The death of Michael Jackson, as covered by the press By Christie Silk

29 June, 2009 – Editors Weblog

The media coverage of the shock death of Michael Jackson has served to highlight press dynamics, raising interesting questions concerning the nature of breaking news reporting, the cult of the celebrity and the relationship between newspapers and their online news rivals. Has the fact that most newspapers were delayed in the initial reporting of the death emphasised the widening gulf between print and digital channels of breaking news? Conversely, has the death been exploited by the printed press as a facile, reader guaranteeing hit?

The news of the performer’s death, in terms of rumour, confirmation and reaction has been overwhelmingly ‘digital’ in expression. The scoop belonged to the Los Angeles based celebrity website, TMZ, which confirmed the death an hour after it aired whispers of a suspected heart attack. The reporting was rapid fire: time of death: 2.26pm, LA time, time of update: 2.44pm.

The site is notorious for its merciless exposés of celebrity misdemeanours and ruthless pursuit of information, which may at times conflict with the networking interests of the proprietor, the global media company, Time Warner. Immediately after the reporting onus was then on the public, who amassed on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to express their disbelief and organise common tributes. So where were the newspapers in this global communication frenzy?

They were, ostensibly, in a state of hesitancy, concerned to confirm facts themselves before publishing the story. Most news organisations waited until the more trusted Los Angeles Times posted the death on its website on 2.51pm before they went with the story. The confirmation came too late in the evening for the European newspapers to be able to publish the story on the Friday editions, the majority of which made no reference to even the rumour. Once again, the forums of real-time basked in the glory of their capacities for on the spot updates. The weekend editions of newspapers, particularly the Anglo Saxon, confident of the confirmation, were consumed with lengthy obituaries, biographical articles and speculation into the background of the death.

The involvement of a multitude of platforms in the coverage of a shocking story is hardly novel in today’s multimedia landscape. Yet, this particular incident has drawn attention to the underlying dynamics, and to critics, the faults, of reporting as it stands today.

Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, the Guardian media columnist, Stephen Brook sees the information collecting practices of TMZ as a ‘throwback to old-fashioned journalism’, as it relies on scoops from ‘people on the ground’, rather than being restricted by the censor of the publicist and other celebratory gate keepers. The founder, Levin, was previously an investigative reporter and has evidently been concerned to bring these lessons into the world of celebrity reporting. In general, this field is quite sanitized in the US as compared to the scandalous agenda of tabloid-hardened Britain. The key role of the site in the relaying of Jackson’s death confirms Levin’s own appraisal of the site as like a wire service, ‘We’ve become like The Associated Press in the world we cover,’ he said in the New York Times.

Whether or not the reporting practices of sites solely concerned to break stories about celebrities are worthy of such descriptions is obviously a matter of opinion, but it adds another argument to debates concerning the evolution of reporting. Indeed, first impressions of the site are that it is dependent on citizen journalism, a far cry away from most concepts of ‘old fashioned journalism’. Yet that this is even a debate is perhaps indicative of the ongoing blurring of classical definitions of reporting.

The nature of the coverage of a high profile death will inevitably attract criticism. The newspapers were late to ‘break’ the news, but gave it their undivided attention in their weekend editions- arguably too much. Editor and Publisher opened an online debate on this issue, in which critics have argued that the ink poured into the tributes by papers of all shades is a shameful waste and a neglect of issues worth reporting. For some, this is a facile, cynical grasp for readers and a worrying indication of the encroachment of ‘tabloid’ preoccupations on supposedly quality papers.

Yet the cult of the celebrity is nothing new and neither is its presence in the printed press. Whether the death of performer necessitated such extensive coverage is debatable but the choice of content is a perennial problem to editors. Perhaps more pertinent to current debates was the reminder of the increasing dominance of ‘real time’ in news diffusion. On one hand, time is of the essence and the ability to break stories immediately is a hugely significant development. Yet on the other, the reticence of some media organisations to publish the story without solid confirmation underlines the capacity of these ‘real time’ platforms to air stories with dubious foundations. In this case, they were correct, yet it does begger the question: which is more important, immediate news feeds or verfied facts and analysis?

Sources: Knight Digital Media Centre
The Guardian
Editor and Publisher

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