The most recent uproar in the Heath Ledger saga is over a video depicting the fallen actor at a party where drugs and alcohol were present, and whether or not the popular celebrity gossip television show “Entertainment Tonight” should air it. ET claims that they have been singled out when other media resources are airing the video without comment from the public, yet the show said it pulled the segment anyway out of respect for Ledger’s family.
Being a newspaper reporter myself, I have a unique perspective on this situation. Reporters have a responsibility to report the news. Plain and simple. The public has the right to know.
That being said, the media also has to behave in an ethical and sensitive manner, especially when reporting on something so heart-wrenching as Heath Ledger’s death. Producers need to decide how to proceed, not by popular demand or proposed boycotts, but based on what they feel is the right thing to do.
Should ET have pulled the segment? In this case, absolutely. What good would it do to air it? It doesn’t change the fact that an talented young actor is dead. The hows and the whys and the whatfors don’t really matter. In fact, the frenzy this video has created only cheapens the tragedy. Everyone is speculating about whether or not Ledger was a drug addict when that fact doesn’t really matter in the broad scheme of things. Remember, a family has lost a son, a brother. A baby girl lost her daddy.
It’s important to stress, however, that media outlets need to decide on their own about what to publish and what not. The press isn’t called the Fourth Estate for nothing. The phrase, which was coined in the early 1800s, refers to the media as an important regulating part of government, with the other three estates being the church, the nobles, and the commoners.
The purpose of the media, in this sense, is to keep the government honest. This does not refer to sensationalism or tabloid journalism. This being said, producers need to have a strong ethical sense in which to regulate and govern themselves. Media outlets such as ET should not succumb to pressure by public relations or publicists if the news is the truth.
The fact that Ledger’s family decided to go through a PR firm rather than protesting the video on their own is irrelevant. It was probably the best decision, given the emotional state the Ledgers must be in. A public relations firm is a neutral party, and all they did was convey the Ledgers stance in a calm and controlled manner.
The press needs to be careful and respectful when going after a story. As a reporter for a local weekly newspaper, I don’t report on many ‘hard news’ items. However, I have had my fair share of experiences with sensitive, heart-wrenching situations. Tact and understanding go a long way, and sometimes just being willing to respect the person’s right to privacy will score that exclusive the public is clamoring for. It’s a balancing act, and reporters need to put their own careers out of their head and focus instead on writing the most accurate and relevant news article possible.