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Why real journalists should be asking tough questions about Jett Travolta's death



When I first saw a news account citing Kawasaki disease as a possible cause of Jett Travolta's death, Jetttravolta my journalism Spidey Sense started tingling like crazy.

You see, my son suffered from Kawasaki as a toddler. It was a painful, frightening ordeal, in which he suffered a high fever and his extremities swelled and peeled off loads of skin, keeping him from sleeping, going to the restroom or even taking a bath.

But our biggest problem was that the disease was so rare, doctors didn't know what it was when they saw it. When a young physician who knew the disease diagnosed it, and my son was given transfusions of blood products to combat it, our only worry was whether the virus had affected his heart.

So why was anyone hinting that Kawasaki might have caused the seizure that killed Jett?

Jettandjohntravolta The St. Petersburg Times has a great story today dissecting the rumors and facts about the 16-year-old, son of John Travolta and Kelly Preston, concluding that Jett may have died of the simplest reason: a seizure that came despite any medicine he was taking or treatment provided.

The story also suggests that a breathless press, rushing to find some explanation for the teen's sudden death, took past family statements about Jett's brush with Kawasaki and asthma and blew them up into misleading conclusions.

I sympathize with folks, like my pal and Times movie critic Steve Persall, who wish the full weight of tabloid and legitimate media could lay off a bit when something this awful happens to a celebrity.

But because the Travoltas are well-known Scientologists, and their religion does not believe in treatment for psychological disorders, there were, I think, legitimate questions for journalists to ask about whether this kid of famous parents got the medical help he needed. Believe me, if the kid's name was Jett Johnson from Ocala, with parents who belonged to a controversial religion that might affect his treatment, journalists would likely be asking the same questions. There just wouldn't be as many.

But this is the problem when celebrity and real news intersects; sometimes it's hard to figure out where the real journalism imperative lies.

As I've said before, the solution isn't for the press to turn away, but for responsible journalists to practice good journalism -- and shame the bottom feeders by proving there's more to the subject than titillating speculation.

(Photos: Rogers & Cowan publicity/AP)   


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:54pm]


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