From too little to too much information, what’s relevant in Schwarzenegger coverage
When news broke Tuesday morning that Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered an out-of-wedlock child, the Los Angeles Times protected the mother’s privacy by excluding her name from coverage.
A day later, The New York Times had published not only the woman’s name, but photos of her and her home, as had ABC, MSNBC and most large news websites -- though, notably, not the LA Times.
LA Times editor Russ Stanton explained to media writer James Rainey why the paper continued to withhold the woman’s name, while New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained to Rainey why the paper published it, along with other details.
"Our basic job is to inform readers about news events, so we need a pretty compelling reason NOT to give readers information we think they care about," Keller wrote, in part. "We're sensitive to privacy issues, but in this case we don't see that compelling reason to keep our readers in the dark."
Keller added: "Often — as in the Schwarzenegger case — we withhold the names of children, because they are particularly vulnerable....
"The employee who had Schwarzenegger's child is a more complicated question. We don't know enough about the circumstances to know whether, or in what degree, she was a victim, beyond the obvious fact that there was a serious imbalance of power in the relationship.
"But there's nothing to suggest that reliving the earlier experience is likely to be traumatizing in the sense rape victims describe (she's lived with it — and worked for him -- for 10 or 15 years). And the reality is, there is not much privacy left for us to protect."
As journalists, once we moved beyond the woman’s name, we compensated for starving readers of details by serving them an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Surely there are options between famine and feast.
And even if you believe there’s no cause to protect her identity -- though doing so reveals the identity of the minor child -- how much information, and of what sort, is justifiable?
Here’s what I’ve learned from the news coverage:
- "The child is very well-mannered."
- A neighbor “describes the boy as a ‘very handsome young man’ who enjoys martial arts and sports.”
- The woman’s house was purchased for $268,000. One neighbor says a real estate agent told her Schwarzenegger bought the house, but the woman is listed as the owner.
Here’s what I really want to know:
- Did Schwarzenegger buy her the house?
- If the mother was brought on as a state employee after the child was born, was there any impropriety about the hiring? Was she compensated at the same rate as other household staff?
- What was the nature of Schwarzenegger’s “support” of the child? Was it in any way related to his gubernatorial responsibilities?
The underlying question of journalistic interest is: How -- if at all -- did this relationship affect California taxpayers? The rest is celebrity or entertainment news.
When news breaks, the instinct is to learn everything. And when you don’t yet know what’s relevant, it’s tempting to publish all you know.
In an insightful piece that addresses why news organizations seek and share all sorts of seemingly irrelevant information about these high-profile cases, The New York Times’ Kate Zernike suggests it is, in part, as if “those details could somehow explain the headlines about the powerful figures.”
“It is part of a fascination with the man,” said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia. “What sort of woman could this powerful man have been attracted to? I think as a society, we care about the lives of powerful celebritylike figures.”
“That curiosity extends not only to their home decorating, but also to who is in their beds,” she added. “The women suffer the collateral damage of our interest.”
To minimize that collateral damage, be clear: just because something is part of your reporting process doesn’t mean it must be part of my reading process.
Let’s agree there is a middle ground between too little and too much information. That middle ground is occupied by the right information.