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Media Take Second Look at Coverage of Jackson’s Death

July 10, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Amid the extensive coverage of pop star Michael Jackson's death, media outlets are asking themselves what news stories may have been missed. Analysts and reporters take a look at the issue.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Michael and the media. Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was, of course, everywhere, the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, the playing of his videos, the memorial service carried live by multiple networks, the reports on his career and problems.

But was all that a problem for the media and media consumers? How are decisions made to cover one story and not others? Near the end of the CBS nightly news on Wednesday, Katie Couric had this to say to her audience.

KATIE COURIC, host, CBS Evening News: Michael Jackson’s sudden death and the mystery surrounding it captivated the world, or much of it, eclipsing other news. Jeff Glor now tells us some of the stories that happened in the last two weeks that are definitely worth noting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among those other stories CBS then reported: the president’s trip to Russia; the riots in China; and the ongoing debate over health care reform.

We talk about Jackson and other stories now with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center; Bev Smith, who hosts her own nightly talk show on the American Urban Radio Networks; and Andrew Leckey, president of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University.

Well, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Katie Couric said the Michael Jackson story eclipsed other news. How would you characterize what happened this past week?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Annenberg Public Policy Center: Well, when Michael Jackson’s death gets more coverage in some broadcast and cable news outlets than did the climate change legislation that passed the House the day after, I think we’ve got a problem.

And when Michael Jackson’s memorial took more news time in those cable and broadcast outlets than did the wrap-up of President Obama’s summit in Russia, which included a provisional agreement to reduce nuclear arms, I think we need to worry about news judgment.

And it raises for me this question. Let’s suppose that we’re now dealing with next week’s news. How much live coverage is Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing going to get? Is it going to be comparable to what Michael Jackson’s memorial got? And, hypothetically, what would have happened if the confirmation hearings had been up against the memorial? What would that news judgment have been?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bev Smith, what was the argument for giving it so much time? And did you worry about what was being missed?

Jackson worthy of praise

BEV SMITH, American Urban Radio Networks: Well, nothing was missed on our show, thank you for asking, because we covered the president with Russia with Professor Ron Walters and others, so that we were able to objectively look at news that is important to all the world, as well as talking about Michael Jackson.

But there are three reasons why we covered Michael Jackson, as we did, and we did cover Michael Jackson. One is, Dr. Maya Angelou said so well, that he belonged to us, as an African-American community, and as a show non-apologetically aimed at the African-American community, Michael belonged to us.

The second is that Michael was a master. And just as we go to the museum and we look at the master Van Gogh, who cut off his ear, had an argument with the pope, and we honor him, we in our community wanted to do that.

And the third is, we were very upset with the direction the media took in this story and is taking now, for example, asking about the authentic parentage of the children. We think they've gone too far. And at least on "The Bev Smith Show," we're objectively looking at that, while also reporting on other news of the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, let me bring in Andrew Leckey. What did you see when you looked more broadly at television and cable over the last week?

ANDREW LECKEY, Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism: Well, it seems that all news coverage is now overkill, and overkill because numbers so drive the news as never before. The hits, the ratings, what's a good story? A good story is one that a lot of people view. Certainly, the memorial service and all the coverage of Michael Jackson were widely watched by a lot of people.

The downside of part of this is there's a cacophony of different sources of news, some of them going after things that may not even be correct or saying whatever. And as a result, this onslaught of information really makes you feel as though it's all being thrown at you all at once, but people keep watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, they do keep watching, Mr. Leckey. I mean, the ratings soared, correct? So network executives, people in the newsroom, they're watching that, right?

People keep watching

ANDREW LECKEY: Absolutely. You know, you take the deaths of Princess Di and Elvis, that was before there were all these different news sources out there and endless coverage. More than ever before, an event comes up, it is covered wall to wall, and then it evaporates again.

And one of the real downsides in all of this is, if there's incorrect information, it just sort of goes into the vapors. No one ever corrects anything.

BEV SMITH: Absolutely.

ANDREW LECKEY: No one ever comes back to try to say, "Well, that's not correct." There were all sorts of things I've heard about Michael Jackson in the last two weeks, and some of them I never heard more than once, some of them I've heard two or three times, and some of them I don't even know where they came from.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kathleen, you know, we, of course, got caught up in this, too, and had to make our own decisions. One night, we lead our program with this story, and we heard from a number of irate viewers. I suppose you would have been in that camp.

