Case Study on the Media’s Framing of Michael Jackson

*The following essay was written in November/December of 2016 for a Writing 1000 class at the University of Lethbridge. In light of the recent events surrounding a documentary on Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse allegations, I figured now would be a good time to release it. No changes have been made to the original. For more information on the current documentary/allegations, I suggest reading this.

The Price of Fame: The Media’s Framing of Celebrities

In a culture consumed by celebrity gossip, at what point do we stop to consider the truthfulness of the facts being delivered to us by multiple media outlets and especially tabloids? Whether it be a life-altering trial, a death or a scandal, the media is there to report up to the minute details on the current events in our favourite celebrities’ lives. However, I am calling into question the rhetoric of the media’s representation of celebrities, sometimes during a turbulent time within their lives or simply a slow news day story. The examination process will consist of observing a tabloid cover of Michael Jackson in the heart of his 2005 child-molestation trial (Appendix 1.0). The common consensus when a trial is taking place is usually that of “innocent until proven guilty”, however, the tabloids had a different message in their reporting of Jackson’s trial.

The word “SICKO!” plastered diagonally in large white letters across a picture of a stunned-looking Michael Jackson. To the right margin the sentence, “Report Jacko Molested Cancer Kid,” all in large capital letters. Through this rhetorical artifact, one might question if the media had a verdict they already wanted in their minds for Michael Jackson. To what extent does the consumer stop and evaluate the rhetoric that is being produced from the media? Furthermore, what do tabloids like the rhetorical artifact listed above gain by reporting negative news before the facts have been reported by, either the celebrity in question or the court of law?

Though there has been research into the kind of rhetorical language the media is using when “framing celebrities”, we do not fully know why they go through these practices and how exactly they do it. With the help of my five secondary sources, we can uncover specific examples of the media either bending the truth, not waiting for the truth to be revealed or outright lying in their rhetoric of celebrities. With the main example being one of the more pulverizing figures in modern history, Michael Jackson. This paper will examine the rhetorical language by the media that has had an effort in tarnishing reputations and legacies of celebrities; whether this is through tabloid covers as presented in my rhetorical artifact, television coverage, or sound bites, it will be uncovered in this paper.


Before going into why tabloids have predominately negative rhetoric towards celebrities, the research first needs to begin with how exactly the media uses negative rhetorical language in their portrayal of celebrities. Building on the rhetorical artifact presented in the introduction, Gary Whannel in his journal article, NEWS, CELEBRITY, AND VORTEXTUALITY: A STUDY OF THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE MICHAEL JACKSON VERDICT examines the English tabloids around the time Michael Jackson received his non-guilty verdict. At the start of June 2005, 12 days before the not-guilty verdict, the London Evening Standard headlined with the possibility of prison for Jackson (Whannel 77). However, the prison time would never arrive but the London Evening Standard used very decisive language to predict the outcome of the trial. The not-guilty verdict placed a considerable limitation on the running story (Whannel 80).

As noted above, it appears the media was rooting for a guilty verdict. Whannel notes that by Monday, June 20, 2005, the story had lost its legs and had largely disappeared from the English press seven days after the verdict and the “Trial of the Century” never had the outcome the tabloids wanted (80). Some media outlets went as far as to not place the not-guilty verdict as front page news, Whannel notes from his case study that there were variations in the degree of emphasis and not all newspapers regarded it as major news (78). In relation to the rhetorical artifact (Appendix 1.0), before a trial had even begun they used rhetorical language to label Jackson as a pedophile, a “sicko” and demented. Compound this with Whannel’s study of English tabloids running the story out of circulation within 10 days of the verdict and we get the picture of the kind of stories the media were hoping to run after the verdict on June 13th, 2005.

In contrast, some believe that this unfair media treatment balances itself out for celebrities after death. Michelle Wood in her article Media’s Positive and Negative Frames in Reporting Celebrity Deaths from Illegal Drug Overdoses Versus Prescription Medication Overdoses believes that after death celebrities are often over glorified and their personal, legal and career short-comings are brushed over. Wood notes that Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy are prominent figures of this rhetoric.

Despite Jackson’s legal troubles and Kennedy’s involvement in a death of a young woman in the 1960’s, both the public and the media did not focus in on these controversial periods of their lives (4). However, one would question the morality of making a celebrity wait for their death before the last negative story about them is run through the press. Though it would be an interesting study to compare the rhetorical language used on celebrities before and after death and examine whether the media uses more positive language after death.


