Celebrity News vs. Serious Issues: Which Takes Precedence?

The Rumor Mill Spawns More Interest Than Hard News, FCLC Captivated by the Allure of the Stars


The daily lives of celebrities have taken public interest by storm, leaving consumers with an insatiable appetite for the dish on the latest gossip. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Published: April 2, 2009

“I couldn’t do my essay… Brad and Jen broke up.”

Today, this excuse is as probable as the old “dog ate my homework” trick. In a society full of borderline obsessive fans, you can get by without knowing the details of Obama’s newest stimulus bill, but if you don’t know about Britney’s latest escapade, you’re considered totally out of the loop. Does this Hollywood mania exist at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), and if so, does it detract from students’ knowledge of hard news?

When it comes to the consumption of celebrity gossip, habits vary among FCLC students.

“I check gossip sites like Perez Hilton several times a day and read entertainment magazines like Entertainment Weekly almost every week,” said Anne Wimmer, FCLC ’11. “Probably the celebrity news I’m most intrigued by is with their careers, upcoming projects, which I can, in the future, consume, like the latest movie or album by a celebrity.”

“I check Perez Hilton twice a day. I mostly get celebrity news online, basically only when I’m bored,” said Jennifer Madden, FCLC ’10. “I usually read this stuff for the fashion…and the relationship gossip.”

“I consume celebrity gossip every day via Perez Hilton,” said Rachel Burt, FCLC ’11. “I also buy magazines and occasionally watch TMZ and other shows about celeb news.”

Burt also admitted to forming an emotional connection to certain celebrities.

“I get emotional when celebrities die,” she said. “When John Ritter passed away, I distinctly remember being very distressed at school.”

Sarah Guy, FCLC ’12, claims that being around others who are interested has a sort of “rub-off” effect.

“I’ve never been one to read up on celeb gossip,” Guy said. “However, since living in an apartment with several girls, I’ve found myself more drawn to hearing gossip and doing some follow up reading online or in the magazines delivered to the apartment.”

Although it is not rocket science, students are informed consumers when it comes to indulging in media that provide them with the dish on Hollywood. While most students recognized that the majority of celebrity news is purely entertainment, they did mention that occasionally important issues arise out of the daily gossip.

“Celebrity news in general is not important news unless it’s part of a larger issue,” Wimmer said, “like when John Travolta’s son Jett died and people started talking about the risks of autism and Kawasaki disease. But mostly it’s extremely frivolous, meant to entertain.”

Madden agreed, “It’s not that important. The Rihanna thing raises an important issue, but Britney Spears getting fat again? That’s just entertaining.”

Although weighty issues occasionally arise through entertainment news, how healthy is escaping from reality through celebrity culture? Is our society deprived of valuable information about what’s happening politically and socially because of its investment in celebrity lives and gossip?

Some students admitted not always being up to date on current events, while almost always knowing the major celebrity gossip stories.

“I rarely consume hard news; I’m not as well informed on politics and I choose to read/watch celeb news over hard news all the time,” Burt said. “As bad as it sounds, I am just not interested in hard news. Although that may make me seem like an ignorant American, I don’t feel guilty about it because I read/watch what interests me and that just happens to be celebrity news.”

Monique Fortune, adjunct professor of communication and media studies at FCLC, expressed concern over hard news taking the back seat to celebrity gossip.

“In the early 1980s, ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and other celebrity news programs changed the game for hard news,” Fortune said. “I have great trouble with many Americans knowing more about Whitney Houston or Brad Pitt than they know about major U.S. economy trends or international relations. There needs to be balance—fun is fun, but we need to know what is going on in our local community, our state, our nation and in our world.”

As serious-minded newspapers and magazines increasingly plaster their covers with celebrity gossip, and news channels cover more human-interest stories than politics, the question of cause arises.

Fortune claims that the media is responding to the demands and interests of society, much like the demand that arose during the Great Depression.

“Folks wanted to forget their troubles and connect to a shiny, glossy and no-mess fantasy world,” Fortune said. “In 2008, no difference, celebrity fascination rises during tough economic times because so many people would rather read or hear about the troubles of a celebrity than deal with their own financial realities. There is still that need to escape, to leave the hard tasks and situations that life presents.”

Bill Dunks, adjunct professor of communication and media studies, claims that these interests in celebrity life are deep seeded within the individual, existing long before the media outlets that now relay the information.

“This attraction [to celebrity culture] transcends a particular media text,” Dunks said. “There is an escapist pastime; movies have been that way forever. People were doing this before these kinds of extra cinematic texts came along. Not in the super pervasive way they are now, but they constructed stars and the relationship between stars. This was part of the attraction of cinema from the very beginning. These constructions are something obviously ‘extraordinary’—beyond the normal, but at the same time, they want us to think of them as ordinary. This can be really attractive to people; that’s a construction that works. Put the stars in texts that display their ordinariness and it transcends us; we have the fantasy of being like them.”

Some students expressed concern over other possible negative affects of heavy celebrity news consumption.

“I think the celebrity obsession has definitely played a role in changing society,” Guy said. “As we idealize these people we try to emulate them, whether consciously or not. I think it causes a loss of touch with reality within the general population.”

“There’s really nothing good to come out of this obsession with celebrity, except maybe as a frivolous distraction from the daily grind,” Wimmer said.

“It can be negative; it can cause us to have a negative view of ourselves,” Madden said. “Also, we kind of put them on a pedestal, to be more than human, so it’s a way bigger deal when they do something wrong.”

Others see the possible effects of celebrity news in a more positive light.

“We can learn from the mistakes that celebrities make and some celebrities serve as role models for others, which is a good thing,” Burt said.

“My personal feeling is that some fantasy escape isn’t all that bad,” Dunks said, “given [that] people are balanced about it and still recognize the realism of their own lives, that’s the attraction of movies, novels, fiction etc.”

So will this celebrity obsession ever die down?

“I think a lot of it has to do with being at this age,” Wimmer said. “I’ll likely always keep myself up-to-date on some entertainment news—new movies, music, the biggest scandals—but I can’t see myself checking Perez every day when I’m 30, or, at the very least, I hope not.”

“I know I will be interested in it for years to come,” Burt said.

Fortune doesn’t see interest in celebrity culture dying down any time soon.

“For as much as things change, so much stays the same,” she said.