McGuire on Media

Figuring out some boundaries for celebrity coverage

This summer I moderated a panel on Ethics and Business pressures at the AEJMC conference in Chicago.  Geneva Overholser the new Director of the School of Journalism at University of Southern California, Peter Bhatia the Executive Editor of the Portland Oregonian and Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee school of Journalism at Iowa State University were on the panel and the discussion was spirited.

The conversation hit a bump when I asked the panel to talk about the media’s obsession with celebrity news.  Peter Bhatia knew where I was going from our long-standing friendship, but it was not as clear to me that Geneva and Michael viewed the coverage of celebrity as a huge threat to newspapers and mainstream media. The audience seemed to side with Geneva and Michael.

I think celebrity coverage represents an incredible challenge for journalism because the public is so hostile toward mainstream media coverage of celebrity at the very same time significant portions of the audience demand more celebrity coverage.

I am so convinced journalistic credibility is threatened by celebrity coverage which mimics the print and video tabloid coverage that I added a whole week on the subject of celebrity in my two ethics classes this semester. My reading list for the week is at the end of this post.

My graduate ethics class will attempt to write some standards for celebrity coverage and I think we all need to set some boundaries if we want to remain credible with audiences.

This February piece by Jeff Bercovici on is a very good teaching piece. Much of the commentary quotes another fine article by Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and People contributor.  From reading the Bercovici article  on Britney Spears and her possible mental illness, I developed some issues I think are worth exploring as we attempt to come up with better ways for mainstream journalists to cover celebrity news.

Nomani talks about “organizations with any pretensions to responsibility.” That raises an interesting question about whether that is a a self-choosing category for the organizations or do readers choose which media outlets are responsible? Courage is essential here for responsible journalists. It is definitely time “responsible” organizations let go of the idea that they can be all things to all people. “Responsible” organizations should let and the National Enquirer cover celebrity and then concentrate on the real news responsible organizations do best.

Bercovici quotes Nomani as writing “By exploiting (Britney) Spears’ moment of vulnerability, media companies have crossed the line of basic moral decency. “I wonder if there is any “basic moral decency” in the coverage of celebrities any more. There is little “walking in the celebrities shoes” and it seems that all mainstream media needs as justification to publish is that the story appear somewhere “out there” in cyberspace.  There has to be higher set of standards if credibility is going to survive.

For me, what emerges from the Bercovici piece is that media becoming the story seems to be a boundary mainstream media outlets don’t want to cross. Media outlets with “pretensions to responsibility” do not want become entangled with the story or be accused of being the story.

Another boundary that seems to emerge is “imminent danger.”  If a celebrity subject is in imminent danger from their actions and media coverage, there is a suggestion that media will back off.  I am unconvinced this is a boundary and I predict that only a few very bad endings will cause serious discussion of the way the press is harassing celebrities.

The final question the Bercovici piece made me consider is “Who’s going to be deciding whether media outlets cover the celebrity story responsibly? Much of the public is already telling us we already overdo celebrity stories. That has not seemed to slow down our coverage one bit. That’s probably because editors and reporters are sitting at their desks watching Britney and Lindsay Lohan pile up page hits. I fear that is skewing judgments. 

I am going to continue to work on a template for celebrity coverage, but based on this piece from here is a short process to consider.

How do I make my decisions if I want to be perceived as an organization with “pretensions to responsibility?”

Can my coverage pass the test of basic moral decency?

How do I keep my coverage or the coverage of the general press from being the story or even overwhelming it?

I must avoid allowing my coverage to bring imminent danger to celebrities.

I must be willing to ask the pubic what they think of my coverage.

I believe there can be more complete templates for celebrity coverage, but this one is a start.

Finally, here is my reading list for my classes on celebrity and media ethics. 

Day 1: Exploring the problem,0,4735926.column Ignore the entire article except for the section entitled “The Mainstream Media Shun Tabloid Tales”

Day 2: Is sports the real culprit?

Celebrity—Clemens case

Blogosphere and sports celebrity

A-Rod and the “rule”

Olson family privacy