Though it may seem that we have been exposed to scandalous news, headlines and gossip since we have been old enough to read, Richard L. Fox, Robert W. Van Sickel, and Thomas L. Steige in their book Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy reason that this is a relatively new concept for the media. Fox et al. state that starting around 1990, Americans began to repeatedly focus on lengthy, high-profile, often celebrity-centred criminal and civil trials and investigations. Many of these cases at times resembled something like national obsessions and were associated with extraordinary levels of mass media coverage, a large part in thanks to the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial (Fox et al. 1).

Although such “media trials” have occurred periodically at least since the 1920s, recent years have seen an enormous increase in their number (Fox et al. 1). This spike in “media trials” has a correlation with how legal and sometimes political trials are presented to the public. Fox et al. argue that legal news today is dominated by a rhetorical style that focuses on status, personality, score-keeping, and sex/violence rhetoric, rather than on legal rules, institutions, processes, and context.

Joined with the rhetorical artifact (Appendix 1.0) presented on the first page of this essay, it is easy to understand what Fox et al. are discussing within their book. Rather than display fair and balanced rhetoric in their coverage of the Jackson trial, the media chose to sensationalize the legal proceedings as the new “Trial of the Century” to have a better opportunity to draw viewers, readers and listeners alike. Fox et al. go further in depth and explain how there has been an entirely new subgenre of news coverage and talk shows emerge, programs that constantly seem to search for the next “trial of the century,” or at bare minimum, the trial of the year, or even the trial of the month. These new shows include The Abrams Report (on MSNBC), On the Record with Greta Van Susteren (on Fox), Nancy Grace (on CNN Headline News and Court TV), and the short-lived Celebrity Justice (on the E! channel) (Fox et al. 4).

Additional cable news programs that regularly devote significant attention to trials and legal investigations include Scarborough Country, Countdown with Keith Olberman, The Situation with Tucker Carlson (later called Tucker), Paula Zahn NOW, Larry King Live, O’Reilly Factor, and Hannity and Colmes (Fox et al. 4). Through the advancements of media coverage since the 1990’s it is easy to see where the money lies as it pertains to coverage of celebrities. Nearly three decades of sensationalist, gossip-filled press has sparked the birth of television programs, numerous tabloids, websites and blogs.


Michelle Wood in her article Media’s Positive and Negative Frames in Reporting Celebrity Deaths from Illegal Drug Overdoses Versus Prescription Medication Overdoses also introduces the definition known as framing theory (56). She goes on to suggest that framing theory is not concerned with what information is circulated, but how the information that is circulated is framed (Wood 56). Media can shape audiences’ thinking and understanding about a subject and in this research, how the media portrays celebrities (Wood 56). The Face of Ruin: Evidentiary Spectacle and the Trial of Michael Jackson by Debbie Epstein and Deborah Lynn Steinberg expands on this concept as well as Fox et al theory of tabloid justice. Epstein and Steinberg note that as with the 1995 OJ Simpson case, Jackson’s trial operated both as a “circus” and as an “iconic” event. Both cases were embedded in and emerged from similar collisions of the complex machinery of international celebrity and scandal with institutions of policing, legal and court practices (443).

Furthermore, in both cases, these were explicitly played out in the context of already fraught racial and sexual politics, not limited to the USA (Epstein and Steinberg 443). It is easy to examine the “circus” in which the trial took place simply by examining my rhetorical artifact (Appendix 1.0). Through this sensationalized rhetoric, we understand the “how” of how the media produces these stories. It is not that they are making up these stories although that sometimes is the case, it is that through their rhetoric they are choosing the lens in how we view, understand and relate to celebrities that are in the limelight.


Expanding on Fox et al. points from the previous paragraph, they employ the definition “Tabloid Justice” within their book. Tabloid justice refers to the way the media focuses on the sensationalistic and gaudy details of high-profile trials and investigations (Fox et al. 6). This definition will be cross-examined with Maria Arango-Kure, Marcel Garz, and Armin Rott’s Bad News Sells: The Demand for News Magazines and the Tone of Their Covers. A study that examines the negativity bias within the media and the correlation of sales. Fox et al. point out that the media passes up opportunities for civic education in exchange for a more “entertainment” based rhetorical Language (6). It is noted by Fox et al. that during the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial, the Los Angeles Times ran approximately 317 stories on the case but printed only two pieces focusing on the crucial new California statute that allowed prosecutor Tom Sneddon to introduce evidence of past allegations against Jackson (6).

