Michael Jackson’s death set off an explosion of media attention. Reporters can’t seem to get enough of the “King of Pop” as they reaffirm our media’s morbid obsession with celebrity death and tragedy. Journalists update often unwilling audiences with the most minor of details on Jackson’s life, death, and now, his legacy. The top three stories on CNN.com for July 8th, for example, inform readers of the latest news: “Michael’s Daughter: ‘Daddy has been the best,’” “Goodbye Michael: Star, brother, friend, father,’” and “Jackson still ‘King of Pop’ on Billboard charts.” On the same day, Fox News featured “breaking news”: “Jackson’s Death Sparks Fierce Debate in Congress,” “Doctor Denies Giving Jackson Sedative,” and “Blanket Jackson Exposed.”
Analysis from the Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals that Jackson’s death is effectively competing for attention with other stories such as the Iranian election and protests. For the June 22-28th week, attention to protests in Iran accounted for 19 percent of all news coverage, with Jackson’s death comprising 18 percent. At its height from June 25-26th, coverage of Jackson accounted for 60 percent of all news programming, with Iran coverage dropping to 7 percent. The mass media’s fixation on celebrity news necessarily desensitizes Americans to political news stories. Americans who consume greater amounts of celebrity news inevitably end up spending less time following political news.
Celebrity news stories have long been most popular with wealthier, younger audiences, as well as with women and minorities. In the case of coverage of Michael Jackson, a systematic review from the Pew Research Center finds that African Americans are far more likely to follow the story closely than white Americans. The Pew study finds that the rapid increase in coverage of Jackson encourages consumers to follow this story at the expense of political news. Jackson’s death during the June 22-28th week was the “most closely” followed story by news audiences, finishing above political issues such as health care reform, Iran, a Congressional bill to reduce greenhouse gases, and the recent D.C. train crash.
Many journalists and academics defend the media’s heavy reliance on celebrity junk food news. They claim that the media simply empowers consumers by giving them what they want – in this case increased coverage of Michael Jackson at the expense of stories on Iran, health care, and environmental conservation.
It is certainly true that the media’s Jackson frenzy is captivating a small, but determined number of consumers who demand hourly updates of Jackson news. News consumers who are strongly interested in celebrity news do tend to follow these stories with greater frequency than consumers with other priorities. Additionally, a sizable minority of Americans (slightly less than a third) were generally happy with the volume of Jackson coverage. However, we should never forget that the vast majority of Americans express little interest in celebrity news, despite most peoples’ intimate knowledge of these stories.
In the case of Michael Jackson, 64 percent of Americans feel that the media covered his death “too much,” compared to just 3 percent who said there was “too little” coverage, and 29 percent who said attention was “the right amount.” Other indicators reveal a similar pattern across many celebrity news stories. Large majorities feel that junk food news is covered, including O.J. Simpson’s 2007 arrest, Eliot Spitzer’s 2008 prostitution scandal, the 2007 Don Imus firing, Michael Vick’s 2007 dog fighting incident, 2007 coverage of celebrity starlets such as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan, and Ellen Degeneres’ 2007 pet adoption controversy.
What’s going on here? How can people consistently claim that they don’t want celebrity news, while these incidents consistently top the list of each week’s most covered and most consumed news stories? There are a few simple answers to this question. For one, Americans don’t have much choice on what stories are covered. Media corporations don’t bother to ask Americans what they want to read or hear about, as these decisions are made in a top-down manner, with consumers merely reacting to news content through limited mediums such as the Nielson ratings. Celebrity news stories also turn out to be far cheaper to produce than investigative reporting, which requires more resources and longer time commitments. Media producers and owners would rather fill their time slots with inexpensive fluff than cut into their profit margins with real reporting.
On another level, most Americans understand that junk food news is toxic, but they are socialized to want these stories regardless. This is what makes the junk food analogy so appropriate. As with McDonalds or Wendy’s, Americans know that consumption of celebrity news is bad for them, but they continue to watch these stories due to a lack of meaningful choice. In other words, people become addicted to these stories despite their better judgment telling them to stay away.
The power of media to socialize and indoctrinate consumers – often against their will – should not be underestimated. Young viewers who have grown up in the celebrity news era are more susceptible to this type of programming. Those under 30 years old are more likely to blame the public, rather than the media, for the prevalence of gossip news, whereas those over 30 are more likely to blame media corporations instead of the public. Growing up at a time when celebrity news was not the norm, older Americans know the difference between serious news and news without substance, and they are reacting skeptically to the growth in fluff.
Many on the left – including myself – traditionally attack the mass media for keeping Americans ignorant of important political issues. To say that media corporations create apathetic audiences, and that such apathy serves their profit motives, is not a conspiracy. The goal of any corporations is to make as much money as possible, and this is historically done through top-down, one way communication of advertising. This process inherently depends on passive consumers who will not challenge the possible drawbacks of consuming advertised products (for example, the negative effects of over consuming fast food or relying on gas guzzling, polluting SUVs).
It is not the case that media corporations’ primary goal is to create ignorant, depoliticized Americans. However, this is the inevitable consequence of single-minded profit motives that push junk food news at the expense of other programming. I continually encounter the problem of American political indifference in the classroom. Students are usually able to provide me with the most recent updates on the lives of celebrity superstars, but most are unaware of recent developments in Iraq, Iran, or in domestic politics. This is a dramatic contrast with my foreign students, who usually are far more interested in politics and often times more knowledgeable about American government than my American students. Sadly, most Americans are abysmally ignorant of current events, with only 20-25 percent regularly following national and international politics. This doesn’t have to be the case. The sooner we question the mind numbing programming promoted by corporate television, the easier it will be to mobilize citizens to care about issues that really matter.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org