Gossip journalism has always drawn eyes and gained intrigue. Whether a rumor is about a member of a politician’s family, or a regular person who just happened to stumble into overnight Internet fame—journalists pounce on any information they can find in order to get an interesting story.
This desire for personal details raises an important ethical dilemma which the media, from TMZ to CNN, struggle with. What is the line between educating the public and reporting extraneous facts?
Take the example of Gary Alan Coe, better known as “Gary from Chicago,” who became a viral sensation after unwittingly participating in a Jimmy Kimmel prank at the Academy Awards.
A few days after the Oscars, major outlets began reporting on his criminal history, mainly the 20 years he spent in jail for a petty crime committed in 1997. Was dredging up the past of someone who is not a “public figure” the right thing to do?
Erich Schwartzel, a film industry reporter for The Wall Street Journal, told MediaFile that reporting on Coe’s past “wouldn’t rise to our standards at the Journal.”
“It feels like… people do this quick research on these viral personalities, and it becomes a thing on Twitter and that becomes the news story,” Schwartzel said. “There’s this snake eating its tail tendency.”
He likened Coe’s scrutiny to that of Ken Bone, who the Internet elevated to fame after his endearing appearance at the second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. A little digging turned up his Reddit history, where he had made controversial remarks about women and the death of Trayvon Martin.
“I’d say it’s a difference between just scraping social media sites to find out as much as you can about a guy versus finding a larger context and making it newsworthy that way,” Schwartzel said.
Coe and Bone had fame thrust upon them, which makes reporting about their pasts a debatable decision. But should that same courtesy be extended to celebrities?
As Schwartzel put it, “I think we ask a lot of our celebrities, and one of the things we ask is for an open door policy when it comes to their personal life.”
Entertainment media spent a lot of time earlier this year relitigating a rape allegation against “Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker, which, as Schwartzel noted, had “real business implications” (the film was considered a box office flop). Because of the serious nature of the alleged crime, Schwartzel said reporting on Parker’s past was “a much easier call than Gary from Chicago.”
Then there is the matter of reporting on politicians and their families, like a recent Page Six report about the relationship between Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the widow of Biden’s other son, Beau. The former vice president may have provided Page Six with an official statement, but does merely being privy to this family’s internal affairs justify reporting on them?
Schwartzel likened it to the infamous Trump dossier, which was first reported by BuzzFeed without verification.
“There are things that we hear in our reporting at the Journal that are interesting or salacious, but are just not details that we would cover,” he said. “I think part of it is that you have to get it confirmed and seek comment, and there are all these standards you have to go through that aren’t always present at other outlets.”
Similar questions arise when reporting on members of the first family, particularly Trump’s children. Schwartzel said that they are more fair game because their actions reflect directly on their father and his potential conflicts of interest.
“We’ve gotten to this weird place that even what Ivanka [Trump] is wearing is relevant because there are all these questions about whether she is using the public platform of the office to advertise her clothes,” he said. “Even the folks who like to criticize ‘what are you wearing’ questions, that argument isn’t as relevant because of the business dealings of the Trumps.”
Whether the facts being reported about these public figures are relevant to public discourse or not, audience hunger for this sort of information will probably remain high for a long time, according to Schwartzel.
“I would hope that [with] these recent examples…that inspired fast and sudden investigations into their private lives, a certain fatigue would happen where we don’t have to do this every time someone trends on Twitter,” he said. “Not to sound like an episode of ‘Black Mirror,’ but I’m not so certain that will happen any time soon.”