(NOTE: I wrote this with two Journalism classmates as our final case study in Journalism Ethics [ J 192] class under Prof. Yvonne T. Chua in March 2009.
Celebrity news, largely a mix of glamour, PR, and scandal, is rarely looked at as an area for responsible reporting. But it is a staple in Philippine media relegated to the end segment of newscasts or the E-section of papers.
But what happens when showbiz lands the top story? We looked at how TV news covered the deaths of celebrities, the coverage of which is as sensitive as covering deaths in the general public.
Two happened twice before this final paper was assigned, which we compared to a highly-remembered one which occurred a decade ago from today’s writing.
DISCLOSURE: I am now an employee of ABS-CBN News. Roehl, one of my co-writers, works for GMA News.)
CHASING FALLEN STARS
How television news covers the death of celebrities
By Andrew Jonathan Bagaoisan, Roehl Niño Bautista and Annamaebelle Bernal
(First of two parts)
It was a non-stop six-hour affair made for television. At the funeral mass for matinee idol Rico Yan, singer-performer Gary Valenciano moved people to tears rendering “Warrior is a child,” the actor’s favorite song.
Priest Tito Caluag, in his homily, told mourners how Yan dreamed of becoming president. “Rico wanted to be a leader but never mentioned leadership because he only wanted to serve,” said Caluag.
For the climax of a week-long drama captured by television, the service was just the beginning.
From the thousands who held vigil at the wake, thousands of others went outside their homes and waited at the roadside where the convoy en-route to the young actor’s final resting place was about to pass, just to see the car that carried the famous lad’s mortal shell. People cried for the loss of an idol, a friend, a family member, and these with all other drama were shown on national television.
News personalities of ABS-CBN, Yan’s home network, stationed at key areas of the convoy to report live every stage of the procession on ground while the station’s “Sky Patrol” helicopter followed the whole procession from La Salle Green Hills to Manila Memorial Park on camera. It definitely wasn’t ordinary for a burial coverage to last that long.
But Yan’s death in March 2002 was not the only newsworthy event as television news made it to be with its “unprecedented” and “overwhelming” coverage, as a newspaper put it.
Attention to Yan’s demise pushed to the side stories like the Baseco Compound fire which displaced around 3,000 families, a dry-dock accident in Dubai that left eight Filipinos dead and eight more missing, and the deaths of National Artists for Music Levi Celerio and Lucio San Pedro, and Britain’s Queen Mother.
Celebrities make the news. Deaths also make the news. Put those two together and the media is put in a tight spot when it comes to ethics. If covering famous personalities is already problematic, covering celebrities who died is even trickier, when the newsworthy elements of the two combine but their at-times incompatible values clash.
In a country where showbiz news is a daily television staple presented under the guise of journalism, the nuances of covering celebrity deaths are largely unexplored in depth or remiss in guidelines.
Acknowledged as a come-on for higher ratings, news on local artists and showbiz controversies take up to a third of the airtime in weekday primetime newscasts and consume an hour to three on weekends.
More than 20 years since it was introduced to Philippine television and after being decried by media observers, who see the news as the sole domain of the public interest, showbiz news is nonetheless here to stay.
However, entertainment journalism, if there ever is such a term, often acts through trial and error when ethics and taste are concerned. Instead, it takes extreme cases like ABS-CBN’s much-criticized marathon coverage to lay bare lapses in reportage. That’s not to mention the still-unfinished debate on showbiz reporting’s claim to legitimacy in the news.
Coverage of celebrity deaths showcases the media’s power to influence and affect the captive audience. It also demonstrates the reckless lengths they may go to, often to hold that audience. As shown with recent instances seven years after Rico Yan, media still have much to learn and mull over.
Take ABS-CBN’s main rival, GMA 7, which in late 2008 and early 2009 lost two of its celebrities.
When Marky Cielo, one of GMA’s up and coming teen actors, died on Dec. 7, 2008, a Sunday, his mother, Mildred Cadaweng, wished for privacy and did not disclose the young actor’s cause of death. The news came out as a surprise, since everyone was still hung up on boxer Manny Pacquiao’s technical knockout victory against Oscar De La Hoya the same day.
