On the night of February 16, 2007, Britney Spears entered a Los Angeles hair salon. Less than 24 hours before, the 25-year-old singer had fled a luxury rehab facility. Now more than 70 photographers stalked her through the storefront windows and captured the so-called Princess of Pop as she shaved her head. The result was a now-infamous photo — a glamorous starlet gleefully shedding herself of any markers of her beauty. Days later, the now-bald singer attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. New York Magazine called it “the most interesting performance of her life”.
In the following weeks, headlines were plastered across celebrity and tabloid magazines, expressing shock and dismay at the singer’s out-of-control behavior. “Inside Britney’s Breakdown” exclaimed People. “Help Me” ran on the cover of Us Weekly, along with a photo of bald Britney with a vacant expression. “Why Britney Snapped” ran on Star, and, almost matter-of-factly, the National Enquirer titled its cover story: “Family’s shocking decision to put… Britney in a mental hospital.”
At the time, Spears was among the most beloved, photographed and ridiculed entertainers in the world. She had skyrocketed to fame at the age of 16 in 1998 and within the decade, had released four albums, completed five world tours, endorsed countless brands and accumulated a financial empire estimated at $50 million. Along the way, Spears became a tabloid fixture, hounded at every possible moment, for every conceivable misdeed.
The celebrity glossy Us Weekly especially pounced on Spears. Her relationships failed, she partied too much, she lost custody of her infant children, she noticeably gained weight. She was “out of control” and a girl gone wild. Thanks to a new formula of bright covers, attention-grabbing headlines, snarly articles, paparazzi photos —and Britney —the magazine’s print sales soared, reaching a print circulation of 1.9 million by 2007. Soon the other glossies (Star, In Touch, Life & Style, Ok!) mimicked its style, creating a competitive market among celebrity magazines.
The online gossip site TMZ launched in 2005, and along with blogs like PerezHilton.com and Oh No They Didn’t,pushed conversation about celebrities online. Paparazzi culture exploded and fans could be instantly rewarded with the information, pictures, and gossip about their favorite celebrities. Like sportscasters giving a play-by-play, the gossip pundits tracked her “bizarre” behavior, casting a conservative condemnation over her life while counting down to her downfall. As TMZ founder Harvey Levin once succinctly put it: “Britney is Old Faithful. There are people who love her and there are people who think she’s a train wreck and everybody wonders how it’s going to end.”
The media frenzy surrounding Britney built up to the night of January 3, 2008, when she was escorted from her home via ambulance and placed under an emergency psychiatric hold. The tabloid headlines raged again. “Time Bomb” and “I’ll Kill the Kids!” screamed the front page of Us Weekly and the Enquirer, respectively. Star offered exclusive details “Inside Britney’s Tragic Freefall Into Madness.” Each article was accompanied by invasive photos of Spears surrounded by emergency personnel and strapped to a gurney.
Spears was placed under a temporary conservatorship on February 1, 2008, granting her father legal control over her financial and personal affairs. By this point, the celebrity press’s narrative that Spears desperately needed help and only her father’s intervention could save her became accepted as the universal truth about Britney. A 100-something word Associated Press brief was published in newspapers across the country, but few papers explained conservatorship law and why a young woman may need one. Her conservatorship fell into place with little questioning from the public and, more troubling, with little investigation from the Fourth Estate.
There’s a misconception that no reporting goes into low-brow journalism. Yet tabloid and celebrity reporters are able (and willing) to push boundaries in ways reporters at other publications are not. They are expected to get any scoop by any means necessary. At events, they observe a famous person’s behavior, what they eat and drink, and whom they engage with. Reporters follow celebrities into bathrooms, stake out hospital waiting rooms, track them at restaurants, and even outside their homes. Celebrity reporters conduct interviews, comb through documents and cultivate relationships with sources like any other beat reporter. These news items are then vetted by editors, fact-checkers and legal teams — and nothing really ends up in People without a publicist’s approval.
