I was watching TV the night news broke of singer Whitney Houston’s death. My phone buzzed shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, with an Associated Press news alert. I made a quick post on Facebook, and within minutes the social medium was red hot with comments.
My post permitted me to briefly escape ESPN’s extensive coverage of the Jeremy Lin “Linsanity” tour. The night news came of Houston’s death, Lin, the upstart New York Knicks player who was almost cut by his third NBA team, scored 20 points, his fifth straight game of such offense. Lin was a surging star. Houston’s had burned out in untimely, unexpected fashion.
What happened that day may have started the perfect storm for media hype, sensationalism and cradle-to-grave coverage by U.S. media. For days, the media exhorted us to stay with it as it covered every conceivable angle, tied off every loose end, and uncovered every trivial detail about the budding sports star and the entertainment legend.
Hyping success, failure or death of celebrities is nothing new with the press. It’s a card played close to the vest, but it’s held by an eager hand, always ready to toss it in the game to win ratings, awards and the hearts of audiences.
Observers, media scholars and ethicists need look no further back than Tiger Woods’ infidelity, Anna Nicole Smith’s death, Lindsay Lohan’s travails or the O.J. Simpson trial to pluck perfect examples of media frenzy that consumed audience interest, but just as quickly flattened our credibility because of our inability to show restraint.
The key question in this analysis is when is it enough? When does the commitment to telling the fullness of the story cross the line into unmitigated saturation?
SPJ’s newest ethics book, “Journalism Ethics, A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media,” addresses this issue head on. Principal author Fred Brown, vice chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee, provided foreboding commentary when he wrote of the February 2007 death of Smith:
“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 splattered 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 mostly for being famous?”
Much of the compelling desire to tell everything and repeat it in rapid cycle has to do with competition. The 24/7 life of news, thanks in large part now to social media, has become a driving influence in the minds of many media executives who are increasingly fearful that someone else is going to have an interview, a home video snippet, an online survey or a Twitter hashtag before them.
Most journalism codes advise against this mistake for a host of reasons. Here are some suggestions from two codes that can be used to temper the sensationalistic coverage:
Society of Professional Journalists — Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity … Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting … Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context and Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy. (Full text here.)
Radio Television Digital News Association — Guard against extended coverage of events or individuals that fails to significantly advance a story, place the events in context, or add to the public knowledge … Determine news content solely through editorial judgment and not as the result of outside influence and Resist any self-interest or peer pressure that might erode journalistic duty and service to the public. (Full text here.)
In addition to following these guidelines, journalists must keep in mind that they will ultimately answer to the public for their coverage. It’s vital to establish appropriate guidelines for allowing the public to judge the work. SPJ’s ethics code notes that “Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.”
To that end, according to the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists:
• Need to explain their news coverage and invite dialogue.
• Encourage and provide a means by which the public can voice complaints.
• Admit mistakes and correct them.
• Expose the unethical practices of other journalists.
• Adhere to the same high standards to which we hold others.
When covering big news like the death of a well-known person, journalists would do well to:
• Consider the nature of the audience.
• Cover only significant developments.
• Look for substance and cultural context.
• Sideline the publicity hounds.
Before we witness another storm of sensationalism, we should compare these ethical standards against our insatiable urge to unleash a celebrity tell-all.
Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee. On Twitter: @SPJEthicsChair
Tagged under: Ethics