background information, a wide-angle lens, and more in-depth reportage, as well as a focus on solutions. Several stories debunked rumours and myths – despite the frequent criticism that tabloids play fast and loose with facts. The overall tone of the stories coded was primarily neutral (44%).
Why this matters
Tabloid news coverage of COVID-19 played an important role in reaching audiences left out by mainstream print media. The Daily Sun highlighted the social impact of the pandemic by providing thematic and contextual coverage, and focusing on how ordinary citizens were affected. This news coverage goes counter to stereotypical perceptions of tabloids. It upholds tabloids’ reputation for making news relevant to the everyday lives of their readers.
This adds to researchers’ understanding of the role that popular media can play in raising awareness of public health matters, and the impact of a pandemic on the lives of ordinary citizens. Tabloid journalism in South Africa should be taken seriously and not dismissed as frivolous or irrelevant when it comes to social and political matters.