Journalistic Articles

An Analysis on Peer Pressure and Public Shaming and How they Influence the Media

Kevin Carter, most well known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo The Vulture and the Little Girl, was a South African photojournalist. He grew up witnessing the unrighteous system of apartheid and often scolded his Catholic “liberal” parents for not taking a greater stand against it. After watching the Church Street bombing in Pretoria in 1983, Carter decided to start his career as a photojournalist. He worked as a sports photographer, then moved on to work for the Johannesburg Star where he avidly exposed the brutality of apartheid. In 1990 Carter and fellow conflict photographers Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and Joā Silva started the Bang-Bang Club. Their purpose was to photograph the results of the transition from the apartheid system to democracy in South Africa. In 1994 Oosterbroek was murdered, and Carter took his life shortly after, bringing an end to the Bang-Bang Club.

During his eventful career, he was the first photographer to expose a public “necklacing” ( a torture method where a rubber tire filled with gasoline is put around the victims’ arms and chest and set on fire). He later declared  “I was appalled at what they were doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

In March 1993 Carter and Silva were asked to fly to South Sudan and photograph the famine.  On their journey, they were granted permission to fly food aid to Ayod, where people were dying at a rate of 20 per day due to hunger. There, Carter and Silva split up to take photos but were given strict orders to avoid contact with famine victims due to the risk of transmittable diseases. It was in this village where Carter shot the photo that would win him a Pulitzer Prize later that year.

The Vulture and the Little Girl - Source: Wikipedia

The Vulture and the Little Girl is a photo depicting a little girl making her way to the nearest feeding center. She had fallen behind a bush when Carter found her. As he crouched down to take the photo, a vulture landed behind the girl. Carter quickly took the photograph and chased the vulture away. An excerpt from Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs states that afterwards Carter sat under a tree and cried. The photograph was sold to The New York Times and published on 26 March 1993 causing it to become known worldwide. Carter received huge backlash as concerned readers asked to know if the girl had survived and demanded to know why he hadn’t helped her. Carter later stated:  “I’m really really sorry I didn’t pick the child up.” 

I believe the bombardment of negative comments about his photo is what ultimately caused him to commit suicide. Carter had become very depressed due to the horrors of reality that he was experiencing, and had taken to drugs as a way to escape. After the death of Ken Oosterbroek, Carter sank deeper into depression, finally taking his own life on 24 July 1994.  In portions of his suicide note it read:

“I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist …depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, or killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

Maybe if the world had taken a chance to commend Carter for taking the photos no one else wanted to, or for winning a Pulitzer Prize, or had even given him a chance to explain the situation, his story would have ended differently. Unfortu-nately, we can never be sure of what could have happened. What we do know is that Carter was not the first person in the media to be pushed to extremes. Regularly, journalists and television personalities are forced to report “news” for the sole purpose of getting clicks. Usually, this is done without thinking about the consequences the article or report may have on the subject. To further delve into this topic I will introduce you to the meaning of peer pressure and public shame, and give examples demonstrating how they influence the media. I will then address how we as a community can minimize their impact on society.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure has become a household term throughout first world countries. Teachers are taught to watch for signs of it, students are taught to beware of it, and parents are taught to fear it. But what does it actually mean? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is defined as “a feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one’s age and social group to be liked or respected by them.” Whereas Cambridge Dictionary interprets it as a “strong influence of a group, especially of children, on members of that group to behave as everyone else does.” This is a feeling we all have felt at school, work or even at home. Although all know how it feels to be pressured into something, we seem to  lack an understanding of how dangerous peer pressure can be.

The Milgram Experiment - Source Wikipedia

One of the most famous case studies of peer pressure was the 1961 Milgram Experiment. In 1961, German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem. As a last attempt to remain a free man he pleaded that he had not acted on his own will, but had instead followed through with orders. He also explained that since he was “forced to serve as a mere instrument in the hands of the leaders,” he did not feel any guilt. This testimony intrigued social psychologist Stanley Milgram to a great extent. In fact, it led him to conduct an experiment where he measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their conscience.

In this experiment, the teacher (the participant) and the learner (a colleague of Milgram) were separated so that they could communicate but not see one another. The learner was then directed to memorize word pairs and recite them back. The teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock for every wrong answer.  The shock was from an electric switchboard with 30 switches indicating different voltages from a 15 V “Slight shock” to a 450 V “XXX”. As the fake shocks began to increase the learner would start making more audible noises expressing discomfort. When the highest voltages were reached, the learner would fall silent. Any time the teacher expr-essed unwillingness to continue, the experimenter would pressure the teacher to continue. The coercive statements used were:

  •  Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that  you continue.
  • You have no other choice, you must go on.

