The Diana Aftermath  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1997

The Diana Aftermath   

Media excesses fueled public outrage and triggered calls for restrictions on newsgathering. Will another round of criticism set the stage for reform?

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     



T HE EARL OF SPENCER'S VOICE TREMBLED slightly as he read a statement the day his sister, Princess Diana, died in an automobile accident. Initial press reports said the accident occurred as news photographers chased the car through the streets of Paris after midnight on August 31.

``I always believed the press would kill her in the end. But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case," Spencer said.

``It would appear that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana's image, has blood on his hands today."

New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal agreed. ``Someday," Rosenthal wrote, ``I believe, the words of Earl Spencer will hang in the private offices of publishers, network chiefs, and print and electronic editors worthy of any respect or trust."

The public, and some members of the press, denounced the photographers--and journalists in general--as ``barracuda," ``jackals," ``piranha" and ``vultures" feeding off celebrities.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says it was impossible to ``ignore how angry the public was" immediately after Diana's death.

``Numerous news directors have said to me that their photographers would be yelled at on the street," she says. Some passers-by accused photojournalists of ``being responsible for killing Diana."

Following Diana's death, other issues involving the press emerged because of the public's lingering anger toward the news media. This hostility symbolizes what Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach calls ``an enormous disconnect" between the American people and the press that has ``profound implications" for journalists' legal protections and privileges.

In addition, economic and technological developments made Diana's image such a marketing force that broadcast network news operations devoted more time in one week to her fatal accident than to any news event since the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, according to The Tyndall Weekly, a newsletter that monitors broadcast network news.

In the weeks since Diana's death, this confluence of controversies has led the American media to reexamine fundamental questions about their role, responsibilities and relationship to the American people.

It is ironic that this soul-searching began as U.S. journalism organizations were already launching initiatives to explore what Sandra Mims Rowe, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, calls ``the damaging erosion of our credibility with the public."

One impetus for these initiatives has been a series of public opinion polls during the last 10 years that indicates many Americans have doubts about the news media's priorities and the ways in which they exercise their First Amendment rights.

A 1996 poll by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that 80 percent of those surveyed thought the press ignored people's privacy; 52 percent thought the news media abused their press freedoms. More than 95 percent of respondents to an informal USA Today online survey thought the princess had been unfairly hounded by the news media, which confounded some journalists, given Diana's skill at using the press.

The day after the princess died, University of Southern California law professor and CNBC legal analyst Erwin Chemerinsky predicted that public outrage ``will lead to attempts to restrict paparazzi in the United States and elsewhere."

During the next two weeks, French and British officials called for such laws, and a U.S. congressman introduced a bill to make some invasions of privacy a federal crime. California state lawmakers drafted legislation to create a ``zone of privacy" in public places, change state defamation law and establish a commission to examine paparazzi behavior.

These initial reactions could have troubling long term ramifications for the U.S. press:

  • Technology and corporate values are increasingly influencing the priorities of U.S. news media, which are competing in a global information marketplace, say some media analysts. The fact that Diana's death received more network news coverage than the landing of U.S. troops in Somalia is a clear sign of this.


  • Proposed federal and state laws indicate that privacy rights are becoming more important than press rights to legislatures and the public. These measures are part of a growing movement by legislators and courts to control newsgathering practices in the name of privacy.


  • The increasing intrusiveness of some photographers has led to renewed debate about licensing journalists.


  • Reaction to the press--and calls for additional regulations in the wake of Diana's death--shows that public support for the First Amendment can be very fragile. This support for limiting press freedom makes it imperative that journalists understand the dynamic that exists between the American people and the press, and reevaluate their responsibilities to the public.
  • S OME JOURNALISTS AND PRESS ANALYSTS believe coverage of Diana's life and death reflect how entertainment values have replaced traditional news values in many U.S. newsrooms.

    Print media found coverage of Diana so profitable, both before and after her death, that Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter wrote, ``Lady Di launched at least a thousand covers, and hundreds of millions of newspaper and magazine sales."

