Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Jacko-mania tarnished media credibility

The mainstream media may have covered the bejabbers out of the death of Michael Jackson, but they hardly covered themselves in glory.

The sudden death of the pop star overshadowed all manner of truly significant national and international news for nearly two weeks. And coverage of his memorial service dominated television for much of Tuesday while generating near-record traffic on websites providing streaming video of the event.

So, yes, there was considerable interest in the story. But the media, by any measure, overdid it.

Although Jackson was a major cultural figure entitled to a proper sendoff, the wretched excess of media coverage took another chunk out of the diminishing credibility of the press.

Media executives – particularly the broadcasters who ginned up the wall-to-wall coverage – abandoned responsible news judgment and old-fashioned common sense in their decision to pander to an audience that evidently was not nearly as vast as they imagined.

The media went all out for the Jackson story in spite of a survey released last week that showed a resounding 64% of Americans believed – even before Tuesday’s media orgy– that coverage of the pop star’s passing was “excessive.” The survey was conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

That didn't stop the media Pooh-Bahs.

Despite the prevailing public sentiment that Jackson coverage was overblown, the story has claimed the greatest proportion of coverage in the traditional media since he died on June 25, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, a sister organization to the Center for People and the Press.

Between June 29 and July 5, Jackson grabbed 17% of the coverage in the mainstream media, far surpassing the economy (10%), Iraq (6%), Afghanistan (5%) and health reform (5%), according to a weekly audit conducted by the Center for Excellence in Journalism. The closest competitor over the Fourth of July weekend was Sarah Palin’s surprise resignation, which tied with Jackson for 13% of the newshole.

The Jackson story represented respectively 30% and 28% of the coverage monitored on network and cable television, according to Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the Center for Excellence in Journalism. Newspapers, to their credit, accorded the story an average of 7% of their front-page ink.

The survey showing that nearly two-thirds of the population felt the story was overdone clearly demonstrates there was not sufficient public interest in the event to justify saturation coverage.

From a journalistic point of view, there is no conceivable argument that the massive coverage served the public interest.

Thus, Jacko-mania appears to have been a curiously ill-conceived effort among many media outlets to appeal to a public that mostly wasn’t interested.

You can’t build confidence in the press by providing breathless coverage of an overblown event that most people don’t care about.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you a publisher, editor or reporter trying to get back some of that credibility you lost during the MJ fiasco? Try covering one of THESE funerals:

11:32 AM  
Blogger rafat said...

oh c'mon. that's bullshit. this is one of the most interesting story of out times, with a lot of cultural touchpoints. it was and will continue to get all kinds of coverage. and hell, it is very relevant to a *lot* of people; any other conclusions, to use an overused word used by others before on MJ coverage, is elitist.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Amen from a struggling news man's wife.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Erstwhile Editor said...

Thanks for having the guts to call out the news media on this mania. I have believed for years that the newspaper industry's downfall began with its mimicking of television's celebrity-obsessed and fluffy news priorities. Readers used to be able to take newspapers' news judgment seriously, but no more. And as you point out, television and cable news have now far exceeded the public's interest and turned their coverage into idolatry and the macabre.

12:25 PM  
Blogger California Girl said...

MSNBC had a reporter @ the Staples Center this morning. She responded to a question from Lawrence O'Donnell who asked, with the tiniest tinge of sarcasm, if she'd booked her ticket home yet. She responded she has not. She believes this is "only the beginning" of the coverage to follow thanks to custody fights for the children, disposition of his assets, etc. She is a young reporter and I had the feeling she is wishful thinking. But doesn't that just become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If nearly two-thirds of the population felt the story was overdone, how is the story pushed the Internet to the limits yesterday? If those people refused to participate they could have made a great difference in how the story, was presented, especially online.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I agree that the coverage was excessive, at least for someone like me who had no interest in Michael Jackson. But there were lots of people who did have a deep interest in him who would have sucked up most of that wall-to-wall stuff, and even people who didn't have a huge interest (I know some) still watched CNN for hours.

And when you say "the media", exactly who are you talking about? Some of the cable outlets went over the top, for sure, but what about the major papers, both print and online? What about the online-only outlets, did they go overboard? They covered the story extensively but, given the iconic character of Jackson, I wouldn't say it was out of line.

The hallowed blogosphere -- you know, the coming alternative to "the media" -- didn't exactly shy away from its own over-the-topness.

And in what way has "the media" damaged its credibility even more with this? It's not as if this was a serious story with worldwide implications for peace etc. It was a huge celebrity story for a celebrity-driven age.

Over the top, maybe, but damage-inducing?

2:33 PM  
Blogger Avery said...

Amen to that. The coverage definately was overblown and it didn't help the public, or the field of journalism in any way.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

It is hard to take seeing Katie Couric, holding the same position Walter Cronkite once held, broadcasting live from the Staples Center, not to mention the other anchors from all networks. I have some thoughts about that at

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, no one cared about this.

That's why a mere 31.1 million people in the United States watched the Jackson memorial on television, not to mention legions more watching on computers.

Of course, that fell well short of another non-event -- President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, which was seen by 38 million people on TV.

And everyone knows no one cares about "American Idol," since only 28.9 million viewers watched the season finale in May.

Jackson's memorial also fell short of another event no one was interested in -- the 33.2 million people in the U.S. who watched Princess Diana’s funeral 12 years ago.

Like it or not, the American public cares a lot more about such popular -culture events than the real-world issues such as war, the economy, etc.

Should it be this way? Certainly not. But don't blame the messenger.