While all participants continued to 300 V, 2/3 of all participants reached 450 V. Milgram came to the conclusion that participants were more likely to continue if there were no role models for defiance.

Polish-American gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch further supported Milgrams’ findings through his conformity experiments.  He proved that people are more likely to conform to a group if they are made to feel insecure or incompetent. This is especially true if:

  • they are in a group of three or more
  • everyone else agrees on the  opposing idea
  • they admire the group
  • they feel everyone else is watching their behavior

Asch was able to prove that the less individual we feel, the more we are at the mercy of the experience of our group; good or bad. This idea is backed up by the psychological terms normative social influence and deindividuation. Normative social influence is defined as the moment “when a person conforms to be accepted and belong to a group.” This can either be rewarding or it can be a way to avoid social rejection. Deindividuation, on the other hand, is “a loss of self-awareness or restraint in groups.”  This often leads to group polarization, “the tendency for a group to make decisions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its members.” Most commonly, group polarization turns into an “us vs. them” mindset. “Us vs. Them” leads to believing that because the opposing side isn’t “us,” they are inherently wrong. This causes the “us” to pressure the “them” into changing their opinion. 

All of these terms can be spotted in the world of the media. It is not uncommon for a journalist to be told they have to publish something or find another job. Often they are led to believe that they have to conform to the ideals of their boss if they ever want to publish anything ever again. Even if the journalist does decide to take a stand against the pressure he/she will undoubtedly face colleagues coercing him or her to just do what the boss says. Normally these coercions sound a little bit like  “It’s just easier this way” or “it’s just one time, it’ll be fine.” This is peer pressure nonetheless. Peer pressure in the workforce, especially in the media world, is a huge cause of public shame reporting. It leads to a feeling of validation, because “maybe everyone was right and this person deserves it” when in actuality the consequences can be irreversible.

Public Shame

Public shame is the lesser known of these two topics. When we think of shame, we are normally picturing the last time we experienced it and what it felt like. However, the idea of public shaming (also known as social shaming or public humiliation) very rarely comes to mind. When shame is typed into Google, over 20 pages of results appear. These are filled with a plethora of definitions and articles, but it is not uncommon that case studies and even TED Talks pop up here and there. As soon as you search public shame in Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you are confronted with the message “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.” This is the same response when you look in  Cambridge Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, and even Google Dictionary. The best concrete definition that I have been able to find was from forum.wordreference.com which defined it as “the act of being humiliated or embarrassed publicly.”

Pillory_9105377
A Pillory - Source Wikipedia

The idea of social shaming has been around forever, the best example being the Puritans. They were notorious for forcing criminals to sit in the pillories in the middle of the town square for long periods of time. Often the criminal would be screamed at, spit on, and even have food or rocks thrown at them.

Since then, the way we understand social shaming has changed, and the term has been forced to adapt to an online world with billions of users. However, instead of using stocks and pillories, we use revenge porn, slut shaming, doxxing and much more. We shame to pressure outliers to conform to our norms, even when we can’t decide what those norms should be. In fact, people are often shamed just for being uninformed.

Being publicly shamed can take a huge toll on the victim’s life. Often shame victims lose their have 

Revenge Porn:sexually explicit images of a person posted online without that person’s consent especially as a form of revenge or harassment

Slut Shaming:the action of stigmatizing (usually towards women) for engaging in behavior judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative

Doxxing: (abbr. dropping documents) referring to malicious hackers’ habit of collecting personal and private information, often releasing it publicly against the victims’ will.

enormous amounts of trouble finding another one. These effects don’t just last for a week or a month. Years later the tweet, photo or even video used to shame the victim will still show up as the top search result when their name is “googled.” Actor Jennifer Aniston spoke out about public shaming stating “even movie critics don’t just comment on the film.

Sometimes shamers will go as far as to target the victim and their family, sending them bomb threats, rape threats, and even death threats. Revenge porn victims are most likely to be told: “Sorry that you trusted that person, but it is your fault.”

Journalists are no stranger to this weapon. As Kelly McBride so truthfully states: “Rather than remaining neutral and simply describing a public shaming, newsrooms are on firmer journalistic ground when they approach with a point of view, usually that shaming is unjustified.” Journalists are often led to believe that their shaming is justified, but it is not an uncommon to hear that journalist are just trying to fill time and a word count more than they want to report the truth. The need to be the first person/magazine/news reporter/blog, often gets in the way of fact checking, leading to unrighteous shame.  Women are especially prone to experience public shaming online. American journalist Amanda Hess has received threats from someone who planned to go to her house, rape her, and then cut her head off. In an interview with ABC Nightline she simply said: “None of these threats make me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an internet connection.” 