    When Diana died, magazines such as Time and Newsweek scrambled to redo their covers and devote dozens of pages to stories about the princess. As reporters started to question what Time contributor Martha Smilgis called the ``media gush" about Diana, Time, Newsweek, People and TV Guide all published special commemorative editions.

    Time's first issue about Diana's death had newsstand sales of about 850,000--650,000 more than normal. The commemorative edition sold about 1.2 million copies. They are the two largest sellers in the history of the magazine, according to Managing Editor Walter Isaacson.

    Newspaper sales also rose. USA Today's total circulation for the week after Diana's death was several hundred thousand above normal. The Washington Post sold more than 20,000 additional copies of its Sunday editions the day Diana died and the day after her funeral.

    Television news ratings also increased. CNN reported ``a dramatic surge in viewership," and the highest ratings ever for its Sunday night newsmagazine, ``Impact," which aired the night Diana died. More than 15 million people watched the August 31 ``60 Minutes" devoted to the princess, according to Nielsen Media Research.

    ITelevision coverage of Diana's funeral was watched in more than 26 million households, Nielsen estimates. The week of September 15--two weeks after Diana died--broadcast networks devoted more time to the princess and the British monarchy than any other story, according to The Tyndall Weekly. ``We overdosed on Diana," says Steve Geimann, immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

    Jeff Cohen, an attorney who is executive director of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), agrees. He notes with irony that in a country that revolted against the British crown to form a democratic union, many people ``can give you chapter and verse now on the in-fighting amongst British royalty," but ``can't identify their representative to the U.S. Congress.

    ``They're getting facts that are utterly meaningless to them acting as informed citizens in a participatory democracy," Cohen says.

    Some journalists, however, think the coverage was appropriate. Jeff Fager, executive producer of the ``CBS Evening News," says Diana's death had ``huge political overtones," revealing the British people's animosity toward the monarchy, and involving top British and French officials in discussions of the accident investigation.

    Maxwell E.P. King, editor and executive vice president of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who is stepping down in January, says the coverage ``represented an important public catharsis about all sorts of different issues--about women and their place in society, about how the famous and their fans interact."

    CNN Editor-at-Large Ed Turner points out that Diana's funeral enabled millions of Americans to share their grief, and ``there aren't that many shared experiences that occur these days."

    In the early days of TV, ``the nation sort of went through the same news stories together," Turner says, but technology has been ``fracturing the viewing audience" by providing ``a diversity of not only sources, but alternatives to news."

    Critics, he says, don't take this diversity into account. Turner points out that CNN, unlike the broadcast networks, provides news 24 hours a day and has given the public extensive coverage of events in Russia, the Middle East and Bosnia. ``You think that's numbers? Wrong! It's a killer" for ratings, says Turner. ``If at times we are excessive, in other ways, well, we paid our duesÉ. We're not tabloid all the time."

    But several incidents during the coverage of Diana's death show how difficult it can sometimes be to distinguish between the so-called tabloid and mainstream media.

    Newsweek, Time and other publications used photographs of Diana that some readers and journalists found intrusive, while captions talked about the pictures capturing intimate moments. Isaacson defends his magazine, saying Time used valid news photographs taken in public places, and rejected pictures by ``stalking paparazzi invading people's privacy."

    In the meantime, National Enquirer Editor Steve Coz made a televised plea for news organizations to refuse to publish pictures of the injured princess and her dead companion. ``We have refused to buy these pictures," Coz said, ``and we're asking that the rest of the world press join us in shunning these photos."

    Dana Kennedy, an Entertainment Weekly reporter, called Coz's comments ``the worst hypocrisy," especially since the National Enquirer's cover the previous week had a headline that said, ``Di Goes Sex-Mad--ÔI Can't Get Enough!' "

    However, journalists thought other news media also were hypocritical. Time columnist Margaret Carlson decried the practice of ``tabloid-laundering, which is we take what the tabloids do and write about it, and that way get what we wouldn't write about originally into the magazine. And then we run pictures of the pictures to show how terrible the pictures are."

