The princess and the press: How good was the coverage?

Thursday, October 30, 1997

Now that some of the emotions accompanying the death of Princess Diana have subsided,
it might be worthwhile to evaluate how well the U.S. press covered the story. There is no
question that the crash of the Mercedes limousine in a Paris tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997,
killing Princess Diana and two others, was a major news event.


There is no question, either, that during the first few days of coverage, the press did
not serve the public or itself very well. During that initial reporting, the press focused
almost exclusively on the role of photographers pursuing the limousine. That narrow focus
damaged the over-all coverage. For example:


  • Most reports failed to raise questions about the lack of security for Princess Diana.
  • Few journalists seemed interested in examining the possible damage to the royalty or the
    impact on Great Britain’s political future.
  • For so-called objective reporting, there was a troublesome sanctification and
    victimization of Diana; indeed, many journalists seemed to be delivering quasi-eulogies in
    their reports.
  • Experts summoned to defend the press usually joined in the criticism and did a terrible
    job of explaining the history of the press and the public’s fascination with celebrity.
  • Short shrift was given to concurrent news such as the death of Mother Teresa, the
    suicide bombing in Israel, and the brutal massacre of hundreds of people in Algeria.

It was only natural that some of the early reporting would be sketchy. It was a
late-night accident thousands of miles away and late-shift staff had to scramble to gather
the facts. Even so, television producers and anchors presented unconfirmed information as
fact and didn’t do a very good job of reminding their viewers that this was a fluid
situation and that factors other than a high-speed chase by mad-dog photographers could be
involved.


The traditional skepticism of good journalism was not much in evidence in those early
hours of reporting. On-air journalists failed to mention a number of things that might
have caused or  contributed to the accident: mechanical failure, another vehicle in
the tunnel, driver error, or passenger interference with the driver; nor did they broach
the possibility of an ill or drunken driver.


By not taking these possibilities into consideration, the media brought to their
viewers an unbalanced and incomplete report, one that appears seriously flawed in
hindsight, especially since some of those possibilities are now part of the investigation
into the accident.


Certainly no one expects journalists to be perfect, but it is the job of news
professionals to bring to their viewers and readers all of the possibilities, especially
with breaking news of such magnitude. The potential for wrongly influencing — or
stampeding — public opinion is great.


Rather than exploring the possibilities or examining other elements of the story, TV
journalists in particular dealt with only one aspect, the transgressions of the press.
Rather than rely on news professionals to report the story, they rushed to put on air
supposed eyewitnesses (and in at least two cases got hoax callers instead). Rather than
finding disinterested experts for  interviews and commentary, they sponsored a
feeding frenzy of celebrities venting their spleen at the media.


How does one explain this performance on the part of the press?  With all the
airtime and newsprint devoted to this story, there certainly was time and space for
addressing some of these important issues and more fully and fairly informing the viewers
and readers around the world. The best explanation seems to be that all of us, the press
included, wanted to stick with the fairy-tale story line. We didn’t want anything to
interfere with our fantasies about the princess and our fury at the press.


And what better story could there be than a fairy-tale princess hounded to an early
grave by rapacious paparazzi?


In the face of the untimely death of an adored figure, news consumers can be excused
for wanting to cling to their fantasies for just a little bit longer. But news
professionals had an obligation to deliver more than the fairy tale, and for the most part
– for the first few days of reporting at least — they failed in their obligations.


In so doing, they strengthened a growing hostility toward the press. That would be an
unfortunate outcome for an unfortunate event. As angry as journalists sometimes makes us,
as often as they get it wrong,  as often as they may seem to be unfair to groups or
individuals, the press still brings us the information we need to fully live our lives.


It would be hard to imagine a democracy, especially, without a free, independent,
unfettered — and, yes, sometimes irritating — press.


Some have used the Princess Diana coverage and fear of an overly aggressive, overly
invasive press as an excuse for advocating new laws restricting the ability of the press
to cover public figures. Such laws are unnecessary, unworkable, and unconstitutional. What
we really should fear is a press that so wants to be popular, to give us what we want,
that it neglects its core mission to give us what we need.


The coverage of the death of Princess Diana is a warning sign that the press is
becoming so obsessed with making friends that it may lose its ability to make a
difference.


This article appeared in Volunteer News, published by The
Freedom Forum Newseum, for October, 1997 (Vol. 1, No. 5).



Paul McMasters is a staunch champion
of the First Amendment. He writes and speaks extensively on issues related to freedom of
religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. The ombudsman’s office represents the
public’s interest when First Amendment issues arise in policy-making and legal arenas.


For more information, call or write:
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