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Love and Heath 

Will the real journalists please stand up?

Celebrities. Oh, how we love our celebrities. We love them so much that we dedicate pages upon pages of photos of their every move. Even the mundane becomes "news" to the admiring public. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner picked up coffee at Starbucks. Paris Hilton kissed another Abercrombie-esque trust-fund hottie. Britney Spears bought a pregnancy test at a drug store.

Tabloids and "reputable" publications alike make millions of dollars by covering celebrities. Allegedly it is to satisfy the public's obsession with stars and their fantastic lives. Tabloid TV shows have exploded in recent years, with even gossip Web sites like TMZ.com becoming "authorities" in the media world.

Tabloid journalism is not new. Commonly referred to as "yellow journalism," it is sensational in nature and has always been a part of media culture. But typically, there were serious media outlets that covered hard news with attention to format, detail, truth and accuracy. These papers and networks were the authorities. Just as there were people who looked to the news for truth and accuracy, there were also those who looked to tabloids for sensational stories.

Thus, there are many different types of readers, who like what they like. This is why there have always been different approaches to the news. There is a reason why there is The New York Times and The New York Post. But, the line between traditional journalism and tabloid journalism is becoming so blurred that it is damn near impossible to tell the difference.

There is no greater example of this than the coverage of the death of actor Heath Ledger. Last week, Ledger was found dead in his New York City apartment at the tender age of 28. The media vultures descended upon his decomposing corpse, weaving story after story with erroneous information. Before the body could be removed from the building, reporters and paparazzi surrounded his apartment building, adding the visual chaos needed to support an emerging iconic story.

In a rush to give details, so-called reputable media outlets put forth a barrage of misinformation. "Ledger was found dead in actress Mary-Kate Olsen's apartment." This lie was introduced by The New York Times and disseminated by CNN, which named NYT.com as the source. "Ledger was found with prescription and over-the-counter medications strewn about the bed." This inaccuracy was discussed on every network news channel and Web site. "Ledger was found dead naked on the floor." "Ledger was found dead, naked at the foot of the bed." "Ledger was found dead, partially clothed, in the bed."

When reporters ran out of details, they began to construct narratives. Although the body had not been removed or an autopsy performed, reporters and experts pontificated on why and how he could have died. Perhaps it was suicide. Perhaps it was an accidental overdose. Perhaps it was drug-related. Perhaps it was an adverse reaction to the sleep medication Ambien, which he was reported to have been taking. Perhaps if they had waited for an autopsy and its results, they would not have wasted vast amounts of airtime, salivating over what has become a scandalous story.

As the afternoon turned to evening, the stories got even more complex. "Heath spiraled into psychosis because of his recent role as the Joker in the next Batman installment." "Heath possibly committed suicide because of his recent high-profile breakup with fellow actor/live-in lover/baby's momma Michelle Williams." All of this speculation and no confirmed reports, yet the media hounds perched on his stoop, reporting the "facts" as they unfolded.

It is appalling to watch a profession whose core values include truth, accuracy and objectivity buckle under the demands of competing with tabloid media. What has happened to newsworthiness? Yes, it is newsworthy that a brilliant actor is dead at a young age when his career trajectory suggests that he was destined for superstardom, particularly with his next film. It is not newsworthy to have a live feed of his apartment building with nothing newsworthy happening or to spew gossip that is unsubstantiated.

Instead you have all of this hateful language being circulated about a man who is dead and cannot speak for himself. What about his 18-month-old daughter or his parents? Should they have to hear reporters cast aspersions on Ledger's character without the facts? Ledger's parents apparently learned of his death on the radio. Imagine what else they heard in addition to learning that their son was dead? Under the guise of love, the media coverage of Heath Ledger's death seems more like hate to me. Unlike the late Anna Nicole Smith who chose to live her life in the spotlight, Ledger did not. The media coverage further invalidates his truth, which may be why there is very little truth in it. He is dead. At this point, that is all that we know for sure; that and there's a thin line between truth and accuracy, love and hate.

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