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The road rage was over-the-top, but so too was the media coverage

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The coverage this week of that road rage incident in Fredericton says as much about the state of journalism as it does about the individuals directly involved in the confrontation. And not in a good way.

Social media has led to public shaming at a level never experienced before. Not that public shaming in and of itself is bad. On the contrary it serves to keep people in check, and often people deserve to be shamed. Usually it would be in proportion – you do something boneheaded in public, and the people who are around nail you for it. You feel ashamed, and life goes on. Been there and done that.

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But with social media, when someone captures the incident on video, and promptly puts it on YouTube for the world to see, the proportion of the bad behaviour to ridicule has the potential to go seriously out of whack.

That’s what happened in this case when the video went viral.

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Then the media piled on. From what I can tell every media in Fredericton was part of this. The radio stations, ATV, Global but especially CBC. The driver on the receiving end of the tirade happened to work at the CBC, and he got his son to video the encounter. That video made its way to several CBC radio programs, and became a top story on the suppertime TV newscast.  

The next morning, CBC Radio is going at it yet again. As I was listening I pulled my Gleaner out of the mailbox and there the story was again, smack on the front page.

Here’s the thing. The irate driver went way overboard. That’s a given. I expect the other driver did do something to provoke him, as I can’t imagine this guy would go off like that for no reason, but that’s beside the point. He over-reacted. We get that. And he apologized. The video has caused him and his family considerable grief and embarrassment.

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He has been publicly shamed big time, and way out of proportion to his crime. But there’s a journalistic question here around news judgment and ethics. One would hope it would prompt some soul searching in some newsrooms.

What’s even more troubling, journalistically, were the comments of STU journalism professor Jan Wong. On CBC Information Morning yesterday morning, she was asked about the newsworthiness of this incident. Her response was that it wasn’t that the road rage incident was newsworthy, but what was newsworthy is the fact that the YouTube video of it went viral and was watched by half a million people.

It is true that news is, by definition, the unusual. And this video grabbing this much attention therefore fit. But her response is too simplistic. If this is what the next generation of journalists is being taught, this does not bode well for the profession. By her explanation, content is secondary to the popularity.

There is, or should be, a responsibility on journalists to weigh all manner of factors in determining newsworthiness, and popularity should be more toward the bottom than top of that list. In this case this should have included asking themselves if they would be guilty of contributing to this modern day phenomenon of excessive shaming. The answer to that should have determined the manner in which they reported the story.

“Proportion” being the key thing. The story can be covered without the necessity of playing that video at every opportunity. It’s not as if people wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. Just as the incident was over-the-top, so too was the coverage.

By coincidence, over the weekend I watched a Ted Talks video on this very issue, public shaming, delivered by someone who would know, Monica Lewinsky. What she has to say about our culture of humiliation is well worth listening to, by all of us, including journalists. Here's a link

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