January 20, 2004

Note: This is one in a series of articles probing issues raised in a Jan. 13 conference, “Reporting on Celebrities: The Ethics of News Coverage.” The conference was held at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, in collaboration with The Poynter Institute. See the sidebar below for more.

The setting for the journalistic forum was fitting.

It was held in a state where California voters sent a body-building movie star to the governor’s mansion. In a city where a local pro basketball player’s future is pinned to the outcome of a criminal trial. And in a company town where the business is show business and the valued currency is celebrityhood.

Welcome to “Reporting on Celebrities: The Ethics of News Coverage” or as Variety may have headlined it if there were enough space and a wayward copy editor: Media Minds Quiz Celeb Biz Fizz.

The panel discussion, sponsored by The Poynter Institute and the USC Annenberg School for Communication, brought together an array of journalists, academics, newsmakers, and a public relations executive in a gathering before an audience of more than 60 people at the USC campus.

While the forum tackled a central question of whether the media have gone astray in reporting on celebrities, there were other questions to ask: Is the coverage of celebrities at the expense of other news? Are there adequate newsroom guidelines for such coverage? Do journalists create their own celebrities and cover them in a tail-chasing exercise that exhausts resources and frustrates readers, viewers, or listeners?

The questions and the responses they evoked — which were as varied as the nearly two-dozen speakers — underscored how increasingly important the issue of celebrity coverage has become in newsrooms.

Nothing reflects that emphasis more than in recent stories and subsquent media scrutiny that have come out of California and the West.

Last fall, media outlets were criticized for their coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign in California. Schwarzenegger supporters complain of an anti-Arnold bias. His critics contend that the media are too lenient on the popular movie star.

When Michael Jackson was arraigned last week on child molestation charges, his fans were vocal in slamming news organizations for the ongoing coverage of their pop idol. What was billed as a court arraignment in nearby Santa Maria became a media and anti-media circus.

Meanwhile, news organizations are still grappling with how to cover the sexual assault case of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Laker player accused of rape in Colorado. How do you handle a story that is already saturated with media? And how much of the story goes on the news pages and how much remains in the sports section?

Toss in the media fury over Britney Spears’ day-long marriage in Las Vegas and the usual highs and lows of Hollywood stars, the explosion of new faces on cable and reality television shows, and the proliferation of even more athletes and musicians, and there is no mistaking the challenge for news organizations.

Dean Baquet: “I’m not convinced there is more celebrity coverage as I am convinced there are a lot more celebrities.”

“I’m not convinced there is more celebrity coverage as I am convinced there are a lot more celebrities,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and one of the panelists at USC.

The Times reported that 10,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to protest the paper’s investigation, published just four days before the election, into groping allegations against Schwarzenegger. Baquet defended the story and its timing. He also disagreed with those who said Schwarzenegger generated too much coverage during the 52-day campaign.

Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian, took issue with readers who had criticized his newspaper for what they said was an overemphasis on the Bryant case at the expense of other news stories.

Bhatia, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said readers should look at how a newspaper covers a community or issues “over a passage of time” when evaluating celebrity coverage.

Media should be judged by overall coverage, he added, “how it cares about the community and how it covers the community, that is the real test.”

Even as more celebrity news appears, some journalists are resisting the urge to air some of those stories. Bob Long, vice president and news director of KNBC in Los Angeles, said his station has avoided what is one of the staples of some media’s coverage — celebrity lifestyles — and he expects others to do the same.

“I feel you’ll see less and less of celebrity lifestyle stuff because people are simply not interested,” he said.

Not everybody agreed about the waning coverage and lack of interest in celebrities. Several panelists noted how the popularity of celebrities can drive up readership or viewership and others said journalists needed to be cautious about ignoring what the public may actually want.

A person’s celebrity status should be one of the factors in determining news value, said Dan Rosenheim, news director of KPIX-TV in San Francisco. “One ignores viewers or reader interests at your own peril,” he said. “We risk trivializing ourselves and marginalizing ourselves.”

Journalists whose coverage is focused on celebrities underlined the importance of ethical standards in reporting, writing, and photographing the stories they do.

“You’re not going to violate your operating standard as a journalist” to cover celebrities, said Cynthia Wang, associate bureau chief in Los Angeles for People magazine. She recommended a rigid fact-checking system and a hiring policy that seeks journalists experienced in court reporting and other skills.