But a hazy balance between tabloid reporting and journalism ethics also exists. In Touch uncovered the sex crimes committed by an evangelical Christian who was a reality-television star. TMZ paid a security guard over $100,000 for video footage of NFL star Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancé, ending his career and spurring discussion of domestic violence by professional athletes. The National Enquirer broke key evidence during the O.J. Simpson trial and about then-presidential candidate John Edwards’s extramarital affair, but its catch-and-kill tactics are now infamous.
For the so-called serious publications to cover Spears, the angle needed to be right. Rolling Stone opted for a sensational account written without access to Spears. The Los Angeles Times focused on how much it cost the LAPD to escort Spears to the hospital. The New York Times examined “beyond the psychodrama being played out on tabloid covers,” focusing how her business dealings—not her personhood— were affected by her public mental health crisis.
The Atlantic published an in-depth look at the paparazzi who followed Britney in April 2008. At the time, “Shooting Britney” was a controversial cover story. Why would an esteemed publication like the Atlantic lower its standards and cover Britney Spears? Then editor James Bennet argued the article fit with the Atlantic’s editorial mission of “bringing its intelligence to […] the most significant subjects in politics, business and the broader culture-and makingprovocative arguments.” Readers disagreed. “It’s bad enough when Britney takes up space in my New York Times,” one complained. “If this is the new direction, they may as well just call themselves one of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids.”Months later, when a reader accused the Atlantic of watering down its brand, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg poked fun at the controversy: “Please don’t worry. It’s not as if we’d put a photograph of Britney Spears on the cover.”
By the end of 2008, Spears was the punching bag for the celebrity press and serious trades alike. While it’s easy to claim that one type of media (celebrity) coverage of Britney Spears was worse than all the rest—this is a central argument of the 2021 New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears”— editors of prestigious publications also understood that a salacious Spears story could generate newsstand sales and website clicks. But beyond questioning if the media acted ethically or simply lacked empathy for Spears, Britney’s story is in fact a case study about how media institutions collectively failed her. That failure was two-fold — the failure to cover the battle for control of a vast commercial enterprise with Spears as its revenue-generator and the troubling question of whether conservatorship laws can be abused for financial gain.
Looking back at the National Enquirer’s reporting from the summer of 2008, the tabloid follows standard procedures when covering Spears. It relies on leaked information from Spears insiders as well as unchecked gossip that would never be published somewhere like the New York Times. But, even now, 15 years later, one article from August 18 stands out. “Britney furious as court keeps dad in control” details the conservatorship and Jamie Spears’ surveillance tactics. Spears is quoted as saying, “you treat me like a prisoner.” The story of Spears’s abusive conservatorship, her unhappiness, and her dark relationship with her father was always there.
The information just came from the wrong source.
Joanna Arcieri is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia Journalism School. Her dissertation research focuses on celebrity journalism, Britney Spears, and the #FreeBritney movement. Her reporting has appeared on Buzzfeed and Jersey Digs. She holds in MA in Media Studies from The New School and a BA in Film Studies from Mount Holyoke College.
 People, March 5, 2007; Star, March 5, 2007; Us Weekly, March 5, 2007; National Enquirer, March 12, 2007
 Mara Reinstein, “The Trouble with Britney,” Us Weekly, January 19, 2004, p 42-46; Kevin O’Leary, “Girls Gone Wild!” Us Weekly, December 11, 2006, p64-69.
 Joey Bartolomeo, “Britney: Even More Bizarre,” Us Weekly, August 6, 2007; p 58-59; “Countdown to Meltdown: Britney’s 4-year descent into insanity,” Star, January 21, 2008, p 56-57.
 Us Weekly, January 21, 2008; National Enquirer, January 21, 2008; Star, January 21, 2008.
 I tracked this by conducting content analysis of an AP brief published on February 2, 2008 using Newspapers.com. While this is not a complete analysis of articles published nationwide, my analysis found that only one newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, included a detailed explanation about conservatorships.
 This is a practice in celebrity reporting called “doorstepping”.
 It is also crucial to note that the Atlantic’s Britney cover story came at a time when the magazine was in the midst of newsstand and ad sales were in decline.
 Jeffrey Goldberg, “What’s Your Problem,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 2008, p. 144.
 Larry Haley, “Britney furious as court keeps dad in control,” National Enquirer, August 18, 2008, p. 14.