Whether it’s a seven-year-old boy from Virginia dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan or an actress who painted her face “black” to fit the role of an African-American television character, offensive and insenstive actions make headlines that run across television broadcasts, the homepage of our desktops and the news applications on our mobile devices.
However, the problem is not the costumes. The problem has become the result of sharing the information about the individuals who wear these newsworthy costumes.
Among the Halloween participants to make headlines was the 22-year-old woman who dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim. The young woman received backlash over social media for her costume choice, including threats to herself and her parents.
“In this day and age where we’re all behind a computer screen, everything becomes easier to say,” said junior psychology major Kalina Lamb. “When stories are posted like this, it makes defaming someone that much easier because you don’t feel as responsible not being able to see their reactions.”
Natalie Christine Olsen and Amy Kristin Sanders, authors of the article “Re-Defining Defamation: Psychological Sense of Community in the Age of the Internet,” share the same opinion as Lamb, attributing the increased possibility of injury to an individual’s reputation to the ability to communicate on a larger scale and at a faster pace.
Defamation has commonly been accepted as harm done to an individual’s reputation within the context of their relevant community; however, Olsen and Sanders argue that the Internet has altered the traditional definitions of community, and other factors should be taken into account when determining a subject’s relevant community.
According to the Digital Media Law Project website, defamation is “the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one’s reputation caused by a false statement of fact and includes both libel and slander.” In addition, the website further explains falsity is the crux of defamation and that truthful statements that harm another’s reputation do not create liability for defamation.
While the reports on the young woman’s costume were not false, they did provoke negative reactions from audience members who felt compelled enough to address the woman directly via social media platforms such as Twitter. News media need to take a closer look again at what is considered “defaming.”
Given, this young woman’s costume was extremely offensive; however, as journalists and as members of the media, we should not participate in the telling of stories such as these that only harm a subject’s image. There was nothing good or educational that the audience took away from the story of this young woman’s costume; it has only tainted her image.
Yes, the story does have the element of conflict which is a significant news value. However, media outlets should be asking themselves, “What is the purpose in sharing this story?” or “What is this doing to better inform and build the public’s opinion?” Because the bottom line is, it’s not. It’s sensational storytelling with consequences that do not justify the initial proposal of covering it.