Much of the Times coverage offered almost daily trial updates, which consisted primarily of rhetoric based on descriptions of the personal behaviour and appearance of the various witnesses and courtroom actors in the case (Fox et al. 6). Furthermore, Fox et al. note that while not normally known as a news outlet at all, throughout most of 2005 E! Entertainment Television offered daily, extended coverage of the Michael Jackson molestation trial (11). Obviously, this channel was motivated by the idea that this programming would appeal to Jackson’s fan base and to those who would normally follow celebrity gossip (12).  Arango-Kure et al. study concluded that explicitly negative covers are associated with an increase of about 5% to 12% of the average sales (211). Arango-Kure et al. note that even though the evidence only relates to a small context, it supports the theory that media bias toward negativity is a matter of media being profit oriented and slanting their contents toward the type of news that will bring in more revenues through sales and advertisement (211).

Through this study combined with Fox et al. theory of tabloid justice, it is not hard to see why the media generally spins negative rhetoric about celebrities. It is important not to forget the rhetorical artifact introduced at the beginning of this paper as it pertains to tabloid justice and the study was done by Arango-Kure et al. The New York Daily News (Appendix 1.0) ignored every instinct to wait for Michael Jackson’s trial to be completed before using negative rhetorical language to label him a pedophile. In the framework of tabloid justice, they released the issue because Jackson was the biggest star on the planet at that time and it was a chance for them to be a part of the next “Trial of the Century”.


In this research essay, an examination of the who, why and how were discussed in the analysis of the media and their rhetoric towards celebrities. Using Michael Jackson as a case study I attempted to uncover the rhetoric that is behind the framing of celebrities. However, this issue goes much deeper than Michael Jackson. A simple google search of “celebrity tabloids” will prove that it is not too difficult to read the language in that the media outlets use to describe the most personal, scrutinized or troubling part of a celebrity’s life.  In examining my secondary sources, I came to understand that the media and, more specifically, tabloids use this language because it simply sells better. Why negative headlines sell more is beyond the scope of this paper, however, it is my reasoning that as individuals we learn the tactics the media uses and leverage that knowledge into doing our own research whenever we see a gaudy headline about any celebrity.

I believe that more research is needed in this field to uncover what kind of celebrities the media is targeting with negative rhetorical language on tabloid covers, news stations or on the airwaves. It will also be important to reveal why celebrities are built up only to be broken down, why Michael Jackson went from the King of Pop to a pedophile, or why Britney Spears went from popstar sweetheart to a mentally broken wash-up in the eyes of the media. Unfortunately, this media perception becomes public perception and this is where reputations are ruined, while many have the understanding to do further research upon seeing or hearing the questionable rhetorical language, for many the cover is enough for them to draw a conclusion about someone’s life.

The examples are endless for any celebrity, while some consider it simply as the price of fame, money and fortune for some bad publicity, it goes beyond a bad PR week. Reputations, careers and legacies are on the line every time a news outlet or tabloid determines the rhetoric in which they will portray a celebrity that day. They decide the lens in which we see superstars around the globe, and it is vital that we understand this. The more research that is done into the rhetorical language that the media uses when describing a celebrity, then the more adequately informed the public can be as it pertains to the latest on their favourite celebrity. Furthermore, this can create an opportunity for the media to leverage their advantages on celebrity trials to inform the public on civic education rather than using it as an opportunity to promote lurid details of a celebrity’s private life.

Appendix 1.0

Guilty Tabloid

Works Cited

Arango-Kure, Maria, Marcel Garz, and Armin Rott. “Bad News Sells: The Demand for News Magazines and the Tone of Their Covers.” Journal of Media Economics 27.4 (2014): 199-214. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

Epstein, Debbie, and Deborah Lynn Steinberg. “The Face of Ruin: Evidentiary Spectacle and the Trial of Michael Jackson.” Social Semiotics 17.4 (2007): 441-58. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Fox, Richard Logan., Sickel Van Robert W., and Thomas L. Steiger. Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner, 2001. Web. 2 Nov. 2016

Whannel, Garry. “News, Celebrity, and Vortextuality: A Study of the Media Coverage of the Michael Jackson Verdict.” Cultural Politics: An International Journal 6.1 (2010): 65-84. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

Wood, Michelle. “Media’s Positive and Negative Frames in Reporting Celebrity Deaths from Illegal Drug Overdoses Versus Prescription Medication Overdoses.” William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Graduate Faculty of the University of Kansas (2011): 1-82. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

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