Readers' Representative Journal

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In pursuit of Britney Spears

January 9, 2008 |  6:00 am

The Jan. 5 story on the front of the California section -- and on the homepage for a while -- reported that Britney Spears had been hospitalized, and barred from visiting her sons. It was also a look at the reporting frenzy outside her house, reflecting, as the story put it, that "Spears is perhaps the most pursued celebrity in Hollywood."

Some readers feel that The Times itself has pursued that story too much.

In their comments, Times readers included judgments about the public's tastes as well as the coverage. Susan Barrett of Los Alamitos wrote, "Three writers to cover the Britney Spears story? Surely one would have been enough. The dumbing down of Americans. The country is at war, the economy is tanking. And yet Britney Spears is a huge story. Yikes. I remember when there was real news, not this nonsense."

Other readers acknowledged that that the story warranted coverage but they were, as one reader put it, "a little sad" about The Times' "use of resources" that day.

David Lauter oversees the California desk, and responds, first, to the reasons for having three reporters on the Saturday story: "If we had wanted simply to report the facts of the custody case, one reporter could have done that. But the goal in this case was to do more -- to report on the aggressive nature of the photographic pursuit of Spears, what that says about how the celebrity industry is changing and the impact of those changes. Getting all that done in one day required more than one person."

Shelby Grad, who edited the Saturday story, agrees: "We wouldn't have put three reporters on a story just about her custody case -- which is sad, but similar to hundreds of others. What made this especially newsworthy is the role of paparazzi in L.A. -- it's big business here and it affects people; if you live in L.A., you see it. Also, this standoff represented something new in this relationship between celebrities and the celebrity press. And in this case, it's using public resources in that it involved a dozen cop cars escorting her to Cedars-Sinai. It took three reporters to include comment from people involved, officers and celebrity photographers, but the story didn't play off the tabloid mentality."

Megan Garvey, morning assignment editor who was on duty the day the article was written, also saw it as going beyond reporting on a pop celebrity. Garvey acknowledges that there's a legitimate debate about how celebrity news is handled. But to those readers who wonder if The Times is part of the media "frenzy" described in the Jan. 5 story, she says, "We are different from the people who follow her 24/7. We don't camp outside her house. It happened here in L.A., it involved law enforcement and the courts -- it was a news story."

Lauter also addressed concerns that The Times devotes too much time and attention to the Spears saga: "A great news organization ought to be able to do more than one thing at a time, and we do." He points to the coverage in the paper that same day: "As the reader noted, there's a war going on, and The Times' news report on that day -- as on virtually every day in the last four and a half years -- included a story from one of our staff writers in our Baghdad bureau. The day's news report also included two front-page stories on the presidential campaign, an analysis of the latest economic trends which may indicate a recession in the coming year and a major new study on the cancer risk from toxic air pollutants in Southern California. Inside the front section, in addition to the war and the presidential campaign, we had stories from Times staff writers in Kenya, France, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia, Peru and Washington and several stories by our science writers.

"On the local front, in addition to the story on toxic air pollutants, our staff writers produced 15 stories on a range of topics that included allegations of police corruption, a major conservation decision involving land preservation in the hills above Glendale, religion on college campuses and the year's first  homicide in downtown LA. And then there was Britney. The odds are long against any one reader's being interested in each and every one of those stories. That's why a news organization, whether in print or online, needs to offer a broad range of stories. The goal is to hold a mirror up to daily life in all its splendid diversity. The passing circus is part of that life, particularly here in Southern California, where the whirl of celebrity is very much a part of the fabric. That circus is as much a legitimate subject for coverage as the Dodgers or the Lakers, which our Sports section covers routinely without anyone worrying that they contribute to the 'dumbing down' of America."