What Caroline Flack’s death teaches us about media complacency

February 15, 2020: Caroline Flack’s name started to trend on Twitter as news of her death began to break.

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was a household name in the UK, presenting some of the biggest TV shows on ITV, namely Love Island.

You might not have heard of Caroline Flack, but her story is one that will resonate with everyone. A daughter, a friend, a human being.

A complicated tragedy

In December 2019, an allegation of domestic violence was made against Flack. She was due to stand trial in a few weeks, after being charged with assault against her boyfriend, Lewis Burton.

The difficulty with this case was that Mr Burton didn’t support the charges, and denied that he was a victim. The British justice system allows the police and Crown Prosecution Service to try a case, even when the alleged victim refuses to press charges. This is a way to protect victims — especially those suffering domestic violence.

Regardless of Burton’s attempts to remain in his relationship with Flack, the justice system imposed a restraining order, preventing Flack from speaking to or seeing Lewis Burton.

A few days before Caroline’s suicide, Burton tried to reach out via social media, confessing his love for the TV presenter in an Instagram post.

In a digital world where clickbait and false sources have become the norm, we’ve been left with a bad taste surrounding the media’s treatment of Caroline Flack. Questions are surfacing on whether the media’s complacency and bullying of Flack should be investigated. Were these factors that led to Caroline’s suicide? Likely.

While we can condemn the crime she was facing trial for, we should also take a step back to evaluate our treatment of any other human being. The media’s zeal to use Caroline Flack as a click-bait punch bag feels completely unjustified.

Society’s need to constantly be involved in celebrity news is one I’ve never quite understood. What gives any of us a right to bully another person? What gives us any right to be involved in the private lives of others? And, why do we continue to believe everything we read? We know much of what we read in the media nowadays is fictionalised and biased.

Regardless of your stand on Caroline Flack’s death, there can be no argument that it was an unnecessary one. No one should be made to feel so worthless and so pained to end their own life.

Let’s acknowledge her suffering. We can show compassion while not diminishing the seriousness of her alleged crime. We are human, after all.

Damning lies and fake news

“Fake news” is becoming one of those terms that starts to lose literal meaning. Let’s be careful not to forget that literal fake news is a reality in our media, and it’s a dangerous one.

Mark Twain once said:

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

It’s truly difficult to forgive the media of simple ignorance and lazy journalism. Recent media scandals make us wonder just how deep the malice and bias of the media runs. Who’s really controlling the ‘news’? Can we honestly say our mainstream media is an unbiased, democratic one? I’m not so sure we can.

Gaslighting and narcissism are so prevalent in our world’s media and politics, that we never quite know what side to believe. Why do gaslighters continue to click-bait us, even when there is a heap of evidence to the contrary? Because it works. Society lets it work.

Blatant lying goes against our normal human behaviour — why continue to lie when it’s obvious you’re lying? Most people caught in a lie will feel embarrassed and apologise. But, much of our mainstream media have another system. They cause more confusion by continuing their blatant lies, thus creating a strange response where you start to remember the continued lie, as opposed to the actual truth.

This is exactly how propaganda starts. Repeat something often enough and people will start to believe. Heck, the gaslighters might even start believing it themselves — I’m looking at you, Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t normal, nor should it be accepted. Stop and think when you’re reading something. What are the facts? Who are the sources? Is there solid evidence?

If no, refrain from jumping on any social media bandwagons. I mean, honestly, I’m going to assume (hope) we all have more productive uses for our time than to enrich propaganda and bullying on social media.

Playing with emotions

There’s a divide over how much free rein the media should have. True news journalism is fundamentally about reporting facts. When these facts are wrong, retractions are issued. Journalism becomes irresponsible when it preys on the emotions of its reader and creates a false world of fake news.

Of course, news can be emotional. Reports surrounding war and poverty will naturally evoke sympathy and sadness. But, click-bait is a whole other world, a dangerous world. ‘News’ that preys on people clicking and sharing fantasised versions of a base story, with false statements, is something we all have a responsibility to look out for.

It’s no excuse to plead ignorance with this stuff. We all have a moral responsibility to question what we read and stay open to finding evidence. Saying something is “fake news” because you don’t agree with it, simply deters you from finding the facts and truth.

Likewise, keep an open mind when it comes to actual fake news — especially in the celebrity world. You’re not obligated to believe everything you read. The media is one big grey area at the moment — think about media bias, I promise you it exists.

