Guilty until Proven Innocent: Our Outrage Culture

The American news headlines have once again been commandeered by a political controversy that sent reporters, bloggers and social media into a frothing madness, desperately searching for a target to face the wrath of their and their audience’s supposed anger.

On Friday, January 18th the first video aired. It showed a Native American man beating a drum and chanting outside the Lincoln Memorial, surrounded by a group of protesting students from Covington Catholic High School. The boys, clad in “Make America Great Again” attire yelled and screamed in his direction. The group had come from Kentucky to participate in an anti-abortion protest, while the Native American was in the nation’s capital for an Indigenous People’s march. Thrown in the mix is a handful of Black Hebrew Israelites initiating their brand of racist vitriol at anyone unfortunate enough to walk by.

A flamethrower to the tinderbox of American identity politics and race relations.

Immediately, the story took off, went viral and was reported by most major media outlets. The initial trend had the majority of pundits, from both political sides, rebuking the boys for the disrespect shown to the elder. Immediately, the teen’s identities were uncovered and disseminated through social media and Covington Catholic was forced to temporarily close due to security threats.

After more time had passed and new video was released showing the minutes leading up to the confrontation, the factual narrative became clearer. This has caused numerous media outlets to publish new, amended reports and some, such as the National Review, to issue outright apologies. Some reporters have even been fired for their tweets on the matter. As backlash, there are others who now direct their fury towards the Native American elder, his military service record and his past.

Media, due to the constant news formats, civilian bloggers and instant photography,  has become an irresponsible mess. People losing their reputation, their livelihoods, being tried by mob justice, receiving death threats, all in the name of social activism..

As a Millenial myself who owns and runs a New York City based public relations firm, HeraldPR, I take a unique stance when analyzing these situations. I come from an old-school government PR background and a student of investigative and contemplative journalism  but I also find myself tapped into the cultural shifts of my generation. I appreciate the traditional public relations models of old, but I recognize how society has changed, and with it, so must PR.

No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, the trend of viral outrage is petrifying. Once you get tarred, it seems, there is no way to escape the vitriol. Political blogs are still running pieces calling the students, their parents and the reporters who have walked back their initial reporting, racist enablers and aggressors. While many other journalists still face a bevy of death threats from the now acceptable and even quotable “anonymous” horde.

That’s the key point in all of this: From a public relations perspective there is no “correct” approach to handling incidents like this. Now, I’m not saying you can’t have an opinion, or even be vocal about it. What I am saying is that that with the instant, furious and decimating reaction from sectors in our society, it becomes very difficult to gather a full understanding of the event and formulate an appropriate response.

Working alongside Juda Engelmayer, President of my firm HeraldPR and esteemed crisis manager, I asked him to tap in to his more than 20 years of crisis management experience and weigh in on this topic.

Engelmayer said, “Today we face a new challenge, the obsolescence of responsible journalism, having been supplanted by the need to fill 24-hour news cycles with ad-generating or subscription-based babble that is intended to feed the lowest common denominators to generate the highest revenues.  It’s not about news as much as it’s about making money today, and instead of trying to teach our younger generations about accountable journalism and American jurisprudence, we just give them what they want – blood. What’s lost is our Constitutional right to free speech, unless that speech mimics the sentiments of the vocal majority, and the foundation of our legal system, Due Process – where we were once considered innocent until proven guilty.  Today, you are guilty if enough people scream it, and media feeds the beast, which in turn, feeds the financial stakeholders of media. Justice and journalism be damned.”

So what is it? Is social media the problem? Is it the millennial generation that overwhelmingly dominates these platforms? Or is it the natural progression of time, something that, driven by technology, cannot be stopped regardless of platform or demographic.

These are questions that have yet to be answered. All we can do is try to assess the trends and do our best to avoid the spotlight and maintain our reputation…and to some extent our personal safety.

And like I said before, your political or moral position on many of these issues does not matter. Yes, you might believe you are on the right side of history. Yes, sometimes bad people get called out and receive the justice they deserve. Many times in fact. But that does not change the core belief of this country that you are innocent until proven guilty, whether it be the legal system, and to some extent or the court of public opinion.

We have strayed from that belief. People see what they want to see and immediately react. And once the wheels of outrage start turning, there is not much that can be done. The impacts of what has come from the incident in D.C. is a perfect example.

The boy who stood, smirking, inches from the beating drum of the elder, hired his own public relations firm to try and mitigate the damage. The teen issued a well thought-out statement and appeared on Today, navigating the fine line of appearing apologetic, while still refusing to apologize.

And yet, he remains the focus of the nation’s rage — most likely because he was wearing what some would say was the wrong hat.

All it took was a few days.

Two different videos presented two different viewpoints (Fox NewsCNN) on one short incident. And everyone involved is now forever changed.

So, what can we do? My business partner believes that the truth and respectful management of media and relationships will ultimately prevail. Engelmayer said, “Once you clear the clutter, get past the anger and attitude, there are those people out there who want to do what’s right and not just what is deemed popular, and it takes patience and careful attention to guide the proper narratives to the top.  Sadly, once a reputation is sullied, and particularly when it may have been done so irresponsibly and speciously, it can take a lifetime to rebuild – if at all – but the truth and facts are powerful devices when you know how to properly introduce them, even in this environment.”

About the Author
Warren H. Cohn graduated from Tulane in New Orleans, after going to YOF in Brooklyn. He currently runs HeraldPR, a New York City public relations and digital marketing agency. Warren loves working with start-ups, new businesses & technologies, and most importantly: great people. His firm also specializes in crisis mitigation and communications.
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