The Media’s Handling of Anna Nicole Smith’s Death

There has been a debate throughout the media industry over the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith. The death of Smith monopolized the news media for months – television, print, radio and online all hurried to meet the demands of viewers who craved more and more information by the second. In the mists of this race for information, news stations were simultaneously forced to decide what to cover, how much to cover and when to stop coverage of the Smith story before it became overly sensationalized.

Coverage Criticism

Alongside articles about the former topless dancer, there was a stream of news articles criticizing the media for its sensational coverage of Smith, whom some said should be categorized alongside pop icons and faux-celebrities such as Linsday Lohan, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie – overly reported on figures who belong only on the pages of entertainment magazines; if at all. But for Smith, the press wrote that “Cable channels rolled out coverage rivaling that afforded a dead president (Halloran, 2007).”

Notable newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and U.S. News amp; World Report were quick to criticize the public’s fascination and therefore, extensive coverage of the Smith scandal by media outlets and even its own publication. They argued:

– The media sensationalized the story to cash in on its popularity.
– The media continued to run stories without new developments.
– The media spent more time on Smith than on more important stories.
– People were not able to distinguish between an entertainment story and a story of significance.

Many of the arguments critiquing the coverage of Smith’s death were more opinion based than factual. While the coverage was extensive, this is not the first time the public has been fascinated with a sensational story that has taken precedent over more serious matters. Additionally, when the Smith story broke it should be expected that breaking news on a popular figure would receive extensive coverage and comparing the amount of coverage to another story that is not breaking news, is both inaccurate and a poor comparison. This is not the last time a story like Smith’s will arise. This debate is a serious issue in shaping the way news is covered in the future.

Cashing or Passing

One criticism the press made is that news outlets sensationalized the Smith story to cash in on its popularity. Critics said many media outlets stretched the story and even wrote that “although there have been few new developments surrounding Smith’s death, there still has been plenty for the media to chew on (Johnson, 2007).” This argument is mainly built on opinion because while the story may have had few developments, the news judgment is whether having expert discussions on the Smith case is newsworthy or not. A Los Angeles Times article discussed CNN’s coverage and its sensationalism by writing how “the Anna Nicole story swept the board Thursday afternoon as if she were Fidel Castro (Brownfield, 2007).” The article says how everyone including Wolf Blitzer, Nancy Grace and Larry King were discussing the Smith story and “in-house expertise” including lawyers and doctors were discussing the ramifications.

Another article by the Los Angeles Times, titled “Smith’s death ‘a real feast’ for the media,” noted how many media outlets’ viewership went up the night of Smith’s death and organizations were cashing in. “Positioned to benefit the most were media outlets that tried to feed the enormous appetite of its audiences. The frenzy promised to continue into the weekend with tonight’s airing of “Death of a Centerfold” on NBC’s “Dateline,” to be followed by Fox News’ hour-long special “Anna Nicole: Tragic Beauty (Rainey, 2007).” The article notes how Fox’s prime-time viewership increased more than 400,000 the night of her death and entertainment and personality websites increased 54%.

However, the article doesn’t compare these numbers to other scandals or sensational stories in the past. There is no doubt Anna Nicole Smith’s death was a huge story but was it really reported on that much more than other scandals, deaths or mishaps? What about the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal, the Brad and Angelina affair or the death of Princess Diana? Simply listing those numbers makes the facts ambiguous if there is nothing to compare them to. It is expected when any story breaks, viewership should go up in comparison to a calm news day. The real comparison is when the coverage is compared to other big news stories.

The same article also criticized its own newspaper’s decisions. Rainey noted how the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post put the Smith story on the front page of the paper and on its website the day after Smith died. In comparison, the New York Times decided against putting the story on the front page; instead running it on Page 12 and not posting it on the front page of its website (Rainey, 2007). Papers like the New York Times decided against sensationalizing the story but the author still tries to manipulate the facts to prove his point that all papers wanted to cash in.

Rainey writes how the New York Times purchased a “sponsor link” on Google so when people searched for Smith they would see a link to the New York Times online, thus increasing viewership. A quote from USC journalism professor Larry Pryor says the paper did this so “they can draw traffic to a sensational story on their website but, on the face of it, they don’t appear sensational (Rainey, 2007).” The author discloses that it is common for news organizations to purchase “sponsor links” from search engines. However, the quote from Pryor, a reliable source, is misleading and makes it seem as though the New York Times is acting deceptively, while in reality it is a common move for the paper to purchase a “sponsor link” for a popular web story.