    Newsweek seemed to do just that with two Alter stories. On September 8, his full page spread about the media's celebrity obsession included a color picture of one cover of the British tabloid The Sun, published before Diana's death. The cover included a now famous photo of Diana, her swimsuit straps slipped down her arms, on a boat with her companion, Emad Mohamed ``Dodi" al-Fayed. The headline: ``Dodi's to Di For, World Picture Exclusive."

    The next week, his article about Diana and the news media--in which the princess is quoted as calling paparazzi photography ``face rape"--was accompanied by a blurry full page picture of the princess, visibly upset, putting her hand in front of a camera lens.

    Newsweek Managing Editor Mark Whitaker defends the pictures, saying, ``You have to look at the context in which photographs are being used. When the subject of a legitimate news story is the paparazzi phenomenon, and you're running these pictures in a way that's used to illustrate...that news story, and not just to titillate people with exclusive photographs that have never been seen that you pay a lot of money for, then I think that that is still a defensible and legitimate use of the photographs."

    Alter believes the photos ``are not a good example of tabloid laundering," because the motivation is to ``illustrate a serious article," not a gossip-oriented feature.

    But some readers were irate about the use of pictures they considered invasive. ``I would never have expected to find such photos in your publication," wrote Allison Seale of Los Angeles to Newsweek. ``Shame on you and shame on us all."

    One reason the line between tabloid and mainstream media is fading is that the press is under mounting pressure to provide entertainment-oriented news, says longtime journalist Ben Bagdikian, author of ``The Media Monopoly."

    Stockholders in major media corporations expect high profits, and entertainment products deliver them, he says. This puts news subsidiaries ``under terrible pressure" to deliver reports that will boost the bottom line. ``The value system of commercial television and of entertainment companies has made dangerous intrusions into the integrity of real news," says Bagdikian.

    King says this has not happened with Knight-Ridder, which he says has ``a very, very good level of awareness of news values." But he acknowledges that ``some so-called news companies," which he declined to name, ``don't reflect the most serious values."

    U.S. News & World Report Editor James Fallows believes corporate pressures are forcing more news organizations to produce entertainment-oriented reports, and says this is a ``Faustian bargain."

    ``In the short run it raises your audience," Fallows says, but ``in the long run it threatens to destroy your business, because if the only way you make journalism interesting is by making it entertainment, in the long run people will just go to entertainment, pure and simple, and skip the journalistic overlay."

    Meanwhile, despite the high ratings and circulation figures for stories about Diana, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of more than 2,000 people in mid-September showed 56 percent of respondents thought there had been too much coverage of Princess Diana's death.

    Some news executives say such polls reveal a paradox about the public's relationship with the press. People respond to certain types of coverage, then criticize the press for providing it. However, other polls show the American people want the news media to provide them with information that is not only interesting, but important to their lives, regardless of ratings.

    So does one lawmaker who proposed legislation to restrict the press following Diana's death. If journalism is simply a ``profit-seeking, market-oriented enterprise," then the controversy about the news media's involvement with Diana ``becomes a much bigger issue than who chased who into a tunnel," says California State Sen. Tom Hayden. It's about whether entertainment has ``taken root in the very heart of journalism" and become a ``substitute for information."

    The public's reaction to coverage of Diana's life and death, Hayden says, is ``one of those moments along the way when we need to take an accounting."

    H AYDEN IS ONE OF SEVERAL lawmakers who, in the weeks after Diana died, drafted laws to limit access to public figures. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) introduced a bill that could result in jail sentences and fines for anyone who ``persistently" follows a person who ``has a reasonable expectation of privacy and has taken reasonable steps to insure that privacy," for the purpose of obtaining ``a visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of the victim for profit in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce."

    In California, State Senate Majority Leader Charles Calderon has prepared draft legislation for a ``Personal Privacy Act" that provides broad definitions for terms such as ``intrusion" and would change the civil defamation law.

    Hayden is drafting a ``Paparazzi Harassment Act" that would enable courts to fine journalists engaging in behavior that was ``threatening, intimidating, harassing, or causes alarm, harm or the potential of harm to any person who is the subject of media interest." Such behavior could be penalized even if it is unintentional.

    Publishers who know or have reason to know of such behavior also would be liable. Pursuit of a story ``of meaningful public interest" would be a recognized legal defense, says Hayden.

