Media criticized for Jackson news blackout


There are a lot of important, high-impact and developing news stories competing for attention, and for the most part the media has been doing a good job keeping tabs on all of them. That is, it was keeping track until the untimely demise of Michael Jackson.

The Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten observed, “Friday, for example, was an extraordinarily busy news day: Repression tightened dangerously in Iran, and President Obama traded words with his Iranian counterpart; the brewing crisis with North Korea bubbled along; the House passed major legislation on climate change; and, in California, the budget crisis took another suicidal turn. Yet on cable TV and on newspaper websites, it was all Michael, all the time.”

Rutten acknowledged that to a large extent public demand was driving the coverage, and that coverage was warranted, but argued that there is more to news than simply giving the people what they want. “No reasonable editor or producer should ignore the kind of public interest we’re seeing. But surrendering utterly to it ultimately undercuts what’s genuinely valuable about serious news media,” he concluded.

It had subsided somewhat after the weekend, but still there was enough to cause AP’s David Bauder to write, “The Bernie Madoff sentencing, a presidential speech on energy, U.S. combat troops withdrawing from Iraqi cities and a cable news staple in Dallas – a high-speed car chase – took time away from the drumbeat of speculation Monday on the cause of Jackson’s death and the future of his children.”

Our weekly publication of news coverage charts from the Project for Professionalism in Journalism shows that despite occurring very late in the news week, the Jackson story almost caught seven days worth of Iran coverage, and was easily the top story for both cable  and broadcast TV news organizations. According to Pew, which is associated with PEJ, cable gave 93% of its window to Jackson on Thursday evening and Friday.
But it’s hard to blame the media too much if people are tuning in. In the post late-night news wars, for example, Michael Jackson coverage was said to have boosted ABC’s Nightline over both NBC’s Tonight Show and CBS’s Late Show.

RBR/TVBR observation: During occasional pauses during a busy weekend we clicked on the cable news outlets – the only ones available at any time – and we clicked them right back off. If you were looking for real news, it just wasn’t there. Maybe people who don’t normally watch the 4/7 news channels were tuning in for a change, but those of us who often check in were shut out.

A word about radio, which seems to have behaved very responsibly. According to reports, radio beefed up the Michael Jackson portion of its musical programming, which is fine. But PEJ tabulated its MJ news coverage at a reasonable 8%.

In our humble opinion, no news story is so huge that it warrants a turning a blind eye to the rest of the world – and that includes major events like 9/11 and Katrina. Please, at least keep one eye on the rest of the world. And the death of a celebrity, no matter how popular, should never warrant this type of coverage.