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The new sensationalism

Whatever final legal judgment arises out of the lawsuit brought by entertainer Carol Burnett against the National Enquirer, the court action carries a strong message to the American press. Newspapers should be more scrupulous than they have been about balancing the public's "need to know" against ensuring individual privacy of public and non- public figures in solely personal matters.

The suit also raises the question as to what extent new forms of sensationalism may be intruding into journalism at a time when the public is more eager for news than ever -- and yet when the technologies of reporting can now instantly communicate information (true or false) to a vast worldwide audience.

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Miss Burnett, who is one of the world's best-loved entertainers, contends that she was defamed in a story about her alleged personal conduct in a Washington restaurant in 1976. The National Enquirer subsequently retracted the story. But undaunted, Miss Burnett pressed ahead with a multimillion dollar suit against the publication, contending that she was "lied about." The suit is believed to be the first libel case against the Enquirer ever to go to trial.

The courts in recent years have made it easier for persons not considered "public figures" to win damages for publication of libelous articles. However it remains more difficult for public figures to seek redress since they must show not only that an article was inaccurate but that it was published with knowledge that it was false or published recklessly. Attorneys for the Enquirer insist that in the Burnett suit they are protecting First Amendment rights for the press as a whole.

This is not an appropriate moment to comment on that claim. But most reasonable persons would argue in general that there is a line of propriety involving certin types of alleged information that is not hastily crossed by a responsible news organization. Are the mass media today adequately policing themselves against sensationalism?

Many opinion polls suggest that this may not be the case. They indicate a great concern on the part of the general public about the influence and role of the press. The sensationalism of the 1980s may in fact be taking quite different forms than the more blatant "yellow journalism" of turn-of-the-century America, or the crime-oriented journalism of the 1920s. Among areas now under study in some journalism schools in the US are the press practice of focusing on violence and controversy rather than seeking areas of consensus and agreement in public debate; intrusion of personal prejudices and opinions in the guise of "interpretive" journalism; the intensely "adversarial" role which some segments in the news media have assumed; and of course, the introduction of "gossip" (often unattributed) to general news reporting.

As the Carol Burnett case suggests, if the media do not police themselves, the courts may increasingly be asked to do it for them, with consequences that may not be beneficia l to either the press or the public.

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