Over the past few days, my social media feeds have been full of the inspirational quote ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind,’ prompted by the passing of Caroline Flack – a well-known celebrity who recently gained column inches due to an assault allegation brought against her by the Crown Prosecution Service, and her subsequent resignation from Love Island.
Caroline was similar to many of my friends and acquaintances in terms of age and gender, and had the ‘girl next door’ appeal which meant lots of people felt they could be her friend. I think it’s this which has led to so many people I know feeling her death so keenly.
It has now been widely reported that Caroline was struggling to deal with everything, and many are blaming the press for adding to the pressure she was under.
Is it the fault of the press?
While it is incredibly sad that a beautiful and talented woman felt that the only option was to take her life, the press isn’t to blame.
Reporting the goings on of the court and legal proceedings is in the public interest – that is, the press are fulfilling their role in enabling all of us to hold the justice system to account.
It helps us all to understand legal processes and reassures us that our justice system is, well, just.
In the same way, reporting the actions and expenditures of the Royal Family, for example, is in the public interest – they are our representatives and are largely funded by tax-payer money. Without the press, we wouldn’t have the time or resources to find this out ourselves.
What is the difference between public interest and of interest to the public?
Just because you want to know something and you’re a member of the public, it doesn’t necessarily follow it’s in the public interest. This article from The Conversation looks into the definitions, but basically, if something’s of public interest, it’s something we should know for the good of society as a whole. The Information Commissioner’s Office have a 29-page document explaining how they decide whether something is in the public interest, so it’s definitely not cut and dried.
Things which are of interest to the public could include gossip about stars in your favourite soap, who wore what at that awards ceremony or any information you want to know but doesn’t really have any wider impact on society.
But, there’s a blurred line here. By nature, we’re more interested in news about people we know about, so an allegation of assault from a celebrity is going to draw more attention than a practically identical case from an unknown.
Newspapers have been facing a steady decline for years and in order to report on those public interest matters, they need the money to pay for journalists, print and distribution. What better way than to find some attention-grabbing headlines about celebrities to get people to put their hands in their pockets?
Arguably, online news has made the situation worse, with ‘click-bait’ headlines designed to get us to look at pages laden with adverts in order to create some extra revenue for struggling media outlets.
So who’s fault is it?
Yours. Mine. Anyone who’s clicked on a ‘sidebar of shame’, shared that scandalous story or been tempted by those click-bait headlines. The press are feeding us what we want. If we didn’t buy that paper or click that link, it would become less profitable. Outlets would have to find other stories to pique our interest.
It’s human nature to be interested in other people and it’s unlikely that this kind of reporting will ever die out. But, in a world where you can be anything, be the person that thinks about the wider consequences of your actions.