Rihanna aftermath rouses ethics debate

The shifting media landscape has radically rewritten the rules of what content is suitable for publication, and what is considered a private matter.

The shifting media landscape has radically rewritten the rules of what content is suitable for publication, and what is considered a private matter. Case in point: many outlets published a photo of a battered Rihanna, reportedly the victim of a domestic abuse incident, while others chose to link to it, and some didn't mention it at all.

A police headshot, reportedly of the pop singer, first surfaced on TMZ.com on February 19, prompting questions about where it came from and whether it should have been published at all. Shown with bruises and cuts on her face, Rihanna was allegedly the victim of abuse by boyfriend and R&B artist Chris Brown. The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating both the domestic incident (Brown was arrested for making criminal threats) and the photo's release.

Traditionally, journalistic standards required reporters and editors to keep the names and photos of victims from publication. However, the case falls at the murky intersection of crime reporting and celebrity publishing. Thus, Rihanna's star status and the luminary-obsessed nature of entertainment media have thrown the old rules away, says David Hauslaib, editorial director of Jossip.com, a gossip Web site covering entertainment and media.

“We have this appetite for celebrity culture and it brings down any sort of safeguards we, as a media industry, have implemented to protect people,” he explains.

Outlets including Gawker, Newsday, PerezHilton.com, the New York Post, and Us Weekly published the photo, while Oprah Winfrey showed the picture and discussed the situation on her February 20 show. Other outlets, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, linked to the photo, but did not publish it.

“The photo is not supposed to be publicized; the police have made that clear,” says Rob Howe, news editor at People, which reported the leaked picture, but did not publish it or link to the original. “It was a very easy call [not to include it].”

Howe notes that there were other considerations besides Rihanna's public status. “She is a public figure,” he says, “but we can help, as much as possible, protect her privacy by not publishing that image.”

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at journalism organization the Poynter Institute, says that different segments of media have varying standards. She adds that she doesn't think the overall ethics of journalism have changed.

“Some publications are delivered to an audience that is specifically seeking celebrity news,” McBride says. “Most of those aren't really journalistic in nature.”

Carolyn Fenton, publicist and marketing manager at TMZ, says via e-mail that the outlet does not comment on how photos are obtained, but that they were acquired legally.

When asked if the photo would receive other treatment if Rihanna was a different type of public figure – a nationally recognizable politician or business leader, for instance – representatives of different media segments gave distinct responses.

“If we're talking about a politician or business executive that is high profile, I think there would be the same public interest and demand for these photos,” says Jossip's Hauslaib, who adds that the topic would again “be up for debate.”

Howe clarifies that People's rules would still apply to a politician or CEO involved in a domestic incident. Yet other infractions, like a star getting a DUI, are different.

“Journalism standards and practices are always changing,” he says. “I think the right practices are the things that stay the same. If other people want to test those boundaries, I guess that is up to them.”

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