Look in the mirror. Those of us in the news media give the people what they want.

We do otherwise at our own great peril.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Michael Jackson is a pop icon. Your opinion about his death receiving too much coverage is off base. Anna Nicole Smith received too much. Scott Peterson received too much. Governor Sanford has received too much. But Jackson? How many true pop icons can you name? Madonna is the only other one that comes to mind at the moment, who is living. Jackson helped define an era, and certainly defined modern pop music. His moonwalk was practiced around the world. He sold over a billion records. Thriller sold more records than any other in the history of mankind. MJ is right up there with Elvis. And I can assure you, if they open up Neverland to the public, along with an MJ museum of his stage outfits, furniture, memorabilia, etc. MJ's ranch will generate as much or more revenue and as many or more visitors as Graceland does. That deserves HUGE media attention for a week or two.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. The MJ story was overdone by the second day. I understand people loved him, but it got so obsessive! Way over the line.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Banjo Jones said...

bread & circuses

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Dave Pool said...

Right, but...where's the internal mechanism for correction within the broadcast media? I mean, this is not the first time they've lost all perspective. I suspect that, should they summon up even a moment of introspection, they'll simply shake their collective heads and say, "Yup, we sure overdid that one," pause for a moment of reflection...and then be distracted by the next "bright and shiny" to come into view.

BTW, activity of the 30% who did care about the story would likely be enough to strain the web.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So 30 million Americans watched Michael Jackson's funeral? That means 270 million didn't, despite saturation coverage on the legacy media.

9 out of 10 Americans didn't care enough to watch. Hmm, seems there might be a market niche here ...

1:52 AM  
Anonymous Vee_Rama said...

This was the piece I was waiting for weeks! It really needs someone to catch this point. Thank you

3:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many newspapers went completely overboard? Ours didn't.

We did give it regular coverage online, where people seem to care more about that sort of thing.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Major broadcasters and cable outlets broadcasting live from the Staples Center is probably over the top.

But it strikes me that wire services should definitely have a person on the ground to cover the Jackson story, as should any entertainment outlet worth its salt, and quite possible the national-level newspapers.

Wall-to-wall coverage outside the LA Times is likely inappropriate, particularly after more than a week has elapsed since Jackson's death. But having an on-the-scene correspondent file reports is not over the top.

Which raises a question for me. Anybody who works at a nespaper knows that what you see in the newspaper each day is often a fraction of stories that journalists chased but didn't publish for various reasons. An editor may have killed the story, or a brief might have been subsumed into a larger story ...

Wouldn't it make sense for a news outlet to have its on-the-scene culture reporter file regular blog/vlog-style reports strictly for the online audience, but limit its broadcast and/or print coverage to normal Jacko levels?

Or with the dawn of digital TV, perhaps it would be appropriate to shunt Jacko to high-def channel 2 where his fans could watch it?

Just a thought.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous ChuckL said...

Is it the responsibility of the media to give the public the news it thinks the public wants or is it rather their responsibility to give the public the news it needs?

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Something (fill in the blank) tarnished media credibility." It's a tired old trope, a cliche. Sometimes it is even true. Not in this case.

There was a huge interest in Michael Jackson, for legitimate reasons. I don't even like Michael Jackson, but the guy sold millions of records and did a great deal, for better or (mostly) worse, to reshape pop culture. The saturation coverage of his death and the memorial service was completely justified, and I roll my eyes at some of the people who cluck about how it's distracting from this or some other cause. It is only distracting if you, the reader, decide it will.

I'll probably jump onto the too-much-coverage wagon later, when we learn about the autopsy, the family infighting over the assets and the children, etc. etc. But up until this point, the argument doesn't hold water.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Rockinon said...

From the comments, I can see that not everyone agrees with you.

Paul Berton, editor-in-chief of The London Free Press, wrote on his blog, "But Michael Jackson's memorial got most of the coverage. Why? Because media made it that way?

"I doubt it. That's what people were talking about, that's what they wanted to read about." (Berton's blog can be found at

I hope you don't object but I am featuring a link to your excellent blog on my blog tomorrow. I have already given the paper, my former employer, a heads up with a Twitter post.

Rockinon (
p.s. I took a buyout after more than three decades as a photojournalist in the newspaper business.

6:06 PM  
Blogger BardSpeaks said...

I agree that the covergae was out of proportion. But, then again, the media thrives by taking milege out of such stuff as the Michael Jaksons are made of. :-)

Of course, people all over the world lapped it up happily. They wanted it. They got it.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Jim of L-Town said...

Some of the same people now idolizing MJ are the same folks who before his death ridiculed him for his bizarre behavior, facial disfigurements and sleeping with little children.

America now honors that that does not have honor. It puts on a pedestal that which should be ignored and praises that which should be condemned.

The idea that MJ is some kind of cultural icon is an idictment of what we, in our culture, consider icons.

Repeat after me: He slept with little children and then paid off the parents to avoid prison. That's his real legacy.

His parents deserve a great deal of the blame as well.

Better to praise the 1,000 World War II soldiers who die everyday as they fade away. Those are the folks we should be holding up in honor.

Instead, MJ, yuck!

5:43 AM  
Blogger alex said...

does the coming era of "true news democracy," composed of legions of citizen journalists, herald an age of hours-long michael jackson funerals? if we assume "they" got what they wanted, i don't see how it could possibly be any other way.

another point in the column for elitist news judgment (assuming it works as we want it to, of course!).

1:40 PM  

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