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Journalism in the Perez Hilton Generation

The Division of News and Gossip

By Christina Edwards

November 19, 2008

The journalist’s job is to inform, to provide the general population with the current information about the world, country, and community they live in. The average citizen has the right to know when happens are effecting their lives, and it is the journalist’s job to serve and protect that right. The first amendment covers freedom of the press for that very purpose, Sunshine Centers have been introduced to assist the journalist in fighting for that right. But in a country that also names privacy as a first amendment right, where is the line between informative, intrusive, or even frivolous?

The recent election season has brought to the forefront questions of journalistic necessity, particularly where families of candidates (including underaged children) are concerned. It can be argued that the candidates are the one running for office, not the family, but what happens when the family provides news relevant to the campaign?

In late August, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin announced that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant. This was immediately followed by a media blitz, covered everywhere from gossip websites to CNN. The coverage, in turn, was immediately criticized by right wing organizations as exploitation.

Palin announced her daughter’s pregnancy at a press conference. Palin is a known advocate of both the pro-life movement and abstinence only education in schools. Palin in essence allowed for this event to be covered, and there is arguable relevancy. The original coverage of the event? Within the rights of reporting.

In the weeks after the news broke, articles appeared reporting on the Myspace Web sites of both Bristol Palin and the reported father, Levi Johnston. These included pictures taken of the teens drinking and quotes taken from Johnston’s page where he had written “I don’t want kids.”
Articles like these breech a level of appropriateness. While it can be argued relevant that a pro-life candidate has a pregnant teenage daughter and child with Down’s Syndrome, the necessity of investigative judgment on the life of a candidate’s child becomes blurred.

On the other side of the partisan pond, one of the hot topics surrounding President Elect Barack Obama (besides what breed of dog the family will adopt) concerns what school his two young daughters will attend when relocated to Washington D.C.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article titled “Parents’ Night with the President,” which reported on elite Washington private schools reportedly looked at by the family vying for the Obamas’ attendance. This topic was also addressed in a recent interview with Obama and his wife Michelle on CBS.

Obama’s democratic education platform addresses several reforms to the public school system and stresses the importance of investing in the quality of public schools. In Chicago, his daughters attended private school, and all of the reported top school choices for the Obamas are private. In terms of where Obama stands on education, the decision he makes on where to send his own children can be considered relevant.

The New York Times ran another article on Tuesday addressing the Obama girls—this time on a tour the were given of the White House by Jenna and Barbara Bush. In the article, there is explicit mention that this was a private event: “The visit was strictly private, with no media coverage or photos.”
Was this article harmful to either the Obama or Bush family? Would it have been harmful to have a couple of photographers snapping pictures? Was this some top secret matter of national security? Probably not, on all counts.
But it wasn’t really relevant to anything, either.

What this comes down to is a matter of privacy. It is not wrong to report that an event happened, or to draw attention to a public website. There’s nothing illegal or even arguably morally reprehensible about these articles.

But just because something can be reported on doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy or necessary. Will it be read? Probably.

But there’s a line between news and gossip, and it’s also the journalist’s job to decide where that line is.

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Categories: News: Editorial
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