What happens, though, when you have the judgment of the interest that is out there? I mean, when television networks are looking at the wide interest, when the ratings are up, what role should that play?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There's a role for the coverage. I'm not suggesting that Michael Jackson's death and his legacy aren't newsworthy. But, rather, the question is one of proportion.

When you look at news and what you see is that the accountability function was missing on climate change, we didn't get good stories that asked, how much of the House bill actually captured what candidate Obama had promised?

There weren't the news stories in many places that let the process ask the question, will this legislation do what it promises? Is a 17 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 over a 2005 base actually going to address this serious problem of global warming?

We also didn't have the fact-testing. The costs per household of this legislation are widely different across various partisan sources. And as a result, news didn't perform the functions it needs to perform to keep the political process honest and accountable.

And when that happens, advertising becomes the means by which the public learns about this legislation. That's partisan and one-sided. Special interests, influence, and money gain impact.

And, finally, the public loses the connection between campaigning and governance. Candidate Obama promised climate change legislation. He's trying to deliver. When the public doesn't realize candidates try and often as presidents to deliver on their promises, they become more cynical about governance.

In other words, when news is distracted and doesn't do its job because it doesn't keep things in proportion, democracy isn't as well-served as it needs to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bev Smith, do you want to jump in there?

Media creates the frenzy?

BEV SMITH: I sure do. I would like to pose this question, too. The question is, who comes first, the chicken or the egg? And I would say, as it relates to the stories, how we get our information, how we get our opinions on ethnic groups, physically challenged, and the elderly, I would say neither.

The media comes first, because the media creates the frenzy. There is a decision made on whether a Britney Spears without panties should be the lead story. Who makes that decision? Not the public. But when you lead with that story as a news outlet, you are creating the story.

And I think what we are seeing now is that the media creates the characters, creates the leadership, creates the issues, and the investigation that needs to be done, we only point at the war in Iraq. They did not investigate what the president is saying.

The media has changed the way it is done, and they've changed the framework. And so I would say, I don't know whether it's the chicken or the egg. I point to the media as the creator of what we see as a major problem in how information is disseminated here in America.

I would challenge the media to do a better job, and that includes a lot of well-paid talk show hosts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Leckey, do you want to come in on that? Because if the media is the lead here, but if at the same time, in a story like this, they watch the ratings go up night after night after night for a story like this, then who's leading and who's following?

ANDREW LECKEY: Well, the fact remains that news flow can no longer be controlled. All that can be done is the power of one. Like we would tell students here at the Cronkite School, you can affect what you do. Just posting something doesn't make you a journalist.

But the NewsHour and relevant news organizations have to make those decisions and to go forward with factual information and choose stories that are important, but you can't stop the flow of information.

I'm going to be in China next week, and I know the Chinese are going to say, "Why do you dwell on our negative things?" Well, we always dwell on things, and then move on in a couple of days.

So I think the power of each news organization to stand up in the midst of all this -- but in terms of controlling what goes out there, who watches what, how much of it is done, you just can't do it any more. All you can do is try to control it.

Advertisers' role in coverage

BEV SMITH: It's being done.


JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead. Bev Smith?

BEV SMITH: It's become done. It's being controlled. Look at the books that are coming out about the Fox network. It's being controlled. I beg to defer with you, Professor.

And one of your colleagues at the University of Texas in Austin, Professor Bob Jensen, writes about it and teaches about it. And I'm in the trenches. I've been in the news department. It is controlled.

And it is controlled by advertisers. It's controlled. We have to stop the control of it, which means we have to get involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me just get a last word from Kathleen Hall Jamieson. I did see a Pew study that said almost 2 out of 3 Americans thought the coverage was too much. This, of course, you have to jibe with the fact that the ratings were way up. So what's your final word?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I'm not concerned about forms of media that basically have as their prime function either opinion, talk or entertainment, because when you're displacing that with coverage of Michael Jackson, you still have traditional news that aspires to objectivity and balance, facticity and accountability, opening avenues to hear a debate.

It's when those traditional avenues of news fail that I worry, and that's my worry here. They didn't cover this in proper proportion.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I want to thank all three of you for walking us through this. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Bev Smith, and Andrew Leckey, thanks a lot.