In the case of celebrities, like Caroline Flack, the media creates little vignettes around these people. They don’t include the whole story and force us to react before we think. This system is used to manipulate the way we see the story, and thought should be given to the detrimental effects this has.

A right to privacy

As a society, it is not our obligation to be concerned by the private lives of celebrities. When you’re on your morning commute, reading the Metro newspaper, what headlines catch your eyes? The stuff about finance? Politics? Celebrities? We all enjoy a breakroom conversation about the lives of celebrities. There seems to be a deep need to know what they’re doing.

Reporters know all too well that there are a large number of readers who are interested in knowing about the private lives of public figures. The ‘glossy magazines’ Hello and OK have made a lucrative business out of sharing an insight into the lives of celebrities.

And so, reporters write about them. People who dream of a career in journalism rarely wish to write about where Justin Bieber bought his burrito, but this kind of headline gains viral markets and makes a large profit.

The negative impact of this intrusion is privacy invasion. Privacy should be respected. Of course, there are instances where it’s in the public interest for ‘secrets’ to be shared (i.e. “grab them by the pussy” and the BBC’s cover-up of paedophilia). But, stalking celebrities and spreading exaggerated stories? Probably less so important.

It’s interesting to me that the stories we want to hear (like “grab them by the pussy” and the BBC’s cover-up) are the ones that the media cleverly sweep under the metaphorical carpet (there must be a lot of junk under there). Instead, celebrities, like Caroline Flack, are used as the cannon fodder to draw our attention away from the bigger problems. It’s these types of diversion techniques that lead to mass media manipulation.

In the case of Caroline Flack, it was her job to provide entertainment to the public through her talent as a TV presenter, not through her private life. Reporting on these stories is one thing, exaggerating them to the point of provoking a culture of bullying is a whole other type of ‘reporting’; this isn’t journalism.

Professional journalism

It’s logical to say that the public shouldn’t be concerned with the lives of celebrities. Of course, it’s normal to talk about them, and perhaps it should be public knowledge when they commit a crime. I’m on the fence with that one, innocent until proven guilty, perhaps?

However, a line needs to be created somewhere. On one side of that line we have factual reporting that carries no bias; stories that are in the public interest. On the other side of that line is the complete fantasy ‘reporters’ dream up to use as click-bait and headline stealers; these stories are thin on any facts. What side feels fairer to you?

The difficulty is the little grey area in the middle. Think of shamed celebrities, like Kevin Spacey and Johnny Depp. Spacey and Depp were both disowned by social media and had their careers in jeopardy. In Kevin Spacey’s case, we’ve learned the strong evidence of why his career rightfully ended. In Johnny Depp’s case, we’ve recently found out just how wrong the media were. Johnny Depp went from disgrace to victim.

It’s a difficult thing to gauge. How do more stringent laws come into place, without creating a loophole grey area?

The important thing to always have is your moral compass. We know when something feels right and when something feels wrong.

Reporters claim that more stringent laws will damage their professional careers. My question is: what is professionalism? Is it their self-interest? Public interest? Profit interest?

If a reporter is climbing into a rubbish bin in the hopes of photographing a celebrity looking less than glamorous, are they professional?

Freedom of the press shouldn’t equal abuse of freedom. Twisting stories and exaggerating news can lead to a vulnerability for celebrities and readers alike. Polluting minds with made-up stories implies that lying and bullying are socially acceptable behaviours.

We can’t put all the blame on the press and media. The public attitude to respect and privacy must change. We must adjust our interests, and think of celebrities as human beings because that’s what they are. Just like you and me, every single celebrity has made a mistake. Some are more awful than others, and we need to be more open to a world less skewed than the one the media currently gives us.

Be kind

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Caroline Flack wrote on Instagram in December 2019.

I was stunned when I saw the news of Caroline’s death. It’s amazing how affected we can be by someone we’ve never met. Fundamentally, what saddened me was the failure. The media failed Caroline Flack. Had social media supported her a little more, or, at least, refrained from bullying and hatred, who knows what the outcome could have been.

There’s no simple answer for why someone chooses to take their own life, but in a world that can be so cruel, it’s important that we choose our words wisely.

If you can’t always be kind, learn to know that, sometimes, it does pay to just shut up.

Take a moment to talk

No matter who you are, or where you are, or what you’ve done, you deserve to be heard.

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In the US, the is 1–800–273–8255.

Written by

Photographer and Writer. Based in Scotland. Using Medium for opinion pieces, marketing advice, and motivational articles.

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