Lindsay Lohan and the Evil Media Plot

With Lindsay Lohan's trip to jail in the news, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is calling attention to a 2009 study in which its researchers has uncovered a shocking plot by major media outlets: Covering up the dangers of drunk driving by celebrities.

That's right, the Hopkins researchers did a content study of the news coverage of the legal troubles of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and other guzzling glamoristas and has determined that media outlets seldom included warnings that people can get hurt as a result of drunk driving. Consequently, one presumes, nobody knows that.


Drunk driving is of course a serious health and criminal justice issue. It's the  cause of about one-third of the fatalities on U.S. roads. It's something nobody should do. And of course the media shouldn't be promoting such activity.

But such media studies are such a waste of time. The one thing academic researchers in public health seem to have in common is the notion that news coverage is supposed to be an excuse for a public service announcement. It's not. When Lindsay Lohan goes to the slammer, the  public wants to read about whether her makeup was streaked with tears and what kind of food she'll  be served. They're not clamoring to have it pointed out that driving while drunk is bad. Earth to academics: They know that already.


Still we have  the Hopkins study -- "Media coverage of celebrity DUIs teachable moments or problematic social modeling" --  giving us the shocking news that only 4 percent of the reports about Lohan and other celebrity drunks "made any mention of injury or possible injury from the DUI events."

Another thing the researchers criticize is the use of glamorous red-carpet photo of celebrities alongside reports on their legal problems. Such pictures, they say, "do a disservice to young people," who are presumably too stupid to know the celebrity was looking a lot less glamorous when she was failing her field sobriety test.

If these researchers had ever met an editor from outside the academic sphere, they would know they are werewolves (and I say that affectionately) who would love to run a non-glamorous criminal justice photo of a busted celebrity. Give an editor such a picture, and 10 times out of 10 they will prefer it to the glam shot. So why don't we media jackals always use them? Because we don't always have them. A good Mel Gibson falling-apart-drunk shot doesn't come along every day.

Another example, in which the researchers criticize coverage of Nicole Richie's troubles: "Accounts of Richie's DUI arrest include discussion of alcohol, marijuana and Vicodin without reporting her (blood-alcohol content)." From which we're supposed to conclude what? That the media suppressed her BAC? Did the authors consider that the police might not have provided Richie's BAC or that she refused to take a breath test?

Then there's the complaint about the "paltriness of the legal consequences" for celebrities.  Hey, if the consequences of a DUI are paltry, isn't that a function of the legal system? Isn't it the media's job to report that paltriness? And when the media pile on to give maximum exposure to a celebrity's most humiliating moments, doesn't that reduce the paltriness of the consequences?

The researchers also criticize the media for using "a sarcastic tone or informal language" -- possibly such terms as "guzzling glamoristas" and "slammer" -- in coverage of celebrity DUIs. They say it can "undermine any prevention communication."

Prove it. What evidence is there that using the word slammer undermines the message any more than the word jail?  There's no doubt the news media like colorful language (and cheap alliteration), but one can't read the Hopkins report without suspecting the authors of a bias in favor of dry, humorless, boring prose.

Perhaps the effectiveness of public health messages is being undermined by the dullness of academic research. The celebrity web site TMZ may be doing a better job exposing the perils of drunk driving than all the public health schools in the United States.