Smith Sensation vs. Boring Battle

For the most part, the criticism isn’t that Smith wasn’t famous or influential enough to receive coverage. Instead, some critics argued that news organizations shouldn’t be covering stories like this at all and they should instead have accused on stories of national and international significance like the war in Iraq. A New York Times writer argued that coverage of Smith was for entertainment value only. He argued that by looking at air time given to various stories we can see there is no longer a line between news and entertainment. “News is entertainment. And the death of Anna Nicole Smith is more entertaining – for the time being, at least – than the war in Iraq or the plodding of Bin Ladden and Zawahri (Herbert, 2007).”

Brownfield noted how a website called counted that CNN had mentioned Smith 141 times compared to 27 times mentioning Iraq (Brownfield, 2007). However, these numbers were all on the day she died and it was breaking news so of course a breaking news story will be discussed more than an on-going war, which had no major news that day. I would argue those numbers are misleading and attempt to show that CNN covers sensational news more than real news. If the tallies were taken looking at an entire month of coverage – or even a different week – the results would be very different.

However, Herbert worries some people will have a hard time distinguishing between entertainment and news. He writes, “I imagine that there are a fair number of television viewers and newspaper readers who have trouble distinguishing the relative importance of celebrity stories, like the death of Anna Nicole Smith, from other matters in the news, like the reconstitution of forces responsible for the devastating Sept. 11 attacks (Herbert, 2007).” This argument is an assumption and does not provide any studies, surveys or facts to suggest that people have difficulty distinguishing between celebrity stories and the news.

Another article tries to argue the Smith frenzy was largely due to vast public interest, which was calculated by looking at the number of “hits” stories about her death got online. However, the author never lists any editors who claim to use this method when deciding how to cover a story and he also never gives any numbers of how many hits the Smith story got and from what sites. Is he talking about newspaper sites? Gossip sites? Blogs? And if it is newspaper sites, then how did the newspaper site decide what type of coverage to give Smith – from another newspaper? Without listing any numbers the author makes a fallacy by saying, “It’s a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages (Rutten, 2007).”

Fascinating Finish

While there is no doubt there was extensive coverage on Anna Nicole Smith’s death, most of the criticism in the press regarding overall media coverage had relatively weak arguments with no real facts to back them up. Articles failed to give clear examples of how the press excessively covered the story when it wasn’t adding any additional information. Additionally, an increase in viewership doesn’t prove a story has been sensationalized, it only signals viewer interest.

An article in USA Today discusses what makes Smith’s story so fascinating by examining why entertainment scandal stories are important to today’s media. The article quotes Jim Murphy, executive producer of Good Morning America who explains, “No matter what you thought of her bizarre life, which we covered little of in recent months, her death was untimely and stunning. The story of what she represented, an overexposed personal life, is very much a part of the American story today (Johnson, 2007).”

While some of the press argued that Smith’s story is not as important as other news stories, such as the war in Iraq, the interest in her has shown she is a part of American culture. While the war is a more serious and significant news story in that in has a greater affect on people, the public was interested in Smith because the story has an end. As the U.S. News amp; World Report wrote, “Sniff if you will at the coverage, but the Anna Nicoles of the past got similar treatment … Get used to it. Smith’s story is a drama, tragedy, and trash. But faced with a diet of stories with no end-war, terrorism, partisan bickering – it had an arc: a beginning, a middle and a finale (Halloran, 2007).” The issue in this industry is when the media will decide the story is truly over.

Reference List

Brownfield, Paul. (2007, Feb 10). Breathtaking coverage, but lamentable; In death and on the news, Anna Nicole Smith’s tawdry appeal overshadowed Iraq. Los Angeles Times, pg E. 13

Halloran, Liz. (2007, Feb 19). Just the Latest Tragic Candle in the Wind. U.S. News amp; World Report

Herbert, Bob. (2007, Feb 22). From Anna to Britney to Zawahri. New York Times, pg A. 23

Johnson, Peter. (2007, Feb 12). Round-the-clock-coverage sparks a media debate. USA Today, pg. D. 2

Rainey, James. (2007, Feb 10). Smith’s death ‘a real feast’ for the media. Los Angeles Times, pg C. 1

Rutten, Tim. (2007, Feb 10). Regarding Media Tim Rutten; How Smith’s death hit Page 1. Los Angeles Times, pg. E. 1