But some panelists said the competition to snare a celebrity interview can lead journalists to cross ethical lines.

Susan Tellem, the lone public relations executive on the panel, lists local prosecutors in the Jackson case among her clients. She said some reporters are less scrupulous about sources and accuracy, especially when it comes to celebrity cases. “There is a terrible pressure on journalists to get the story,” she said.

Several panelists noted how the popularity of celebrities can drive up readership or viewership and others said journalists needed to be cautious about ignoring what the public may actually want.Robert Scheer, a newspaper columnist and magazine writer, put it more bluntly: “There is an incredible amount of corruption in this business.”

Scheer who also teaches at the Annenberg school, said some magazines and television programs are so dependent upon celebrities that they may hype or soften stories to promote or protect celebrities. He cautioned against a get-the-interview-at-any-cost philosophy when it comes to celebrities.

Other panelists warned against allowing celebrities or their representatives to control copy. They also criticized the trend to cut costs — or speed up story production — by relying on public relations agents as substitutes for good, sound reporting. They advised against letting celebrity coverage be characterized simply by scandals.

Peggy Jo Abraham, news director of E! Entertainment Network, pointed out that in the competitive world of celebrity coverage, some media outlets are no longer insisting on independent confirmation before publication or distribution. Instead, they settle for quoting another publication or television outlet reporting on what may only be a rumor.

We have become a voyeuristic society, said Ken Baker, West Coast executive editor for Us Weekly magazine. But he cautioned that there is a need to identify the difference between what is newsworthy and what is “journalistic pornography” when it comes to showcasing stories or photographs.

In the past, Baker said, photographs were mostly a supplemental part of a story. Now, photographs often spark a story. “In the last two or three years, it has become the starting point for news,” he said. “Get the photo and go report to give it context.”

While journalists who specialized in celebrity news say they see more demand for their work, others also have felt a change in their newsrooms.

Sue Cross, vice-president/West of the Associated Press, said that her wire service used to handle calls largely from Americans interested in news about celebrities. With globalization and worldwide interest, those inquiries or tips now arrive from as far away as Indonesia and Germany prompting AP reporters to investigate and possibly file stories for the news wire.

“It has made a difference in what we pursue,” she said.

So, how do journalists maintain ethical standards in covering celebrities? As some panelists indicated, they begin by asking questions that point to an ethical process. They include asking:

  • Why am I doing this story?

  • Is there a journalistic reason for this story?

  • What is the story’s news value?

  • How much time and resources are we spending on this?

  • Is this being done at the expense of another, more important story?

Determining the worth of a story is a newsroom decision based on various factors. But as some panelists argued, celebrity status should be one factor to be weighed. Others maintained that a story can be valued merely because it is entertaining and a good read. But with any criteria, there should be a process or method that will help journalists determine the coverage of celebrity news.

The forum, which included Poynter’s Gregory Favre, Bob Steele, Aly Colón, and Kelly McBride, began with a bit of whimsy. Jay Harris, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, introduced himself with a confession. “My name is Jay and I have been a big-city tabloid editor. I am in recovery for 15 years and could fall into the thrall of celebrity journalism.”

But it was also Harris, who now teaches at USC, who warned of the seriousness of the issue. The media that carry useful information as the “central nervous system of society,” he said, can also “spread that which weakens, that which corrodes, and that which debases.”

For many, that description spotlights the dangers of celebrity news coverage. Actor Ed Asner, who was one of the newsmakers on the panel, called journalism’s fixation on celebrities “horrifying” and suggested that it was contributing to the “moral decay” in the country. The other newsmaker was John Dean, the former White House counsel who recounted the days when reporters covered him relentlessly as one of the central figures in the Watergate scandal. He contrasted that time to the present-day political coverage that he says is lacking in bite.

“I have never seen a less questioning media today than I have with political celebrities,” Dean said.

Politicians and other story subjects are not the only celebrities in town, of course. As E! Entertainment Network’s Abraham pointed out, in the search for celebrities, the media need not look very far. She described how people attending one of the high-profile court hearings were only momentarily disappointed at failing to obtain an autograph from the defendant. They merely stood in line to get the autographs of those celebrities at hand — the journalists covering the trial.

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Victor Merina is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.…
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