The Princess and the Paparazzi: Blame, Responsibility, and the Media's Role in the Death of Diana

By Hindman, Elizabeth Blanks | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

The Princess and the Paparazzi: Blame, Responsibility, and the Media's Role in the Death of Diana


Hindman, Elizabeth Blanks, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This case study examines mainstream newspaper editorials' discussion of the role, responsibility, and ethics of the media in the death of the Princess of Wales. Using attribution theory, it concludes that the newspapers dealt with criticism of the media in the case in several ways. First, they distanced themselves from the photographers who chased her car before it crashed; second, they blamed those outside the media, Including Diana herself; and third, they acknowledged some responsibility.

Late in the evening of 30 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, and her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, left a Paris hotel. As their car drove through the Paris streets it was chased by about six photographers on motorcycles.1 Driver Henri Paul lost control and the car crashed in a tunnel, killing Paul and Fayed instantly and leaving Diana and her bodyguard severely injured.2 Diana was taken to a hospital, where she died several hours later, early on 31 August. Within hours people on both sides of the Atlantic were blaming the photographers-called "paparazzi"-and the media as a whole for the crash and for the culture of celebrity coverage that led to it. Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, was widely quoted on 31 August as saying, "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. . . .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."3

Within a few days it became clear that Paul had been drunk and speeding at up to 120 miles per hour. Nevertheless, the role of the media in the crash, both directly and indirectly, provoked significant discussion of media responsibility.4 Criticism centered on the actual crash and role of the chasing photographers as well as on the role of the media as an institution in providing, or maintaining, a culture of celebrity. The case provides a rare opportunity for examining what the news media said about media responsibility. While much commentary came in bylined columns or from identifiable individuals on broadcast media, this research focuses on institutional "views" as demonstrated in unsigned newspaper editorials. The purpose here is to explore how, in the face of enormous criticism, mainstream media explained the media's role in and responsibility for the death of Princess Diana. Specifically, this case study applies literature on attribution theory and paradigm repair in a qualitative analysis of newspaper editorials. It concludes that mainstream newspapers attempted to restore the news paradigm in two key ways. First, they isolated themselves from the paparazzi and supermarket-style tabloids, rhetorically distancing themselves from "those" media, then attributing responsibility for the crash to characteristics of the tabloids that the mainstream did not share. Second, having brought Diana and the audience into the news process by suggesting that both were active participants in defining news, they separated themselves from the "poor" decisions made by Diana and the audience. In these ways the newspapers were able to absolve themselves of responsibility for the crash and act as agents of paradigm repair. Conversely, a few acknowledged fundamental flaws in the routines of journalism, and through attribution of responsibility contradicted the concept of paradigm repair.

This case study uses attribution theory both to expand and counter the growing body of work on the repair of the news paradigm. Research on paradigm repair provides the underpinnings and a rationale for why mainstream newspapers felt the need to distance themselves from supermarket tabloids and paparazzi following Diana's death.

Paradigm Repair

Bennett, Gressett, and Haltom5 used the term "paradigm repair" to explain how journalists distance themselves from other journalists or media organizations who fail to uphold journalistic routines and values-like objectivity-and consequently call into question the very foundations of those values. …

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