More airtime was given to Pacquiao’s victory on GMA 7’s primetime newscast the next day, but not without giving updates about the actor’s demise. Both news items aired before the first three breaks. In between were three follow-ups to the previous week’s biggest story, the police shootout on Parañaque.
The Dec. 8, 2008 episode of 24 Oras aired ten news items on Pacquiao, with the longest one airing for around 10 minutes. Three news items each lasting three minutes also came out on Cielo before breaks, aside from an unaired report previewed in the teaser that was instead shown the next day.
While Cielo stories barely had the limelight which Pacquiao stories gracefully basked in, news items about Francis Magalona’s death conquered 24 Oras’ Mar. 6, 2009 newscast with banner treatment and twelve news stories. These stories recalled the “master rapper’s” battle with leukemia, his career and recent projects, and featured his business and nationalistic endeavors, among others.
Various aspects of the Cielo and Magalona coverage raise certain issues with how television has changed its reportage of celebrity deaths since Yan’s death. In cases like this, a line should be drawn on which people deserve extensive coverage and to what extent. More so, a TV network finds itself in a conflict of interest when it reports news on its own artists.
The nightly news as we know it today was not always dotted with teasers of a movie actor’s latest exploits, updates on a starlet’s rift with another, or extended coverage of a matinee idol’s so-called untimely death.
Before 1986, showbiz would only amount to as much as a footnote in the television news, writes journalist and media professor Luz Rimban in the book “From Loren to Marimar,” an anthology of articles by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism on media in the 1990s.
Entertainment-oriented talk shows such as those pioneered by the “queen of intrigues” Inday Badiday were already standard TV fare in the early ‘80s. But they still did not encroach on the news, then still the turf of mainly political news.
The media freedom that followed the 1986 EDSA Revolution changed television, especially when ABS-CBN, reclaimed by the Lopez family, began to pull in ratings by “re-engineering the concept of news,” as Rimban writes.
News and current affairs shows in the works patterned after the American infotainment model which emphasized the bizarre and the trivial. The next year, ABS-CBN launched TV Patrol, whose use of Tagalog and novel tabloid emphasis on crime and showbiz news set the template for future newscasts.
And the primetime news audience grew, in part by the allure of TV Patrol’s Star News. The segment would later spawn its full-length showbiz gab fests, among them Showbiz Linggo, and later, The Buzz.
ABS-CBN’s reemergence as an entertainment juggernaut dictated for it to develop its own stable of artists, following the traditional movie studio system of the past. Getting new artists in the spotlight entailed using any means to promote them and their shows.
In time, the entertainment news segments became public relations outlets for the network and its “Star Magic” talents. Usually, the stars featured on these segments had ongoing or upcoming shows with the station. Rarely did a rival network’s show or talent discovery land on the lineup, unless the show or star was long established.
And when GMA 7 later decided to compete with its rival head-on in 2003, it adopted the same system and strategy when it reformatted its primetime newscast. Star Patrol now had its match with 24 Oras’ Chika Minute.
No surprise, then, for the deaths of Rico Yan, Marky Cielo and Francis Magalona to land near or on the top of the newscasts. Entertainment segments in the news have always been justified for their ability to draw in audiences to the shows, which is why they haven’t been dropped from the news hole since.
For executives and producers at the network, more audiences mean better ratings, more advertisers, and higher revenue. This explains the reason behind the need to generate showbiz intrigue or play up events in the lives of showbiz artists. Promoting talents and their relationship to the station also benefits its image, attracting viewers and sustaining long-time audiences.
While celebrities’ lives do not actually have direct implications on the public, it is the public’s interest in showbiz personalities—one whetted by constant media attention—that further adds to a clamor for information during times like an actor’s passing.
However, in the case of celebrity deaths, the public “interest” in the celebrities’ deaths does not always override the grief needed to keep their feelings and emotions private.
John Oliver Manalastas, 24 Oras program manager, said the executive producer and program manager are the main persons concerned with choosing which story to put in the headlines. He said the entertainment news become the headlines when “a lot of people are affected”.
In the coverage of the death of rapper Francis Magalona, he said it has developed among people an “emotional connection”
“(The fans) too are grieving and wish to be kept informed. But keep in mind that choosing headlines is very subjective, it really depends on the news sense of the people in the newsroom,” Manalastas added.
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