Phil Jarratt: Click-bait and social media issues as only some of shamed are pictured

Aug 03, 2020 at 09:36 pm by Staff

At the beginning of July a local media organisation 'named and shamed' four people who had recently been convicted in my local Noosa magistrates court of various charges related to drink driving.

"From drink-driving with kids in the car to breaking into a vehicle for $8, it's good to know these people are off Noosa's roads for a while", was the click-baity introduction.

Nothing new in that. Naming and shaming has been a media staple - beaten up in some organisations more than others - for decades, with reporters generally picking up the shaming list from court officials at the end of the day so they might avoid the endless repetition of court procedure. The list of names and offence details would then be published in its entirety. Media veteran Peter Owen tells me, "It was always all or nothing, the only way you could approach it."

But what is relatively new is the new and selective level of shaming employed by some digital news platforms through 'borrowing' photos from social media accounts so they can shame by sight.

In this, the selection process seems to be more related to youth and attractiveness than to the severity of the crime. Put it this way: if you're a middle-aged businessman who blew a biggie, it seems you're less likely to see your wrinkled prune on display than, say, a wild young thing or a young mum behaving badly. And, of course, if you don't have a social media profile, there will most likely be no photo for the media to 'borrow'.

So it was that on July 7 two local women, aged 36 and 20, found themselves named, shamed and pictured in an online newspaper, while another woman - whose blood-alcohol reading was the highest of the group - and a man both avoided photographic identification. The best that could be said about the 36-year-old who committed the high-range offence while driving with her two children in the car is that she was foolish and irresponsible, and the 20-year-old was a repeat offender arrested after a police pursuit. They were not little angels and they deserved to have the book thrown at them.

But did they deserve to be selected for public pictorial humiliation? And who makes such determinations?

Back in the late 1970s Peter Owen was editor of the Queensland Times in Ipswich. He recalled: "I started running the names of drink drivers because I thought it might be an effective deterrent. Back then, the road toll was much higher than it is now, and drink-drivers hated the thought of their name appearing in the paper.

"Our commitment was to run the name, fine and reading of every convicted drink-driver - even, I'm ashamed to record, my own name when I was picked up one night with a .09 reading. The police and court officials were very keen to cooperate as they, too, considered it to be a deterrent."

(And a disclosure here: this writer has also been before the local court on a drink-driving charge, and although he may well have deserved shaming, received none. He did, however, learn a lesson.)

Peter Owen also takes responsibility for introducing the DUI shame file locally. He says: "When I got to the Sunshine Coast in 1990 I introduced the idea to the Sunshine Coast Daily. There was never a selection process involved - every conviction was recorded - and I'm not aware that such a policy was ever changed. I reckon a system of selection would be unfair and open to all sorts of allegations of favouritism. Nor do I think there's any useful purpose in running photos - from Facebook, or anywhere else."

Although he would not be drawn into specific comment on media shaming, Noosa senior sergeant Ben Carroll told me that making young people the media targets here is simply not in line with the facts: "Noosa does have a very high level of drink-driving offences, but the majority are drawn from our older demographic and from older tourists. Younger people tend to be more aware of options like Uber when they have a night on the town."

The last word on shaming should go to one of the world's leading experts, Professor John Braithwaite, founder of the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University, who has been researching and writing about shaming and its societal impact for more than 40 years. "It's very hard for any form of media shaming to be reintegrative (into society) because of the short grab character of all mass media - social, public or private," he said. "Yes, there are documentaries and opinion pieces that are exceptions, but even with the latter we know the evidence is that most people just read the heading and the first few paragraphs. That makes reintegration much harder than it is in a two-way or multi-way, face-to-face conversation.

"Perhaps the best thing the media can contribute is to publicise rituals of reintegration. For example, at the site on an Indigenous massacre. Or a restorative justice conference outcome about apology and forgiveness for visual shaming in the media."

Phill Jarratt is an author and former publisher; he is currently associate editor of Noosa Today, from which this is an edited version.

Sections: Columns & opinion


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