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22 February 2024

The Spears phenomenon

By Alice Haine



This week, one of CNN’s top news stories on its world bulletin was Britney Spears’ latest tumble from grace. The anchor’s brow furrowed as he delivered news of the former pop superstar holding her sons hostage during a bitter custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline.

The fact this story was so high up in the bulletin’s pecking order surprised me. Of course the voyeur in all of us likes to hear the latest snippet of Britney’s car-crash life, but should her tragic existence beat other international stories?

A media professor I know fuelled my concern further when he told me about a recent visit to the United States where the only story he could find on the TV news channels was of Britney’s 16-year-old sister’s pregnancy.

The two incidences are a sad reflection of how current affairs are being trivialised before our eyes. And the age group that responds most to the ‘dumbing down’ effect is the younger generation. It’s hard to argue with a teenager why news of yet another suicide blast in Iraq is more important than Britney’s latest dilemma. But there’s no denying that current affairs is being toned down to cater to a younger, less informed viewer.

This sad fact of life was highlighted during a roundtable I participated in at Zayed University this week. There I met a group of students from Pacific Lutheran University in Washington who were here on a three-week media field-trip.

The students were an enthusiastic group who asked well-informed questions but even they admitted their personal interest in current affairs was considered an oddity among their peers. Whereas they enjoyed catching up on the latest news, they said many of their friends found their interest unusual. As one student pointed out: “We are not your typical Americans because we are here [in the UAE].”

But American teenagers are not alone in ignoring the world around them. A female Emirati student at the same meeting admitted she rarely followed the news, preferring to log onto Youtube instead.

So what can the media do to encourage youngsters to be more aware? Do we need Angelina Jolie to become the next Secretary General of the United Nations? Or should Britney Spears run for the White House? Or should we appeal to the media institutions themselves? Rather than bending to corporate demands to deliver us sexier, more digestible news – should they not be challenging us with in-depth analysis on international events?

Britney may be easier to sell but ultimately her news risks killing intelligent debate altogether.