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Tigergate: The Media and the Myth of a Passive Public

December 8, 2009

“President Obama is sending troops to Afghanistan,” Letterman said. “Hell, he ought to be sending them to Tiger Woods’ house.”

Tiger's image before things got all extra-marital

Once any celebrity (or non-entity) scandal breaks its only a matter of time till the inevitable backlash comes. Why does the media insist on devoting so much coverage to things that don’t really matter when there are so many more important things happening in the world?…a backlash of course that will also come from within the media as well. You might even hear how its through exactly this kind of inane bombardment that we, the ignorant masses, end up distracted while the world falls about around us. 

But there are two problems that immediately come to mind with both these views: first they assume a passive public sitting there scratching their asses and just waiting for the various forms of media to tell them what to think and care about (“LIKE CELEBRITIES”), and second all too often it feels as if these kind of criticisms are far more about a particular person’s own value judgement about what is and isn’t interesting rather that having any sort of basis in fact…and I just loves me some fact.

Take Tiger Woods’ marital indiscretions as an example.  Thanks to the magic of the internets we can now actually take a look at some numbers to try and make sense of the coverage we get of different news items.

Below are two simple graphs borrowed from the good people of Sociological Images. The first shows the comparative number of google searches for “Tiger Woods” and “Afghanistan” in the month of November, which clearly shows the massive spike in interest in the world’s most famous sportsperson coincidentally at exactly the same point as the story first broke. The second shows the level of coverage in the print media as collated by google news, which shows that furthermore, despite a rise in Tiger stories, the gap actually ultimately widened dramatically rather than closing as news started to filter through about Obama’s Afghan surge.


Of course the public wouldn’t have known about Tiger’s affairs at all if the media hadn’t broken the story in the first place, but whatever you may think of the coverage the fact is that the stats seem to suggest that not only does it genuinely reflect people’s interest in it, but that the converage of stories like Tigergate are still dwarfed by coverage of the big issues of the day.

Now how this interest in celebrity itself emerges is another question entirely, but one thing is for sure it isn’t new, and we need to be careful about the myths we propogate about our supposedly vacuous, celebrity obsessed culture.  And even more imporantly we need to get over the idea of a mass of dribbling, catatonic reprobates called ‘the public’ with little or no mind of their own. The truth, as they say, is out there, and in this case I suspect its far more interesting than fiction.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 5:48 am

    The subject is fully clear but why does the text lack clarity? But in general your blog is great.

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