Privacy and the press Beyond tabloids: Princess Diana's death gives mainstream media cause for reflection.

September 06, 1997

AS EARLY-RISERS turn on their television sets to view the funeral of Princess Diana, an emotional debate is being waged over one aspect of her tragic death: At what point does the right of the press to collect information sought by the public unduly invade the lives of people who -- advertently or not -- land in the spotlight?

The callous behavior of the Paris paparazzi after the princess' car crash, and their alleged role in precipitating that grotesque smash-up, are easy targets for the public's anger. For proof, just read some of the letters from our readers on this page.

Yet we are all accountable. The insatiable market for celebrity news means we can't simply pillory the photographers who tried to take her picture. If there had been no accident, photos of Di and Dodi in that car would have wound up even in respectable publications.

It is not just lascivious or sensational images at issue. One of the most widely broadcast photos, from a respected news service, shows the princess' two pallid, shocked sons. The photographer shot that picture through the window of their car. A touching scene, but isn't this intrusion into a private moment?

Celebrities, especially non-reclusive types, have to expect attention and, depending on how big they become, may need to sacrifice some normal life pleasures. Still, the fact that they enjoy being stars and use publicity to promote themselves does not give photographers or anyone else the right to stalk or harass, particularly at times clearly intended to be private. There are laws against such behavior in this country, and quite frankly it is puzzling why celebrities do not invoke them more often.

But the issue of media intrusion extends beyond the realm of stars and royals. Ordinary people, usually those who have suffered tragedy or become embroiled in controversy, find themselves the focus of intense, if often brief, attention from the mainstream press. Its tactics -- camping out on lawns, for instance -- can be disturbingly similar to the paparazzi.

While accidents and scandals are news, the media does not always distinguish important images from the prurient and maudlin. A photo of slaughtered Rwandans, which outraged many Sun readers a few years ago, enlightened those same readers about a distant but horrible truth. The value of pictures of bloody bodies at a crash scene is far less clear.

The First Amendment gives the media wide latitude. Laws restricting the press are not the answer. Journalists of all stripes must learn to treat people as something more than fodder for stories, and readers must learn to avert their eyes when journalists fail.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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