Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Journalistic Pandering:
Confusing Popular Culture with News

In the May 2002 "Ethics Matters" column we asked the question: When does a kiss become a kiss-off? (You can read that column and all the others from the Web site address printed on this page). If you recall, we referred to a picture taken by Associated Press photographer Rich Pedroncelli in Lincoln, California of LPGA champion Christie Kerr smooching the Longs Drugs golf tournament trophy after her win. The shape of the trophy was, shall we say, a bit phallic. We thought the image unnecessarily exploited the naiveté of Kerr and that of the tournament organizers and the trophy maker. We thought that it should not have been published.

Now we're asking a similar question: When does a kiss become a kiss-up?

We now refer to the "open-mouth" kisses Madonna gave to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera after their opening number for the annual MTV Video Music Award show in New York City. The song Madonna sang before the smack heard 'round the world was called "Hollywood" off her marginally successful "American Life" album. One line in the lyrics is, "I'm bored with the concept of right and wrong."

The reason for celebrities to shock and sensationalize themselves is obvious enough and Madonna has carved out a unique niche by her behavior from time to time. Columnist Marina Hyde of The Guardian (London) summed up the reason for the MTV kiss when she wrote, "The brief dynastic coupling seemed formulated to help Britney lurch into a more racy adult market while allowing Madonna to allege she still has the power to shock." Columnist Gabriella Coslovich of The Age (Melbourne) was more to the point, "Madonna is desperate to boost the flagging sales of her new album, 'American Life,' Britney's about to launch her new collection of songs, and Aguilera has a tour to promote." One of the main jobs of celebrities, it seems, is to increase their celebrity status. And when good deeds and talent aren't enough, women kissing each other on a highly publicized stage helps.

And no doubt their celebrity status was helped. (Time will tell if the retaliatory kiss from Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond" on the lips of 2003 Primetime Emmy Awards host Gary Shandling helped or hurt their careers although their smooch made it on the front page of The New York Times' Web site and inside the calendar section of the Los Angeles Times print version). Major television outlets repeatedly played the MTV show-stopping video and newspapers around the world ran pictures of the Madonna/Britney lip lock full-sized or as a teaser on the front page. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, for example, ran a front-page postage-sized teaser with a larger image on the front of its feature section. Only trouble was, readers complained of the coverage to the point that Hank Klibanoff, Managing Editor for News wrote an apology comparing the war with Iraq and MTV coverage:

"We have a high standard of presentation that is in line with community sensibilities, and we have filters that work to maintain those standards. The difficulty comes when news turns ugly, horrid, profane or provocative in some other way that might offend community sensibilities. During the war in Iraq, it happened a lot, and in the name of presenting a truthful, full account of the war, our filter got tested and stretched a lot. We ran images we otherwise might not have run. But that was war, and war was news. The photo we ran Friday was neither, and I wish I had limited its display to the inside of the Living section. We want the paper to be appropriate to the widest possible readership at the same time that we want it to deliver a straightforward accounting of the big news, the talk of the town, from the day before. That is sometimes a tricky balance, and we spend a lot of time seeking that balance while not being afraid of the news. Usually, I think, we do this well. With this photo, we did not."
Note that Klibanoff does not regret using the picture--only using it on the front page. His priorities are correct. What makes for an appropriate photo in the entertainment section does not imply appropriateness on the front page.

But the kiss got news coverage because journalism is too often confused with entertainment.

We can think of times that a kiss--between lesbian, gay, transgendered or even heterosexual individuals--is news . Imagine catching two of your most or least favorite public officials in an amorous make-out session and you get the picture. Now, that photo would tell us something about what greases the political engine and would no doubt demand a future column on the rights of privacy of those in the public's eye!

But what put the Madonna-Spears-Aguilera open mouths in an open news hole was marketing and entertainment values, not journalistic values.

What harm was caused? Some readers and viewers were offended and that offense cannot be justified by appeal to journalistic values. What offended them was not based on journalism principles. But, all homophobia aside, the biggest offense was that American journalism was caught, yet again, pandering to celebrity sleaze. Not everything that appears on 1A must be in the public interest, but nor should that page ever be turned over to the promotion of celebrity self-interest.

Feature writers for print and screen media necessarily must report on popular culture phenomena, but traditional news pages and segments should avoid making too big a fuss. The more that editors and producers confuse popular culture with news, the less real news will get covered.

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