Celebrity worship breeds bad journalism
Vancouver Courier
September 6, 1998

How now, Sing Tao? So far, most of the comments about UBC’s new journalism school concern its name, “The Sing Tao School of Journalism.” As you read in last Sunday’s Vancouver Courier, critics charge that the name implies corporate control of education; others say pish-posh—a name’s just a name.

I tend to side with the latter group, though I agree with Prof. Phil Resnick that naming it “The UBC School of Journalism” would make more sense.

What matters, of course, is not the name but the course, and so far the news looks good. Director Donna Logan has promised that Sing Tao will emphasize investigation and research, and reject the American disease of blending advertising with editorial.

One of the skills students will acquire is news judgment—sorting out news from filler. This is an important skill, because “infotainment” and “infomericals” now kill more brain cells than alcohol does. Technological determinists may burble enthusiastically about the fact that we live in the Information Age, but they don’t mention that much of this “information” is dross. In journalism, quantity does not equal quality.

Unfortunately, reporting on celebrities seems to violate this rule. As every journalism student learns, a celebrity makes news by virtue of being a celebrity. Football hero and sometime actor O.J. Simpson was put on trial for murdering his wife and her lover. Because of who he was, the trial understandably attracted special attention; however, laziness and a hunger for readers turned it into an over-reported media circus. In an example of the shallow hyperbole it fostered, the Simpson trial was called “The Trial of the Century.”

The difficulty for journalists lies in satisfying public curiosity while respecting a story’s intrinsic newsworthiness. Too little attention may frustrate readers, but too much attention makes a newspaper look foolish.

A current example of how not to cover a celebrity event is the Aug. 30 edition of the Province. The front page consists of a year-old photo of the late Princess of Wales, her eyes closed, cradling a young cancer patient in Lahore, Pakistan. Below is the subline “Her favourite picture” and a promo for a 16-page reverential insert.

The news event behind this, of course, is the anniversary of her death, but what connection this cloyingly manipulative “Madonna and Child” photo has to do with it is anybody’s guess. In fact, nothing on the front page even alludes to Diana’s death.

As for the insert, it is little more than rehashed hagiography tarted up with recycled photos and treacly sentiment—essentially the same stuff we’ve all grown sick and tired of over the past year. However, the Province is not the only paper that went overboard. The Vancouver Southam Wire Service devoted significant space to the anniversary in two consecutive “Saturday Review” sections. Although the reporting seemed more decorous, it still amounted to little more than celebrity worship.

Why was the anniversary of Diana’s death treated so tastelessly? She’s no longer news and her death is already, well, reported to death. In the absence of any compelling new information, why bother with something so grandiose? The answer is obvious—the cult of Diana sells papers and is cheap copy to boot.

Like Elvis and Marilyn, Diana’s celebrity survives her. You almost get the feeling that the newspapers went overboard because they were mourning the loss of their own child and expect the public to share their pain. Since the media made Diana a celebrity, perhaps this adoration is their way of dealing with the grief of being partly to blame for her death.

By resorting frequently to the vapid monicker “The People’s Princess,” the media hoped to enhance the public’s emotional attachment to Diana. Therefore, it was necessary to portray her not as a person or mother, but as a commodity—a fairy-tale figure who was made out to be the embodiment of all that is good.

Speculation aside, the excessive coverage of the anniversary shows one unalterable fact—it’s infotainment, not news, and therefore bad journalism.

First, it breeds boredom, and when people become bored, they tune out. In Britain, “Diana fatigue” has set in as people are finally debating the merits of lavishing so much attention upon a privileged, upper-class woman who, for all her charm and sincerity, never did much except marry into royalty.

Second, the effort that went into such an empty story could leave readers feeling cheated and wondering what real news went unreported to make room for it. This could also cause people to turn to other sources for information.

If print journalism is to survive in our increasingly shallow electronic world, it will need reporters and editors willing to dig for real news instead of taking the easy, TV way out. Let’s hope Sing Tao produces some.