The columns mix factual material on marriages, divorces, and arrests, obtained from official records with more speculative gossip stories, rumors, and innuendo about romantic relationships, affairs, and purported personal problems.
Gossip columnists have a reciprocal relationship with the celebrities whose private lives are splashed about in the gossip column's pages. Of course, some gossip columnists can engage in borderline defamatory conduct, spreading innuendo about alleged immoral or illegal conduct that can injure celebrities' reputations. Yet at the same time, gossip columnists are also an important part of the "Star System" publicity machine that turns movie actors and musicians into celebrities and superstars that are the objects of the public's obsessive attention and interest. The publicity agents of celebrities often provide or "leak" information or rumors to gossip columnists to publicize the celebrity or their projects, or to counteract "bad press" that has recently surfaced about their conduct.
Celebrities or public figures whose private lives are revealed in gossip columns who believe that their reputation has been defamed – that is, exposed to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or pecuniary loss - can sue for libel. A gossip columnist cannot defend themselves from a libel claim by arguing that they merely repeated, but did not originate the defamating rumor or claim; instead, the columnist has to prove that the allegedly defaming statement was truthful, or that it was based on a reasonably reliable source.
In the mid1960s, Supreme Court rulings in the US made it harder for the media to be sued for libel. The court ruled that libel only occurred in cases where a publication prints falsehoods about a celebrity with “reckless disregard” for the truth. A celebrity suing a newspaper for libel must now prove that the paper published the falsehood with actual malice or with deliberate knowledge that the statement was both incorrect and defamatory.
Moreover, the court ruled that only factual misrepresentation is libel, not expression of opinion. Thus if a gossip columnist writes that they “...think that Celebrity X is an idiot,” the columnist does not face a risk of being sued for libel. On the other hand, if the columnist invents an allegation that “...Celebrity X is a wife beater,” with no supporting source or evidence, the celebrity can sue for libel on the grounds that their reputation was defamed.
Well-timed "leaks" about a star's purported romantic adventures helped the studios to create and sustain the public's interest in the studios' star actors. As well, the movie studios' publicity agents acted as unnamed "well-informed inside sources" who provided misinformation and rumors to counteract whispers about celebrity secrets, such as homosexuality or an out-of-wedlock child, that could have severely damaged not only the reputation of the movie star in question, but the movie star's box office viability.
Having fallen into ill-repute after the heyday of Hopper and Parsons, gossip columnists saw a comeback in the 1980s. Today, many reputable magazines such as Time which would once have considered the idea of hiring gossip columnists to pen articles to have been beneath their stature, have sections titled "People" or "Entertainment". These mainstream gossip columns provide a light, chatty glimpse into the private lives and misadventures of the rich and famous. On the lower end of the journalism spectrum, there are entire publications that deal primarily in gossip, rumor, and innuendo about celebrities, such as tabloids and celebrity 'tell-all' magazines.
Notable gossip columnists include: