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The Sensation of Tabloids

So, last week I talked about whether tabloids are truly as detrimental as we think, and the general consensus from the poll was that tabloids are not good in any way. There are, however, those out there that think tabloids hold some value. I was surprised to find an academic article about the uses of supermarket tabloids in the educational setting. The author (s), fed up with students pulling from the samer sources and recycling high school papers, had the idea of having students use tabloids:

“One evening in 1987 I was standing on line in the local supermarket, absentmindedly perusing the headlines of the tabloid newspapers that clutter the counter there. I read, “Half man, half woman makes self pregnant,” in dark print and bold letters. “What an interesting proposition!” I thought. I was amused by the headline until the two women standing behind me com- mented to each other, “I wonder if that can really happen?” At that moment I began to wonder how many people were taken in by the sensationalism of tabloid writing. Checking through the titles available on the counter that evening, I realized that much of the sensation centered around sex-related topics (“Women’s Lib Scaring Men Out Of Marriage, ” or “Oops! Mom’s Test Tube Baby’s The Wrong Color,” or “After Twelve Years of Marriage Wife Dis- covers Hubby Is A Woman”). It occurred to me that some lesson might be learned in all of this.”

The author goes to talk about the importance of helping students develop their critical faculties, and so she emailed a small selection of tabloids to a professor with the question of how “some of these sensational articles that played on superstition and popular mis-information to induce her students to think critically about topics related to human sexuality.” Professor Parrot replied, and made an argument for why these would be useful in a sociology classroom.

“Many of us have stood in the checkout lines in the supermarket and have read the headlines of the Enquirer, the Star, or the Examiner with their seemingly outrageous claims. “Earth Woman Has Martian Baby,” and “Baby Kicks Twin Out Of The Womb” are not headlines that a scholar can take very seriously, although I am well aware that many people may obtain most of their sex information from these very newspapers. My assumption has always been that all of the articles printed in these tabloids were inaccurate at best and totally false at worst. When I actually studied the articles, however, I learned (much to my surprise) that some of them are reasonably accurate even though the information is often presented in a dubious way. (The author of the article might cite an expert in the field but neither names the expert nor cites the scholarship from which the information was taken.) Although the headlines are nearly always sensational, the stories themselves might be quite rational in tone. The article headed, “Woman Pregnant For Twelve Years,” for example, actually described a situation in which a woman had carried a dead fetus for 12 years. Because only a few students regularly read national newspapers or watch network news, this approach helps them understand more about the national and international events that affect their lives. Bonomo believes that by using news segments in teaching sociology we can expose students to contemporary events and create intellectual interest in analyzing them, which would supplement their theoretical and conceptual exposure to social issues. News bias does not seem to be a significant problem as long as students are taught analytical and critical thinking skills.”

Dr. Parrot had the students select their research topics from a list of issues or stories found in tabloids. Though they had some issues with finding sources, what I got from the article was that it was overall a positive experience:

“…Apart from helping us broaden the scope of the papers and there- by decreasing the strain on the limited library resources (because students used a much greater variety of materials), the students had many good things to say this assignment. Their comments included such statements as “I wanted an assignment which would allow me to be more creative than if I had to write a traditional research paper. The claims in the tabloid were so bizarre that I was forced to read the article very carefully and to be very critical. I had to really work hard to find sources to refute its claims. I’m glad I had an opportunity to write the paper, and I learned a lot.” Another student remarked, “Writing this paper entailed much more work than I had expected and was very time consuming. I had to consult a lot of literature with which I was not familiar and found that difficult.” Although one might see this as a negative comment, the student was trying to point out that she had learned a great deal by undertaking something hard to do.”

Both Dr. Parrot and her research assistants felt that this method not only helped the students think critically/examine all literature with a critical eye, but also cut down on plagiarism and and provide students with interesting topics they wouldn’t normally think of addressing.

I thought this was a really cool thing. If I was still going into teaching, this is something I probably would have considered trying in a class. So while the general consensus is that tabloids aren’t useful at all, there are those out there who think that they may have some use after all. After reading this article, I think my opinion did change slightly. I wonder if the people I questioned would think the same thing…


Parrot, Andrea and Joan Ormondroyd.  “Can a Woman Really Be Pregnant for Twelve Years? Or Is Scholarly Learning Possible from Reading the Tabloids?”. Teaching Sociology , Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 158-164. American Sociological Association.              Article Stable URL:


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