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Tiffany Gomas, a.k.a. "Crazy Plane Lady," Didn't Owe the Public an Apology
Members of the press should reconsider whether it's actually necessary to run multiple stories about someone having a mental health crisis in public.
Hello, dear readers. Parker here.
Today I’m going to write a bit about Tiffany Gomas, the woman who went viral last month for freaking out on a plane. The tl;dr of this post is that I think legitimate news outlets need to do a better job of deciding what constitutes newsworthiness when it comes to covering viral videos.
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July 2 was a bad day for Tiffany Gomas. While aboard an American Airlines flight set to travel from Fort Worth to Orlando, Gomas experienced a mental health emergency. She demanded to be let off the plane, claiming that a fellow passenger wasn't real and warning that everyone was in danger.
It was a surreal scene, and the entire world saw it after another passenger's video of Gomas went viral on TikTok. People made memes and remixes of Gomas’s rant; others compared her rant to the opening scene from Final Destination, and outlets like the New York Post reported every new detail they could find.
I transcribed the video here:
Hi everyone, it's me, Tiffany Gomas, probably better known as the crazy plane lady, which is completely warranted. As you know, I have been unwilling to speak on the viral video, but I do finally feel that it's time. First and foremost, I want to take full accountability for my actions. They were completely unacceptable. Distressed or not, I should have been in control of my emotions, and that was not the case. My use of profanity was completely unnecessary, and I want to apologize to everyone on that plane, especially those that had children aboard. I can't imagine going through that and trying to explain to your kid what in the world just happened.
We all have our bad moments, some far worse than others, and mine happened to be caught on camera for the whole world to see multiple times. ... Well, it has been really comical for everyone, and I have highly enjoyed so many of the memes. On the flip side, it is very invasive and unkind, and I don't know what I would do without the love and support of my friends and family. They are loyal to a fault, and I don't know what I did to deserve them. I hope that I can use this experience and do a little bit of good in the world, and that is what I intend to do. I hope that you guys can accept my apology and I can begin to move on with my life.
I don't know anything about Gomas beyond the viral video: I don't know her politics, I don't know her taste in entertainment, I don't know anything. Maybe she’s a super nice person. Maybe she’s a monster. I have no clue. And while I have sympathy for the people whose flights were delayed by a few hours due to her outburst, I still can't help but feel as though the worldwide attention with an audience of millions was unwarranted.
She wasn’t a celebrity or a politician. She wasn’t a public figure. She’s just a person who has now been thrown into the public spotlight and who will have to live with the whole world knowing her as the “crazy plane lady,” as she said.
To be clear, there’s nothing new about people having their worst moments filmed and shared on the internet. Heck, in 2010, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch called “I Didn’t Ask for This,” a fake TV show about people whose lives had been ruined after becoming unwitting viral video stars. This has been happening and will continue to happen. After all, each of us carries an internet-connected camera in our pockets. Even so, it feels gross and intrusive. Things don’t have to be this way.
Yes, I understand why the average internet user might see someone freaking out, film it, and post it on the internet. Sure. For better or worse, that’s how it is. What I don’t understand is how news outlets justify publishing five or six stories about the same incident. What’s newsworthy here?
When the Post published Gomas’s name, it also listed her work history (“She is a marketing executive who served as vice president of Elevate Brand Marketing, where she was named a ‘rising star’ in 2017 by a trade publication.”), where she went to school (Oklahoma State), and information about where she lives (“Gomas lives in a $2 million home in the coveted Lakewood neighborhood,” along with a picture of a house).
Other news outlets then referenced Gomas’s “$2 million home,” the cost of the purse she was carrying with her on the flight, and would refer to her as living a “life of luxury.” Presumably, the idea here is that if she’s a “marketing executive” or she lives in a nice house, any questions about journalistic ethics just go away.
Sorry, but I think that’s a cop-out. I believe that if newspapers are going to write about people who go viral on the internet, those newspapers should actually make the case for why this reporting is in the public interest. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethicsoffers a few helpful and reasonable guidelines for minimizing harm:
Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
And while keeping in mind that these are just suggestions, I think journalists should reflect on the moral and ethical implications of simply deciding that the subject of a viral video should have her life picked apart because she had a mental health emergency in public and happened to be caught on video.
In the replies to Gomas’s apology video, there were a lot of people saying they forgave her and others saying that the apology was not accepted. I don’t understand why anyone who wasn’t a passenger on that flight felt entitled to an apology, and I can’t understand the mindset of anyone (who, again, wasn’t on the flight) who would say, “Apology not accepted.” This wasn’t a video she posted of herself. In my view, the only people who have a legitimate claim to an apology in this situation are the people who were there with her in Fort Worth back in July.
But this really isn’t a story about Gomas. She’s just an example. I could point to any number of people who became “main characters” on the internet against their will.I’m not suggesting the implementation of any sort of hard rule about who the press should or shouldn’t talk about, but I do hope that people who work at newspapers will at least ask themselves what’s the news value in running a half-dozen stories about some random lady having a breakdown on a plane. Is there something the public needs to know? Is there something we should be aware of, or are you just trying to find people to point and laugh at while picking apart their lives for entertainment?
As I wrote last week, one of the big challenges mainstream news outlets face in this age of "citizen journalism" is remaining committed to ethics. We've seen news organizations rush to declare the social media personality Lil Tay dead without actually confirming the story for themselves. I think the trend of reporting on viral videos, treating the public as if they have a right to know more about the people involved, is an ethical nightmare. Acting as though being the subject of a video suddenly makes the lives of those people fair game plays to the lowest common denominator.
That’s it for me today. Thanks, everyone.
SPJ is a journalism organization with roughly 6,000 members. Member or not, no one is bound by this group’s code of ethics, though I do think the points SPJ makes about privacy are important to keep in mind when pursuing stories.
I’ve been meaning to write a piece about this for a while. There are a lot of small dehumanizing examples of this, where someone will take photos of homeless people and use them in stories about rising crime, for instance. I wrote about Gomas because it got to the point where papers were tracking down her home address, posting pictures in the newspaper, and then trying to retroactively justify their obsessiveness with, “Sure, but look, she lives in luxury!” even though they didn’t know that when they started out.
Yes, I know that the newspapers referenced here tend to be awful. No, I’m not surprised they did this. Focus less on the specific papers involved and consider the broader social question of why we feel entitled to stories like Gomas’s.