In the last few months, there have been a seemingly disproportionate amount of celebrity deaths. Beginning with Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcet to Walter Cronkite, Ted Kennedy and, more recently, Patrick Swayze it seems as though each new day brought the passing of another beloved public figure. Likewise, these passings have been matched by a disproportionate amount of media coverage. This disproportionate coverage is one of many examples of an alarming trend in contemporary media (particularly journalism): the over-coverage of so-called “fluff news” and, more succinctly, the emphasis of profit over public service.
Let me begin by saying that in no way am I attempting to downplay the tragedy of the deaths of these individuals. The loss of a loved one is always hard, and this can be especially so when the loved one is beloved by many members of the public. Nor am I necessarily criticizing the media for the coverage of the passing of notable public figures. Celebrities are, after all, public figures, and their passing deserves exposure. The problem lies in the amount and degree of exposure. And while there may be a great deal of debate over which celebrities hold more “merit” in terms of influence (for instance, a pop star or a politician), there is no debate that excessive coverage of these deaths draws attention away from other, more pertinent public issues.
The most obvious and extreme example of celebrity death “super coverage” was the June 25th death of pop-star Michael Jackson. The news of his death was certainly shocking,. After all, Jackson was arguably the world’s most famous pop musician and had achieved a great deal of notoriety throughout his career for both his influence on the world of music and the questionable reputation of his personal life. Jackson was a superstar, and his tragic death deserved coverage. However, in the days following Jackson’s death, there was a deluge of Jackson-related news, described by one media commentator as a “media siege.” Arguably, the most prominent news story overshadowed by coverage of Jackson’s death was the increasingly intense Iranian election controversy. Among other neglected news stories was the investigation of the Washington, D.C metro crash (which killed 9 people and injured 75 others), the ousting of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya by a military coup, the approval of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the explosion of tensions between two ethnic groups-Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs-in Urumqi, China, which resulted in the deaths of over 150 people. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, from the time the Jackson story broke Thursday afternoon to the end of the day Friday, 60% of studied news coverage was devoted to his death, his life story and his legacy. Iran coverage dropped to 7% of the newswhole in that same time period.
The media’s reaction to the Michael Jackson story represents a startling trend in contemporary journalism. More and more, news outlets are choosing to focus on celebrity gossip and other “newslite” stories in lieu of more important (if less titillating) public issues. The explanation for this trend can be summed up in one word: profit. News outlets are a business after all, and businesses are meant to make money. And how do news outlets make money? They must attract high ratings, and advertisers who will pay money to reach those large audiences. How do they attract these audiences? By broadcasting and publishing those stories that are the most titillating, intriguing, or violent. As the old adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
But journalism was never meant to be business as usual. From our country’s inception, the press has been the primary conduit of information flow from policy makers to the American public. Journalists have long aimed to provide the American public with objective information that is pertinent to the public interest. Certainly global issues such as the genocide in Darfur or growing racial tensions in Europe deserve more coverage than Lindsay Lohan’s alleged cocaine usage, if only based solely on the fact that these global issues directly influence the lives of more people. And while there can be debate as to what is “pertinent to public interest” and whether news can ever really be “objective“, there is no doubt that policy decision and groundbreaking historical events are more pertinent to the everyday lives of Americans than whether or not Jon and Kate are getting divorced.