High-profile drama and intrigue dominated UK media coverage this week: not the confidence vote for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but the launch of the eighth season of Love Island.
At least for some of the UK’s most popular online news brands.
While political drama dominated national newspaper front pages, at The Sun, Mirror, Metro and Manchester Evening News more stories were published online with the date stamp 7 June 2022 about Love Island than about the confidence vote.
Sun editor Victoria Newton told the Newsworks Festival of News in London on Thursday (9 June) that such is the level of audience interest in Love Island, if she relied too heavily on digital data to inform the newspaper front page they would be splashing on the reality show “every single day”.
Looking at the top-ten biggest UK outlets by online audience, Press Gazette counted the number of news articles we could find about Love Island on Tuesday versus how many were about Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his confidence vote.
Tuesday was the first full day of coverage of Love Island following the launch of its eighth season on ITV2 the night before. The results of the confidence vote in Johnson were announced late on Monday, with most coverage of its outcome published on Tuesday.
Some titles published enough Love Island content in one day to fill the equivalent of an entire print edition.
Love Island news coverage
Press Gazette found that The Sun published the most articles about Love Island overall, writing 58 pieces about the show on Tuesday compared to nine about the political moment. Mail Online published 43 articles about Love Island, but even more about Boris Johnson and his confidence vote.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Reach tabloid the Daily Express published no articles covering goings on at the Island. The only significant reference to the show came in an article focused on Michael Owen, whose daughter Gemma is a contestant this series.
Since finding success, Love Island has become a coverage mainstay for many publishers.
“Love Island makes big money by turning its show into the entire world’s watercooler gossip – and it has been able to achieve such status by relying on tabloid coverage.”
Criticism of Love Island coverage
Media coverage of Love Island - in particular the personal lives of its stars - was scrutinised after February 2020, following the suicide of original host Caroline Flack.
Flack's death was the third suicide of a Love Island cast member. Islanders Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon took their lives in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
A Vanity Fair piece published last week, explaining Love Island’s history to a US audience, had the relationship between Love Island’s talent and the tabloids as a major theme.
The magazine said that Flack’s love life was “slavishly documented by British tabloids.” After Flack was charged with assaulting her boyfriend, Vanity Fair reported, “The tabloid headlines were brutal. ‘Flack’s Bedroom Bloodbath.’ ’SHE TRIED TO KILL ME.’ ‘Flack Sack & Whack for ITV.’ Though Flack had warned islanders not to read negative things about themselves online, she was obsessed with her own deluge of terrible news coverage.”
Guidelines from suicide prevention charity Samaritans are clear that “most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life.” And Vanity Fair’s article did not draw a direct causal relationship between the headlines and Flack’s death, which came two months after the headlines. But at the time of Flack’s death in February 2020, commentators were less equivocal.
Liberal Democrat MP and former Hacked Off employee Daisy Cooper said: “In Britain we have trial by courts and not trial by media for a reason. Regardless of what took place she should not have been hounded to death by tabloid newspapers desperate for clickbait.”
Keir Starmer, then running to be Labour leader, said: “It wasn’t just social media, it was the media amplifying what social media was doing. It was both strands. There is a human impact.”
Speaking to The New York Times, former Sun editor David Yelland said: “Did the tabloids kill her? I think the reality is that popular newspapers are now just one part of the toxic ecology the very famous have to cope with.”
Speaking to Press Gazette, presenter and showbiz journalist Ellie Phillips argued the vitriol faced by Love Island contestants was a reflection of social media, not professional journalism.
Phillips said that most reality stars with whom she had spoken, including some Love Islanders, complained about “'the abuse I got on social media, the comments on my posts, people tearing me apart, people contacting my family, saying nasty things.' That is, you know, that's so specific to social networking, not the media.”
Professional journalists, Phillips said, were often “just reiterating what was shown on television, and then relaying a social commentary, because that is what's happening, that is the feedback”.
Phillips emphasised the Samaritans guidance that suicide can rarely be put down to a single cause.
“I think if you look at the suicides that have happened surrounding Love Island, there have been bigger issues at play than simply, ‘there was a negative article’ or ‘someone said something on social media’.
"So I find it really worrying when people can say, ‘Oh, we blame that one thing for that one reaction.’ Because you're saying that that one person so easily went from being 100% in a very good mental state - suddenly, for one thing, slipping and going the other way.”
Phillips said that while she did not think there had been a reckoning among showbiz reporters following Flack's death, there had been a broader societal one.
"I think maybe there's a softer attitude now... when [people] see a reality star on television, that that can be a persona. And we always have to remember that those people go home at night."
Pictures: ITV 2; Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images