Celebrity divorces can make for irresistible gossip, but it’s time to take a step back and consider the consequences of our words
There are 10 divorces between my parents, step-parents and ex-step-parents, so you could say that I have seasoned knowledge of relationship breakdowns. But I consider myself lucky – at no point in my life have I had to try and cope with a parent’s divorce under the burning spotlight of the world’s media attention. Thank god my family aren’t famous – I can’t even begin to imagine dealing with that extra dimension of unblinking scrutiny on top of the already devastating news of divorce.
When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt announced their decision to separate on 20 September 2016, it wasn’t the infamous couple that my heart went out to, but their six children. It took less than three days before the tabloids struck upon the gossip gold they had been hoping for – Jolie had apparently left Pitt because the actor had allegedly struck the couple’s 15-year-old son, Maddox, during a fight on a plane. The hungry journalists gave little thought to the feelings or emotions of the young teenager at the centre of the media storm, running story after story every time a new quote or shiny piece of questionable information emerged from an anonymous source.
The coverage of the separation, the alleged incident and the still-ongoing custody “battle” was inescapable to the average person, so it’s hard to believe that Maddox or his siblings had any chance of avoiding the headlines, especially in the age of social media. Imagine being a teenage boy attempting to absorb the reality of your parent’s separation while also trying not to buckle under such an immense pressure cooker of public scrutiny.
Of course, Jolie and Pitt’s children are far from the only ones to be used as tabloid fodder following the news of a celebrity divorce. Even when there is nothing as scandalous as an alleged plane fight to report on, the children of divorce are drowned in column inches. When Anna Faris and Chris Pratt announced their separation on 1 December 2017, they released a joint statement which read, “Our son has two parents who love him very much and for his sake we want to keep this situation as private as possible moving forward”.
No such luck. It took mere hours for an “insider” to come forward and claim that the couple’s “different parenting styles” had contributed to their split. Imagine being their five-year-old son, reading that quote at some point in the future when he inevitably decides to Google his parent’s divorce, and being forced to feel in some way responsible for what happened.
It’s not only celebrity divorces that have the media salivating – let’s turn our attention to Scott Disick, who shares three children under the age of eight with Kourtney Kardashian. Disick’s many infidelities kept the media on their toes during his nine year on-off relationship with Kardashian, until she finally drew a line under their relationship in 2016 when pictures of him on a yacht with another woman emerged in – you guessed it! – a tabloid newspaper. “I just feel sad for the kids,” Kardashian said, and I wholeheartedly agree. How will the digital footprint of the thousands of stories about Disick and his lothario ways affect his daughter Penelope, now five? How will his sons, aged eight and three, feel about their father when they connect the dots of his absences during their childhood with the dates on undercover videos of him partying and sleazing on other women?
Because that’s the thing about such relentless media coverage, especially at a time when anyone with a camera phone and a social media account can play the role of paparazzi – there is no such thing as privacy. Meaning there is no way to shield children from the actions of their parents, or protect their right to innocence.
As part of the media myself, I understand this desire to generate stories that will drive clicks, or front pages that will drive sales. As part of the human race, I understand our fascination with other people’s relationships. A celebrity breakup obviously breeds instant intrigue, causing us to stop whatever we’re doing and enter a suspended reality of scrolling through news pages and gossip sites, like slowing down as we drive past a car crash.
But next time a couple announces their intention to split, I urge anyone reporting on the news to consider the impact their stories could have on the couple’s children. Digital coverage can live online forever, and we have a responsibility to report on the breakdown of a family in as respectful a way as possible. These are real people with real lives, and the words and actions we use can have very real consequences for those involved.