Gawker Ranks the Rumor Mills

Accuracy and credibility in celebrity journalism

Contrary to what you may have read, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are still together. John Mayer and Jennifer Anniston are not. Neither are Kate Hudson and Owen Wilson. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, however, are still together, though they haven’t gotten married or conceived a child.

Break-ups, pregnancies, marriages—these are some of the major markers of life, and the bread and butter for any celebrity weekly. These publications live and die based on the moments of celebrity’s lives. So much so that they often grasp at the faintest of rumors to try and generate a story, or just make something up. A fair question, then, is which outlets get it right when it comes to the latest in celebrity copulation, separation, rehabilitation, conception, and deception?

Gawker attempted to provide an answer this week whenit published a report by Maureen O’Connor that used a rather unique and amusing methodology to try and see which weekly is the most accurate, or, as the site itself put it, “Which Tabloids Lie the Most?”

“Very few people actually look back and recall what ran in these mags months ago or weeks ago and we thought it would be interesting to do a little analysis …” said Remy Stern, the editor-in-chief of Gawker. “We thought it would be fun and really didn’t know what we would find.”

You can read the full methodology here, but basically the Gawker team chose five weeklies—In Touch, OK!, Life & Style, Star, and Us Weekly—and “analyzed 20 months of reported break-ups, marriages, and pregnancies to tabulate our first-ever Tabloid Reality Index, batting averages for America’s five major celebrity glossies and the rumors they monger.”

Gawker checked back on individual reports to see if they were ever verified—did Jennifer Anniston really get pregnant by Kristen Stewart, who was adopted by Brangelina?—and then tallied up the results. Turns out Us Weekly is the best of the tabs and Star came in last place. (Disclosure: About seven or eight years ago, I did a one-time stint as a stringer for In Touch. It consisted of me driving to Ottawa and spending the day following around a former Bachelor contestant to see what he did, and to ask him to confirm reports that he and his chosen bride-to-be had broken up.)

People wasn’t in contention because “they very rarely got anything wrong and practiced a different sort of tabloid journalism.” At the same time, the National Enquirer was also excluded because it too practiced a different sort of tabloid journalism, albeit from the other extreme. (Read this previous column to see how they would disagree.) Gawker also published an accompanying story that is a remarkable collage of all the incorrect Brangelina covers.

Stern said the story has done relatively well for traffic, and has really struck a chord with people in the media. When we spoke, he said O’Connor was waiting to hear if she was going to appear on The View to discuss the findings.

The piece was also noted by long time celebrity reporter Michael Lewittes. He’s spent time on the gossip beat for the New York Daily News, New York Post, Us Weekly, E!, and Access Hollywood. He now runs Gossip Cop, which exists solely to judge the accuracy and quality of celebrity reporting.

“We have a simple policy here: We fact check,” he said. “No one had ever done it before [in gossip reporting], which was exciting and shocking at the same time.”

The site ranks the accuracy of the latest reports from the major weeklies and other outlets using a zero-to-ten scale, and by contacting some of the sources that Lewittes has cultivated over his career. He called the Gawker piece interesting and said he wasn’t surprised to see Us Weekly come out on top. (Click here to see my all-time favorite Us Weekly error.)

“I’ve never tried to quantify exactly how accurate some outlets are and how inaccurate other outlets are, but anecdotally I always felt Us was far more accurate than, say, Star,” he said. “It probably comes down to an ethos, which Us Weekly celebrates celebs a little more than Star. Star likes to do the ‘caught ya’ or ‘you’d never believe this’ stories.”

Gossip Cop’s trade is gossip about gossip. As if that wasn’t meta enough, Lewittes uses gossip reporting techniques to verify the work of gossip reporters.

As an example, here’s the site’s commentary about a recent In Touch story on Britney Spears:

In Touch alleges that dad Jamie Spears and boyfriend Jason Trawick have been “working behind her back to revamp her image,” part of a “secret plan” that included the careful orchestration of her August trip with Trawick to Hawaii.

According to one of the tabloid’s “insiders,” the pop star was incensed after supposedly learning that her dad and boyfriend “tipped off photographers” during the vacation.

And here’s how the site knocks down that rumor:

A source close to Spears tells Gossip Cop that the conspiracy theory is “b.s.”

So how can we know that Gossip Cop’s “source” is better than In Touch’s “Insiders”? (If we go by sheer numbers, there seem to be more insiders than sources…) Lewittes said the difference is that he has better sources—even if these sources often end up being unnamed in the site’s reports.

“You’d be surprised how many contacts and insiders you can create over nearly two decades,” he said. “Now, when there’s a story involving a celebrity, I have three or four different angles to get to that person and the truth of the story.”

But as even the most casual reader of Page Six and the like knows, the stars’ reps lie to the press all the time. How can you know when you’re not getting hosed by a rep who’s been ordered to cover something up, or at least lead people astray until an agreed-upon exclusive can be doled out? Lewittes said the role that he and his site can play in helping knock down erroneous gossip causes key sources deal with him straight up.

“Once we got burned by subject of the story who on the record told us she was not pregnant and then the next day [told] Extra or Entertainment Tonight that she was pregnant,” he said. “So we came back to readers and we said, ‘Look we quoted her and she lied to us.’”

As for the celeb weeklies, Lewittes said some will knowingly print false information, or at the very least omit details that soften the impact of a story.

“I think that it’s probably ingrained more at some outlets that if you’re going to do story you have to call all parties involved and if you get answers from all you have to include them,” he said. “I’ve heard from a number people who called me afterwards who said, ‘I told them it wasn’t true and they went with it anyway.’ ”

It’s a strange game. Inaccurate stories are used to drive newsstand sales, and are then repeated by reams of websites and perhaps that night’s episode of Access Hollywood and the like. At the same time, the information proves invaluable fodder for a site like Gossip Cop that calls out the inaccuracy, setting off another cycle. Everything feeds the beast, regardless of veracity.

“People need to attract viewers and sell magazines, so sometimes being outrageous is better than being accurate,” Lewittes said.

That’s enough to keep a gossip cop on the beat for a long time.

Correction of the Week

“Singer Neil Young was born Nov. 12, 1945, and singer Eric Clapton was born March 30, 1945. The Short List events calendar in Friday’s Weekend Journal transposed their birthdates. In addition, the listing erred by identifying Mr. Young as a former heroin user; the Journal has no reporting to support that Mr. Young used the drug.” – The Wall Street Journal

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.