The spotlight that has been shone on reality TV shows involving members of the public following The Jeremy Kyle Show tragedy this week is well overdue. It is easy to say now, with the benefit of hindsight, that shows like Jeremy Kyle can leave members of the public at risk of psychological harm. But it is not enough to axe this show and just move on. This is a moment for the media to scrutinise itself in a lot more depth and take this opportunity to do a lot more to safeguard the public.
The truth is that it’s not just reality TV, talent shows or confrontational programmes that can have psychological impact on participants. In today’s world, any member of the public who appears in any form of media needs to be psychologically robust – and all media outlets need to do more to ensure that this is the case.
Take your average human-interest story, for example – it might be someone with a rare illness or even someone angry at an unfair parking fine. It might even be someone who has an amusing story about internet shopping, or someone sharing an interesting anecdote from their commute. Whatever it is, that person is potentially subjecting themselves to an onslaught of abuse and trolls on a scale that can be devastating, especially if they are less psychologically robust.
In an anonymous online world, anything at all that can be picked on, will be – whether a person is overweight, has bad teeth, or an unusual name. People are at risk of being mocked and shamed in the most public and humiliating way. Did they sign up for that when they sold their story? I beg to differ.
As a psychologist that works regularly in the media, I have experienced first-hand the wrath of online trolls, particularly when one of my tweets went viral in 2018. This earned me bizarrely vicious slurs on my personality, lifestyle and skills due to a broken thumbnail visible in the picture I tweeted. While I can now laugh about nail-gate, this doesn’t mean everyone can and will be prepared to deal with this level of trolling in the same way.
Then there are the stories that shame or embarrass a member of the public – whether this is a person that gets caught on camera doing something stupid or a person who shares comedic content on social media for the public’s entertainment. What happens to these people when the social media vultures have moved on to their next prey? In a just a couple of hours or days, people can be put in stocks then left alone to deal with the subsequent psychological impact.
It’s important to note here that the media are not all bad and there are some outlets that care about the impact of their ‘stories’ on the people involved. But more needs to be done.
This most recent tragedy should serve as wake-up call for all media outlets to assess how they engage with individuals and introduce industry standards to safeguard the psychological well-being of members of the public.
For real changes to be made, two things are absolutely necessary. Firstly, a new gold standard needs to be introduced whereby any member of the public who agrees to appear in a media outlet has to be informed of all potential risks. They should give informed consent which means they must be warned about trolls, personal attacks, the longevity of media appearances, and the possible mental health ramifications.
Participants should also be screened for pre-existing mental health conditions and there should be some conditions, such as depression, that should preclude media appearances without careful guidance and support.
A dedicated psychological support system is also needed specifically for people who have appeared in the media. This could be funded by the media, either on an individual outlet basis or, ideally, with a levy on all outlets. This would ensure that any member of the public who feels affected by appearing in a media outlet has access to support.
These changes might not stop all damaging impacts of media appearances, but if they save even one life in the future, then they are changes worth making. The British media, both broadcasting and print is a resource for good, for change and for education, as well as entertainment, but all of this must not be achieved at the expense of the people at the heart of these stories.
Dr Sandi Mann is a psychologist, author and senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and director of The MindTraining clinic