Malia Obama has spent this year touring colleges on the East Coast, visiting NYU as well as Columbia, Harvard and Brown universities. During this last stop on her tour, which took place two weekends ago, Snapchats and tweets of the president’s daughter standing next to a beer pong table appeared on Buzzfeed, US Weekly and other media sources. Given how infrequently Malia Obama inhabits the spotlight and how little tangible power she has — the title of POTUS is not a hereditary one — the phenomenon of media outlets tripping over one another to cover this non-story rests entirely on the cheap hits that come with matters of youth and celebrity. If the media spent half as much time picking through photos of, say, President Barack Obama’s extrajudicial assassination plan as they do over his teenage daughter, it would realize that Malia Obama’s party habits just aren’t newsworthy. Teenagers will always be teenagers.
The story, essentially, is that a teenager visited a college party. Hardly surprising or out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Granted, she has famous parents, but she was visiting colleges, not on official business involving the president. It’s the kind of reporting that smacks of the supermarket tabloid’s fascination with celebrities out and about in public, with the added creepiness of the subject in question being a minor who was apparently unaware the photos were being taken. Malia isn’t the first underage celebrity or presidential child to be thrust unfairly into the media spotlight, but precedent hardly makes the media’s reaction in this incident more defensible. To apply harsh standards on minors with more public renown does not make their crimes any more damnable or even newsworthy. Minors are entitled to make their mistakes, regardless of who their parents are. No amount of predatory media coverage should change that. The Editorial Board of the Brown Daily Herald noted this in a piece titled “Sorry, Malia Obama,” when it acknowledged that Brown students should not have posted snaps and tweets about Obama at a party.
Beyond the media circus, there is the question of students gawking at celebrities. The virality of the social media updates shows how easy it is for the smallest incident to be blown out of proportion, to reach an audience of millions when it was meant for a few eyes only. Once the photo has been taken, there is nothing to stop it from being shared and disseminated worldwide. And when the media outlets reprint the photo with paltry embellishment — as if to proclaim that the occurrence of a teen drinking at a party is in itself newsworthy — it only fuels the kinds of people who would seek out and take pictures of underage celebrities in contexts where they are simply living their lives.
As Malia Obama prepares to move out of the White House — perhaps into a dorm in New York or Providence, though this is not a front-page concern — the media should refocus their journalistic lenses on topics that are actually newsworthy. They shouldn’t police the actions of minors, amplifying their mistakes and ultimately violating their privacy.
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