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Home > Publications > Quill > Cable TV loses way with celebrity ‘news’


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Monday, April 2, 2007
Cable TV loses way with celebrity ‘news’

By Fred Brown, SPJ ethics committee vice chairman

The death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a legitimate news story. After a while, the coverage got a bit overwrought, but the princess was more than just a celebrity.

The murder trial of O.J. Simpson, starting much earlier with that bizarre slow-speed police chase, deserved coverage too; probably not as much as it ended up getting, but he had been a star in football and film and had also been a role model.

Then came February 2007, with the death of Anna Nicole Smith and the antics of Britney Spears. The cable television news shows lost their moorings.

Maybe it was because it was February, when winter is old and gray and has worn out its welcome in the major media capitals, when the snow is spattered with grime and reporters are getting cabin fever. But is there really any excuse for serious, responsible media to devote so much attention to people who are famous mainly for being famous?

This pursuit of celebrity is a form of addiction. We know it’s not good for us — or for our audiences — but we can’t seem to help ourselves. We justify it by saying we’re only giving readers what they crave.

Polls in fact show that the public thinks too much media attention is paid to celebrities. But ratings, circulation figures and visits to Web sites suggest that the public, despite its protestations to pollsters, does indeed pay attention.

At some point, though, enough is enough. How do you tell when you’ve reached the saturation point? I asked my communication ethics students at the University of Denver what they thought, and how they might structure a policy for handling celebrity news.

The first thing they mentioned was audience. It depends on the demographics of your readers and viewers. Obviously the Wall Street Journal will have a different philosophy about celebrity news than, say, the New York Post because of who their readers are.

Part of the analysis of audience, therefore, involves competition. The voracious appetite of 24/7 news channels seems to demand that all of them drop everything to cover the same dubious events. But was it really necessary for every one of them to broadcast every moment of the judicial determination of what to do with Smith’s earthly remains? Judge Larry Seidlin was a sideshow who muscled his way into the spotlight. Critics suggested he was looking to become the next Judge Judy.

Responsible media should sideline the Seidlins of the world; do not give them the attention they seek so blatantly. Yes, they’re hard to ignore. But don’t give them more exposure than is absolutely necessary.

There’s some hypocrisy in the way the “responsible” media managed to get these stories before the public; they did it while tsk-tsking at the way other media had gone overboard in their coverage.

You might argue that that approach has a certain validity; excessive coverage can be a news story itself. And it’s legitimate to look for broader substance and cultural context in these fluffy stories. My University of Denver students thought it would be worthwhile to seek comments from experts in sociology and mental health about the implications of Spears’ decision to shave her head and seek late-night tattoos.

Other possible legitimate stories: What should parents tell their children about these bizarre personalities? Why do they command so much attention? Who are today’s legitimate role models, if any?

Cover only the significant developments: The final disposition of Smith’s remains; the determination of the paternity of her newborn. Perhaps short stories on Spears’ repeated returns to rehabilitation are worthwhile for the moral lessons they might contain. The nature of “significant” should be a newsroom discussion.

Ethical decision-making involves, first, recognition of an ethical problem — and excessive celebrity coverage is a problem — and, second, thorough discussion of how to deal with the problem. Different organizations and individuals will have different answers, and different policies. The important thing is to have something in place so you’re ready to stand up for your principles and not be swept away in the tide.


Ethics checklist

Celebrities: What is enough?

* Consider the nature of your audience.

* Cover only significant developments.

* Look for substance and cultural context.

* Sideline the publicity hounds.

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