Public shaming has been in style for a while and journalism plays a significant role. It’s time to examine the ethics of this.

Public shaming, or openly humiliating someone as punishment for a certain behavior, is inherently a form of intimidation. It’s a strategy where we shine a light so hot and bright on a subject that he or she suffers, or at the very least shuts up and goes away.

It’s often perceived as positive because it exposes what many people consider bad behavior such as when BuzzFeed aggregated a bunch of racist tweets after an Indian-American woman won the Miss America crown.

To be sure, there is a certain nobility in shaming public officials who try to keep public documents from the public, or in exposing a greedy corporation that abuses its lowest paid workers.

But that’s shaming for the purpose of holding the powerful accountable.

Shaming with a noble goal is journalistic. Let’s call that good shaming. And shaming soley for the sake of shaming is bad shaming. This American Life recently devoted a whole episode to it. One example was a riveting phone conversation where comedian Lindy West asked one of the meanest trolls ever to explain his horrible behavior. The troll, who West allowed to remain anonymous, created a fake Twitter account for West’s dead father, with a bio that claimed he was embarrassed by his daughter.

In the last segment of a recent Invisibilia podcast, Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegal looked at the guy who tried to shame people on the N train in New York to be nicer, by posting photos of rude behavior on Twitter. But then he went too far and started to shame people for things like being homeless or having acne scars. The segment is called How to Grow a Bully.

And earlier this month, Jon Ronson published a piece in the New York Times Magazine on the aftermath of people who found themselves caught up in a public shaming. His story starts and ends with Justine Sacco, the woman who last year tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her 170 Twitter followers before a flight out of London, only to arrive in Cape Town 11 hours later to discover the Internet hated her, her extended family was humiliated and she’d been fired.

In many of these episodes of bad shaming, journalism played a supporting role.

Journalists find themselves in the role of observer and describer, claiming to have no stake in the outcome. Yet the mere act of documenting the public shaming serves to exacerbate the humiliation, as in the Sacco episode.

Public shaming presents complicated problems for journalism. Because of the mob mentality that accompanies public shaming events, often there is very little information about the target, sometimes only a single tweet. Yet there is a presumption of guilt and swift move toward justice, with no process for ascertaining facts.

Rather than remaining neutral and simply describing a public shaming, newsrooms are on firmer journalistic ground when they approach with a point of view, usually that shaming is unjustified.

In the Lindy West episode, the comedian first published an essay on Jezebel about her horrible troll, which prompted him to reach out to her. The man behind the N Train twitter account was outed after The Gothamist rallied an online crowd to unmask him. Sacco’s tweet to her 170 Twitter followers only became public after Sam Biddle at Valley Wag called attention to it.

Although the cycle of public shaming can begin in many places and evolve into many forms, journalism often plays a role. Professional journalists with a large platform either instigate public shaming as Gawker did in Sacco’s case, magnify it and further rally the crowd the way the Gothamist did on the N Train account, or serve as a counterforce, the way Jezebel did when it published the comedian’s essay.

Once a public shaming is underway, newsrooms often document the phenomenon for the public, exacerbating the shame and humiliation.

So how can journalism be part of the solution, rather than bringing a bullhorn to the problem?

First be educated. There is a lot of research on the psychology that shapes online behavior. Pete created the N Train Gossip Twitter feed in late 2009, a feed initially dedicated to documenting rude behavior like littering the floor with sunflower seed shells or talking too loudly on your phone. Pete tells Invisibilia that he would get so angry at all the small human slights that it would ruin his day. But posting the photos to the world was a release valve, allowing that anger to dissipate.

“When I am taking a picture of somebody, the first thought that I have after it is, ‘Good, now people are going to know about you.’ Like it’s really just, it makes me feel better about it, because I’m like you should be held accountable for what you’re doing. You should be held accountable for your bad behavior. You know, it’s definitely therapeutic.”

Invisibilia tracked down experts. Ryan Martin, chair of psychology department at University of Wisconsin Green Bay, labeled this phenomenon “validation.” It creates a chemical reaction in the brain, like a drug. Social media is particularly potent when it comes to validation. That’s why we become addicted to “likes,” comments and retweets.

Anger spreads faster on the Internet than any other emotion, Martin said. And using social media as a valve for one’s anger actually makes one more likely to act aggressively later on, he said. Journalists have a responsibility to recognize when people or a crowd are caught up in cycle of anger and ask whether a story is truly news, or whether all those clicks are just people whipped up into an emotional frenzy. When the only news value is the frenzy itself, journalists might start by asking questions about the real news value.

Act only on journalistic purpose. Sacco’s tweet spread fast mostly because of Sam Biddle, at the time an editor at ValleyWag, a Gawker property. Sacco had fewer then 200 followers. Biddle, alerted by an anonymous tip, retweeted it to his 15,000 and then posted it on Valleywag. His justification at the time, he told Ronson, was that Sacco was a public relations professional, in charge of crafting messages for others.

But is that really enough? Journalists often justify making private behavior public by saying that they are exposing hypocrisy or hate. But there is a continuum of behavior that needs to be exposed. An otherwise unknown PR specialist with fewer than 200 Twitter followers is hardly the same as a publicly elected official.

Biddle, after serving his own stint at the end of the Internet shaming machine, came to regret that decision. By his own admission, Biddle was after traffic, as are many other newsrooms when they jump on a public shaming bandwagon.

But that’s not a journalistic purpose. A journalistic purpose takes the audience’s needs into account and minimizes harm. Public shaming often isn’t about the audience’s needs at all, unless you factor in the dark emotional rush of validation that psychologists note.

Get more information and context. Sacco later explained to Biddle that as a South African herself, she intended her tweet to be ironic, that Westerners often see AIDS as a black African problem, which she finds ridiculous. But after 11 hours of flying, more than 20,000 vicious retweets, there was no explaining the irony.

Ronson delves into the history of public shaming, which peaked in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Think of the Scarlet Letter for adulterers, or the stockade in the public square for drunks and debtors. As the practice waned, critics of the practice pointed to the resulting mob mentality. Crowds frequently took public shamings so far that the punishment far outweighed the crime.

But here we are in the 21st Century with public shaming an everyday occurrence on the Internet. If newspapers ran front-page photos of adulterers in the Middle East being stripped naked and whipped in order to further their shame, we would criticize them as part of a backward system of justice.

Yet news outlets play a role in many public shamings. My hope is that as we evolve our standards of news, professional journalists will distance themselves from the shamings of private people that create very little social good, recognizing them as click bait and nothing more. Most Internet stone throwers could be ignored. And if the story is about the stone throwers themselves, journalists will take action to minimize the harm to their hapless targets.

And when a shaming does have hints of social value, professional news people will separate themselves from the mob by adding context and clearly articulating a journalistic purpose.

Can we get there? This recent body of thoughtful storytelling suggests that we are on our way. When you see a story that has elements of shaming, here are some questions to help you discern good shaming from bad shaming?

  • Is the target of your shaming an individual or an organization?
  • If it’s an individual, is it a powerful person?
  • If it’s an organization, is it one that holds particular power over individuals?
  • Who is doing the shaming?
  • Is the shaming a result of a single incident or moment in time?
  • What additional context is necessary to understand the behavior?
  • What other information about the individual or organization might be relevant?
  • In describing crowd behavior, are you also participating in it?