    The draft legislation also calls for creating a Commission of Inquiry into Paparazzi Behavior to evaluate the impact of new technology, such as long-range telephoto lenses, on privacy and trespass laws; to study ``the growth, behavior, structure, funding and ethics of the paparazzi and tabloid journalism"; and to explore ways to ``preserve and enhance freedom of the press while curbing abusive practices that threaten legitimate privacy and safety rights."

    Miami Herald Executive Editor Douglas C. Clifton thinks these laws could be passed, ``given the state everyone seems to be in" following Diana's death. He is concerned that ``political figures will use this as an opportunity to further restrict press coverage of public events."

    Some journalists and attorneys are optimistic that such legislation won't be enacted because it is unconstitutional and unnecessary.

    ``There are enough laws on the books already to protect the privacy of public figures," says Cohen of FAIR. These include criminal laws dealing with assault, stalking and trespass, and civil remedies.

    Hayden believes such laws are ``insufficient." He compares these arguments to those used by opponents of sexual harassment laws, which he helped draft in California. ``We heard all these same arguments--that women didn't need a specific sexual harassment statute, there was existing law," he says. But specific legislation was needed to deal with the unique circumstances surrounding date rape and domestic violence. Now, Hayden believes, special laws also need to be written to address the paparazzi's invasion of privacy.

    Attorney Martin London disagrees. He argued in a New York Times op-ed piece that in 1973 he and other attorneys helped Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis get an injunction preventing photographer Ron Galella from approaching her or her children by asking a judge to apply principles in existing law ``to the singular phenomenon of paparazzi." The injunction was tailored specifically to Onassis' situation. London urged other public figures to look to the court rather than the legislature for relief.

    Some journalists believe the proposed laws would not stop the paparazzi. ``Extremist photographers," says David R. Lutman, president of the National Press Photographers Association, believe ``chancing arrest for breaking a minor law" is worth the risk, because they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single picture. Lutman worries that the law will be used to stop other news photographers from pursuing legitimate stories.

    Media analysts and attorneys also are concerned that the bills being considered by Congress and California lawmakers are the latest indication that privacy rights are superseding press rights.

    ``It seems more and more in our society that we want the right to be left alone to trump the right to know," says Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman. ``If that happens, democracy is in real danger."

    The proposed laws are the latest in a series of moves by legislatures and the courts to cite privacy as a reason for restricting newsgathering techniques. Some states restricted access to drivers' license information after a stalker obtained actress Rebecca Schaeffer's address from the California motor vehicles department and killed her in 1989. The federal government passed a similar law in 1994.

    Some news outlets originally supported the drivers' license laws, not realizing these measures don't protect people from stalkers, says Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but do provide governments with a rationale for declaring public records off-limits.

    The courts also have moved to limit newsgathering. A federal judge in Pennsylvania granted an injunction last year prohibiting an ``Inside Edition" team from following executives of a large health maintenance organization. The team was preparing a story on the large compensation packages paid to HMO executives.

    The judge ruled that ``the right to gather the news is not absolute," and that a jury would probably agree the team was not trying to obtain information for journalistic purposes, but for ``entertaining background for their TV expos*."

    Although ``Inside Edition" frequently is referred to as a ``tabloid" television show, it has won several journalism awards from groups such as Investigative Reporters & Editors.

    The Freedom Forum's McMasters is ``very troubled" by the ``trend for the public to want judges and now legislatures to take on a new job of being editors and reporters." If the trend continues, he says, ``it will be a travesty for the public" because ``when you put shackles on newsgathering operations, it's across the board. It doesn't just apply in one place. Because a law that perhaps is meant to help a future Princess Diana will be used and abused by an elected official to restrict the kind of coverage that might expose corruption or malfeasance."

    Some media analysts worry that these initiatives could erode journalists' privileges as well as protections.

    Kovach of the Nieman Foundation expects that ``rules and regulations that keep the press out, that restrict the press access both to institutions and to people in certain circumstances, are going to get a hell of a lot tighter."

