‘Why is there so much coverage of his death? Was he really that important?’
The question arose ten minutes into our @MagazineCBJ snap session on David Bowie this week, exploring how the media reacts when a much-loved public figure dies.
The answer was simple.
Yes, some of the media coverage was over-wrought. Yes, it triggered a display of public anguish that was, in some cases, more about jumping on the latest grief bandwagon than heartfelt sorrow.
Nevertheless, as we explained to the magazine journalism students, all in their early 20s, Bowie was a performer whose influence extended beyond all forms of music into every corner of popular culture and especially visual culture; from art high and low, to fashion, design, technology, philosophy, literature and the media itself.
Then there’s the liberating effect, spoken of movingly by so many this week, of seeing a man in a dress, high heels and unmissable eye shadow draping his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson and taking Top of the Pops by storm in the Britain of 1972.
You cannot measure his influence but it is everywhere. That is why he was so important and his loss is a blow to so many.
Lessons from the media
The media reaction WAS intense and a powerful case study of how a big story breaks and is covered in modern journalism and the challenges it presents to journalists. Here are some takeaways:
- Breaking news – social media is the default platform for breaking news with the web increasingly becoming an archive source. Rumours of Bowie’s death were circulating on Twitter and Facebook early on Monday January 11 and it was confirmed on his son, Duncan Jones’, accounts at 6.30am, although . . .
- Verification – BBC5 Live broadcast ‘reports of’ the death just before 7am. Today on Radio 4 made no mention until 7.06am. The delay would be down to the need to confirm that the original social media posts were not the work of hackers.
- You are not the story – journalists live on TV and radio broke the rule about impartiality, letting their own feelings about Bowie’s death take over their reporting. Understandable? Or self-indulgent?
- Curation – the internet was flooded with millions of online stories and posts about Bowie without hours, leading media outlets to sift through for highlights. As Paul Bradshaw says here, curation is the new obituary
- Find an angle – some local press went to great lengths to localise the story, as in the tale of the Croydon milkman who delivered Bowie’s milk more than 45 years ago
- New material – many outlets took the opportunity to release previously unpublished Bowie material. Among GQ’s excellent coverage on the day was this gem from Robert Chalmers about telling Bowie, by mistake, to f***off. In the US, CBS 60 Minutes shared clips from an unseen 2003 interview – not aired at the time, apparently, due to ‘correspondent conflict’.
- This is the end – the last official portrait of Bowie, taken by Jimmy King posted on Instagram a few days before Bowie’s death, is a work of art and a lesson in semiotics. What does it mean that he’s wearing shoes but not socks? Is it, as some think, a reference to death?
Finally, back to Bowie’s influence on culture, popular and media, explicit and subconscious.
Besides the songs eulogising the man, the fashion shows paying stylistic tribute and the novelists who will use his life and death as continuing inspiration, expect the journalists to get in on the act with magazine covers, spreads (celebrities dress up as their favourite Bowie characters), tribute supplements, more TV specials, columns and philosophising.
Above all, let’s look forward to a rash of Bowie-inspired headlines, as in:
Figgy Stardust – @BBCGoodFood celebrates figs
Ciders from Mars – BeerandBrewing.com reports on innovation in the world of scrumpy @CraftBeerBrew
Ashes to Ashes – Country Living magazine chooses your ten best woodburners @CountryLivingUK
Man who Bowled the World – England cricketer Jimmy Anderson becomes the world’s top wicket-taker. Any newspaper. @jimmy9
Moonage Daydream – Tim Peake’s autobiography @astro_timpeake
Station to Station – great railway voyages as reported by Sunday Times Travel @ST_travel
Golden Years – Saga. Of course. @SagaUK
Absolute Beginners – tips for handling your child’s first day at school, Mother and Baby magazine @MotherAndBaby
All the Madmen – Media Week profiles the movers and shakers in advertising @MediaWeek
Under Pressure – anyone writing about Jeremy Corbyn @jeremycorbyn
Summer is traditionally the silly season for journalism but, as has been noted several times lately, August this year was the cruellest of months.
Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq dominated the headlines throughout until last week, when the Jay report was published and laid bare a child abuse scandal in Rotherham so horrific it eclipsed even the looming threat of Europe’s war with Russia.