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Who Is Fair Game for Public Shaming? Here's a Media Rulebook.

AP Photo/Nick Wass

After reading the New York Times Magazine teaser for it, I had wanted Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, to be about stories like that of the Metro North lady—a woman who, in a videotaped commuter-train fit, informed a train conductor of how well-educated she was— which not only went viral in 2011, but earned her a place in a 2013 philosophy book from Oxford University Press. Or ones of men photographed manspreading on public transportation. Stories, that is, of people who’ve been “stranger-shamed”—not for something like being overweight or badly dressed, but for some supposedly noble cause like honoring personal space, treating strangers with dignity, or respecting solemn occasions or locations. Ordinary people, in other words, who’ve become notorious for a momentary lapse in judgment that, thanks to smartphones and social media, ends up making the news. 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed does delve deeply into several instances of that sort of shaming. Two are rather straightforward: social-media posts by women (one on Facebook, the other on Twitter) that were intended as humorous but widely seen as offensive, leading to both women losing their (low-profile) jobs and becoming more or less unemployable. Another is the somewhat more complicated story of a woman at a tech conference who posted a photo online of some fellow participants to call them out for making jokes she overheard and found offensive. But Ronson mixes these in with other shame-related stories that involve well-known people being criticized for things more substantial than one poorly constructed or out-of-context joke. There’s Jonah Lehrer, a super-successful author who was justly accused of plagiarism. There are also appearances from former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey and former car-racing executive Max Mosley—men unfairly shamed in sex scandals, but who were already in the public eye when these scandals occurred.

In his treatment of online shaming, Ronson doesn’t much distinguish between cases involving the already famous and those brought into the public eye against their will. This is in one sense reasonable—even the famous can feel shame—but in another, too bad, because so much of what makes online shaming a problem is that it’s now possible for huge numbers of people to react to strangers’ doings. Even if a thousand people are telling you, calmly, that you should have been nicer to that train conductor, even if (for the sake of argument) not one of those thousand people is threatening you or asking you to be fired, that’s still in and of itself a sort of shaming. Whereas, it’s not shaming if a thousand people tweet their disagreements with David Brooks.

Once having identified the problem, though, addressing it can seem futile. After all, doesn’t everyone have a right to an opinion? But as Jacob Silverman notes in his Slate review of Ronson’s book, the Twitter pile-ons Ronson protests aren’t always so spontaneous: 

While [Ronson] looks at historical roots of the practice, he also doesn’t consider the important role that the media, especially viral media, play in public shaming. Tabloids, cable news, and reality TV have long specialized in helping to make ordinary people objects of brief, coruscating interest. Usually this involves humiliating them in one way or another—sometimes, as is the case with reality shows, with the consent of the subject. Now the role is often played by big news sites and content producers who know that they can play on audience outrage or the desire for a fool-of-the-day in order to boost traffic. A more thorough investigation of public shaming would examine how the media is complicit in this process of raising people up for ridicule.

Indeed. “Stranger-shaming” stories make for tempting content because they’re quick and cheap to produce, and because they put click-driving humiliation under the guise of a good deed. At the end of his Jalopnik post on the commuter train incident, Brian Moylan explained his reason for sharing it: “Public humiliation is the only thing that will teach this brat a lesson. Let's hope this helps!” Whether 2011-era Brian Moylan was genuinely outraged over this commuter-train passenger’s fit is anyone’s guess; but it's clear that such a post would draw easy clicks for Jalopnik.

What’s needed, then, are professional standards for whose gaffes, social-media posts, or other legal activities are worth the media's attention. While I’m not particularly optimistic about their being implemented, here goes.

Who Is Fair Game? 

Politicians, CEOs, and others with great influence: Yes.

Journalism would be quite pointless if it were declared unfair and “shaming” to criticize such individuals’ actions.

Major authors, New York Times columnists, “Daily Show” hosts, and the like: Yes.

It’s not shaming a public intellectual to challenge his or her ideas. People whose job description is to start a national conversation or to hit a nerve have every right to protest social-media threats or abuse, but aren’t being shamed when a whole lot of people disagree with them.

College journalists, Thought Catalog contributors, and others who’ve written articles that, in a pre-social media era, maybe three people would have read: Sparingly.

Anyone who’s published something needs to be open to both positive and negative response to their work, and it’s not unethical to quote someone with a platform smaller than your own. But journalists for major publications shouldn’t make a habit of scouring ones such as these for easy takedowns. 

Ordinary people who’ve posted to social media with the reasonable expectation that few were interested in their posts: Resist the impulse.

Yes, technically any post that’s not behind privacy settings is for the taking. But it’s wrong to bring publicity upon someone who wasn’t seeking it out (especially those who are behind privacy settings and get shamed via screenshots). Not everyone sharing on social media is doing so in the hopes of becoming famous. 

Ordinary people who've been surreptitiously photographed or recorded, whether mid-meltdown on a terrible day or clearly suffering from mental illness: Never.

A blip in someone’s life should never be used to turn them into a symbol of what the culture has come to, or indeed of anything.

This checklist will still leave ambiguous cases, such as that of Britt McHenry, an ESPN reporter suspended for a week after being filmed saying nasty things to a towing company employee. On the one hand, she was already (evidently) a public figure, so it’s not a violation to make news of her outburst. On the other hand, even otherwise lovely people may react badly in situations like having their car towed—particularly if other things are going on in her life that we don't know about. Maybe this was the lowest point in that reporter’s life, or maybe she’s like this to everyone, I have no idea. While I have trouble picturing a news media that wouldn’t report a story like this, I can’t say I agree with Megan Garber of The Atlantic that viral shaming of bad manners is, in general, to be celebrated.

To be sure, the media isn't wholly responsible for the rise in viral shaming. Twitter and Facebook users are perfectly capable of doing so without the media's complicity; indeed, that's how media finds these “stories” in the first place. But the onus is on the media not to exacerbate it. When a daily print newspaper in America's biggest city sees fit to turn a disaster-site selfie into a cover story, it normalizes the idea that ordinary people’s slip-ups, real or perceived, count as legitimate news. 

One could make the meta-case that Ronson himself is profiting from these humiliations: LA Review of Books reviewer Rob Sharp does asks, rhetorically, “how to take the author seriously as he propels these stories back to the top of Google’s search results, this time with his own name attached?” Is Ronson just shaming the shamers? And am I, in turn, just shaming Ronson for shaming the shamers? And are all we profiting from it? Yes—except that poor girl who can't find a job because of a spontaneous middle finger.