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Overton: Joining the mob

BY JON OVERTON | OCTOBER 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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It’s not every day that one person’s small slip-up grabs national, even international headlines.

Enter the extremely unfortunate case of a University of Iowa teaching assistant who meant to email classwork to her students but accidentally attached highly embarrassing photos involving herself and a man (I’ll let you put two and two together). UI officials looked into the matter to determine the appropriate action and asked students to delete the messages they received.

Big surprise — her students chattered away about it on social media, joking and spilling quite a few details. Gossip sites picked up the story, and from there it went to the traditional media, both local and national.

I could rant about how these students are terrible people, but they aren’t. Social media, comment sections, and the rest of the Internet let people say whatever they want without any regard for the consequences. People see others doing it, see they are rewarded for it, imitate it, and often are rewarded themselves. Students were congratulating each other on Twitter for being cited in the media on this very subject.

There is a barbaric mob mentality when it comes to discourse on the Internet, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

I could also blame the gossip sites, but it’s obvious that they’re parasites, so that would be a moot point. No, the real disappointment was in how parts of the “professional” media handled this whole situation.

The mainstream media are established institutions that supposedly follow a general code of ethics. And while they didn’t reveal anything new, the media unnecessarily added fuel to the fire.

Let’s think. Who does this story affect? A handful of students, a TA, and a few university faculty members. The incident was obviously a mistake. So what justifiable reason is there to pick apart the details of this event and tell everyone about it? How does this serve the public good? It doesn’t. It is selfish. It is exploitative. It is profiting from the humiliation and pain of another human being. This obsession with attracting as many eyeballs as possible and getting all the juicy details effectively turned esteemed media outlets into vultures.

Although the TA’s name was never used, tweets and gossip sites were recklessly cited in some local and national media, providing plenty of information that when put together could easily compromise the TA’s identity. Granted, people could find the tweets and gossip without help from the traditional media, but these institutions naïvely gathered much of the available information, cited their sources as they would with any other story, and expected no one to look for further details. Refusing to the use the TA’s name doesn’t absolve the media of their guilt in spreading this non-story.

Had the established media used their better judgment and simply ignored this story because of its low impact (or at least been as sparse on the specific details as possible) and its high risk of leading news consumers to the TA’s identity, it would have saved one unlucky person so much unnecessary embarrassment. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people would never have heard about what happened (this story even showed up in a British tabloid).

So now someone has made an embarrassing mistake, anyone with a computer can easily find out about it, and the professional media joined the gossip fest. Remember this the next time these same media outlets claim to be serious professionals who are vital components to a functioning democracy.


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