    Another development that jolted news organizations and their attorneys was the serious discussion of whether journalists--especially photographers--should be licensed.

    Security consultant Gavin de Becker wrote in USA Today that ``a person who chooses to earn money as a paparazzo should be required to obtain a permit, just like any street vendor. Permits could then be revoked for violations of the law. Paparazzi want to call this a profession, so let's regulate it." According to California State Sen. Diane Watson, the legislature is ``looking at" licensing professional photographers.

    ``That is completely out of bounds in a country that values a free press," says RTNDA President Cochran. She points out that the licensing system used by the British crown to stifle the press in the 1700s was one reason the First Amendment was written.

    But some mainstream journalists have unwittingly helped fuel the licensing debate by struggling to distinguish themselves from colleagues who work for the so-called ``tabloid" press. USA Today White House Bureau Chief Susan Page told CNN's Frank Sesno that she didn't think ``the paparazzi who pursued this car are part of the press, frankly."

    Katharine Graham of the Washington Post Co. wrote in an essay published in the Post and Newsweek, ``One point we all have to keep clear is that the paparazzi are different from the news media. The problem the paparazzi present will not be solved by abridging press freedom."

    But pushing the distinction too hard is not without peril, says CNN executive Ed Turner. ``This characterizing as Ôlegitimate' or Ônot legitimate' seems to me to be a dangerous sort of road to travel" because such statements imply that restrictions on ``irresponsible" journalists might be acceptable.

    M ANY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC already believe restrictions on the press are acceptable. A survey last year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs showed 53 percent of the 3,000 respondents support licensing, and 70 percent favored court-imposed fines for inaccurate or biased reporting.

    Some of these attitudes might result from ignorance. A 1997 Freedom Forum poll showed that 85 percent of respondents could not name press freedom as one of the five First Amendment freedoms.

    But others arise from anger and resentment. That poll, and others during the past five years, show that a majority of Americans believe that special interests, such as corporate media owners and advertisers, as well as pressures for profits, improperly influence the way news is gathered and presented.

    People's perception that the news media don't ``seem to be serving their needs very well" is often correct, says Washington Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser. ``The trouble is that newspapers have become so profitable--profitable beyond any normal retailers' dreams--that the pressure on corporate executives to run them with an emphasis on the short term as opposed to the long term is just enormous."

    This means ``the debate is between enormous profit expectationsÉand the community's need to know, which requires real investment."

    Advertisers contribute to the problem. They used to be interested in newspapers' mass market appeal, but now ``think it's altruistic to service a wide readership," says Overholser. Advertisers want to attract wealthy, well-educated readers, so they want to place ads in sections where subjects aren't too controversial and have strong human interest components, she says.

    Broadcast, cable and satellite media face similar pressures, which increase as they become subsidiaries in multinational conglomerates, some media analysts say. These corporations believe that ``the marketplace sets the standard" for what is important, Kovach says.

    Executives look at a picture of Princess Diana and ask, `` ÔWhat's the picture worth to us economically?' " says Kovach. ``That has nothing to do with the journalistic value of it. It has to do with the uses they can put it to.

    ``All of those trends take journalism closer to entertainment values and further away from what I think are the values that justify the protection the First Amendment offers a free press."

    Some news executives say not all corporations view information this way. Time magazine Managing Editor Isaacson says there ``absolutely" is a wall between Time Warner's news and entertainment divisions. In the two years since he has been in his job, the magazine has done ``fewer pure entertainment covers than were done in the '70s," Isaacson says.

    The press has a moral obligation to balance profits and public benefits, because it is the only business given explicit constitutional protection, says Lutman of the National Press Photographers Association. ``It isn't necessarily our responsibility to give people what they want, it's to give them what they need." Those who put profitability ahead of public service, he says, ``are betraying our profession."

    When the public senses this betrayal, its support for the media's First Amendment protections and privileges begins to decline, SPJ's Geimann points out. This sets up a climate in which legislatures, judges and juries feel justified in placing limits on the press.

    ``We the press depend on the public support for all the rights and liberties that are built into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," he says. ``When the public support disappears, our rights and liberties disappear."

    Click here for the final portion of this story.

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