For many women, especially female writers and public figures, this day to day harassment is their daily life. Monica Lewinsky is probably the best example of this. In her TED Talk, she describes herself as “Patient Zero” for public shame online.

In 1998 Lewinsky went from being a completely private 22-year-old intern to becoming a public person of interest. In one fell swoop, she lost her reputation, her dignity, and almost her life. Her career was forcefully ended before it could even start. She was forced to sit through an eight-hour-long hearing of all of her phone calls with Bill Clinton, and confirm what they had talked about. Afterwards, the transcriptions of those private calls were opened to the public. Shamers went as far as to air them on television and publish them online. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the first time that online news had more views than television. The media, however, did not just talk about the trial. They participated in an activity Ryan Holiday calls outrage porn.“Rather than reporting on real stories and issues, the media finds something mildly offensive, broadcasts it to a wide audience. Generates outrage. Then broadcasts that outrage back across the population in a way that outages yet another part of the audience.”

The media was so caught up in the first global public shaming, that they forgot that Monica Lewinsky was an actual human being. To get more coverage, her intelligence and physical appearance became topics of conversation. If someone had tried even speaking on her behalf, it is very likely that it would not have helped. Normally even documenting the public shaming of someone exacerbates the humiliation. In this case everyone was so busy throwing stones that nobody realized we were founding a new desensitized culture of humiliation. She continues to be publicly shamed to this day. The scandal was actually named after her, contaminating her pride in her name.  There are also over 120 songs mentioning her name, acting as a reminder every single day of the mistake she made at 22 years old.

Monica Lewinsky - Source: The Tonight Show with John Oliver

Being “Patient Zero” forced her to fall publicly silent for over a decade. Since her reappearance she has talked openly about the scandal, and has become an advocate for anti-bullying and anti-shame campaigns. She explains in her TED Talk that gossip websites, paparazzi, reality TV, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers all traffic in shame. She points out that we have become so desensitized to shaming others that humiliation has become our commodity and shame the industry. Researcher-storyteller-professor Brené Brown defines shame as the fear of disconnection, explaining that we shame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.

Public shaming is not always a bad thing though. Through public shaming we can hold those in power accountable. After being publicly called out, those who internalize the message and feel remorse over their mistake are more likely to be motivated to repent, than those who worry more about how it will affect their reputation. Through social shame, the media has the power to rally the people to make a change. After all, shaming with a noble goal is journalism. Kelly McBride wants to hold the media accountable for their public shame as well. In her article she explains that: “journalists have a responsibility to recognize when people or a crowd are caught up in a cycle of anger and ask whether a story is truly news, or whether all those clicks are just people whipped up into an emotional frenzy.” I believe that keeping that in mind would lower the amount of public attacks we see in the news, while also taking some pressure off of the media to publish quickly and without remorse.  As a society we need to decide if the “current shaming” is effectively changing society for the better or whether it is instead further damaging our society.

Empathy: the Solution

There are already tons of different programs out there helping to fight peer pressure and public shame. Some give speeches, some go to schools and teach students to spot the warning signs, and others go campaigning. In their own way every single one of them is helping to fight the “good fight.” 

Brené Brown believes that shame grows out of secrecy, silence and judgement, and is squashed by empathy.  I agree. We, as a culture, will not find an answer on how to minimize the effect of these problems until we choose to prioritize compassion and empathy over shame and humiliation. Doing so will not only cause a cultural, if not global, revolution; it will cause us to take responsibility for how we express ourselves. Just like the consumers, the creators of public shame, must learn that the freedom of expression is not valuable when it is not held accountable. 

Mariano Sigman and Dan Ariely proposed an intriguing solution in 2017 in their TED Talk How Can Groups Make Good Decisions.  Through their research they noticed that crowds are wise when there is independent thinking. To become wise, those crowds need to deliberate and to have a very diverse set of opinions. Their research further confirmed what Solomon Asch believed; that group behavior is powerful, but so is individual choice. When people are sat in groups, those with the most extreme opinions are usually ignored by fellow members, giving the confident-averages more attention. This is called a robust average and it allows for small groups of people with very different opinions to come to a consensus. So not only do we and the media need to be empathetic, but we need to sit down with others and listen to their stories, deliberate over the important topics, and search for that robust average. What we also need besides empathy is for companies to be more diligent about protecting, but also when necessary calling out their employees. The media needs to understand that the victim is not at fault. Most importantly, we need to teach children that they are worthy of love and belonging. That way they will continue with the tradition of empathising with one another, instead of hunting for secrets. Hopefully one day our media will focus more on fostering one’s individual identity than on tearing down everyone who makes a mistake.

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