When Celebrities, Race and News Collide

By Andrews, Caesar; Burdick, Marci et al. | The Quill, November 1999 | Go to article overview
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When Celebrities, Race and News Collide

Andrews, Caesar, Burdick, Marci, Cappo, Joseph, Clifton, Doug, et al., The Quill


This is the sixth in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions.

From the O.J. Simpson trial to the death of Princess Diana, media coverage of celebrities has reached new heights in the past several years. Editors and reporters largely agree that prominence is a legitimate news value, but how that news value should be balanced with others is open to debate.

In this case study, a managing editor at a hypothetical newspaper in a mid-size city confronts this issue when the wife of a celebrity calls police to report an incident of domestic violence. However, the woman decides not to press charges against her husband, a well-known rap star and businessman named Dizzy Top. In an unusual break from procedure, police in the case are forthcoming with information about the incident and provide a reporter with easy access to the 911 tape. It's common knowledge that the police department doesn't approve of Dizzy Top's role as a promoter of music that glorifies violence and criticizes the police. How does the newsroom handle this story? How would you sort out the issues?

The panelists who are part of the Media Leaders Forum shared their views about how they would respond to this situation and why. The Forum is a project of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Several times a year, the Manship School asks top managers in media organizations to respond to issues that newsrooms face. The cases and responses are then presented in Quill and at the Manship School's site on the Web, www.jour.lsu.edu/manship in an effort to encourage discussion and debate.

Here's how you can participate. Once you have read the case study, visit the Manship School's site. There you may e-mail your response to the case. We would like to know what you think.


When Celebrity, Race and News Collide

Vanessa Perry, a staff reporter for a mediumsize Southern daily, finds herself in the middle of a story that makes her uncomfortable. A police dispatcher has provided a tip that Dizzy Top (a.k.a. Dwayne Nelson), a rap artist and successful businessman, roughed up his pregnant wife the previous night. The wife called 911 but, by the time police arrived, refused to press charges.

Perry thinks this is a news story, but she wonders about the motives of her source. Dizzy Top has "ruffled the feathers" of some in the community because he is a black artist who lives a "splashy" lifestyle in a conservative city.

Perry begins a week-long pursuit of the facts of the story by requesting the initial police report. She hits her first snag, when this report provides little useful information. Perry tells her managing editor, Rick Stone, that she may be at a dead end.

She is somewhat surprised by what happens next. The city's police department quickly honors her request to see a supplemental investigation report. Such reports are public record when, as in this case, law enforcement has completed an investigation and there are no pending criminal charges. Reporters on deadline usually experience stalling tactics when such requests are made.

This report gives Perry the information she needs to seek interviews with the principal parties. Perry tries unsuccessfully to reach Dizzy Top, holding the story two days while negotiating with his public relations director to talk with him.

After this is unsuccessful, Perry asks to speak with Mrs. Nelson, the rapper's wife. For Perry this step is crucial because she wants to compare her story to the police record. The second snag comes after Perry can only hold a phone conversation with her while the public relations representative is on the other line.

Perry tells her managing editor that clear contradictions exist between Mrs. Nelson's phone interview account and the police report filed on the night in question.

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