On the Christopher Lao controversy
What happened to Christopher Lao is an issue of social media excess more than it is of journalism ethics.
A GMA News report last Aug. 2, which showed Lao driving his car into a flooded street in Quezon City, went viral. Reporter Jun Veneracion interviewed Lao just after wading through the flood—it was so deep that his car stalled and floated.
Given the conventions of news values, the incident was newsworthy for its oddity and for its being an indication of how bad the flood was. GMA News could have handled it better as the report should have provided larger context regarding the dangers of driving during heavy rains rather than focusing on Lao’s experience.
But, who really knows if the intention of the reporter was to ridicule the person? GMA News could not have known that the report would elicit such an over the top public reaction.
Lao’s statements caught the attention of social media users to the point where he made it to the Twitter trending topic, 8th worldwide and 4th in the Philippines at some point, as well as garnered a number of Facebook pages.
GMA News had to take down the video from their website because apart from sharing the news, people had started to call Lao names—used rude and/or insulting words to describe him and the incident—in other words, a clear abuse of social media.
GMA News released this statement:
“Mr. Lao was already victimized by the flood and a lack of warnings. He shouldn’t be victimized again. Many of us could have been in his situation. We are urging the public to stop the insults. We regret that our video, which was meant to provide a lesson for all motorists, was used in any way to make fun of another person.”
GMA News made a follow-up report last Aug. 4, which included their statement and an interview with a motoring expert.
Yahoo! News Philippines posted an official statement from Lao:
“The past few days have been very disheartening for me and my family. As you know I have been a subject of a viral video that showed my helplessness during a trying moment. As it stands right now, I have several hate pages in Facebook and Twitter with hurtful and derogatory messages attacking my person. The reputation that I built the past years has been besmirched. A bad day has now turned into wounded feelings and sleepless nights for me and my family.
“I have been silent the past few days as I want this to go away soon but not before saying sorry and thank you to people who matter.
“I would like to apologize for my behavior that was seen on nationwide television and now on the internet. It was unfortunate that I was caught on camera immediately after an overwhelmingly stressful mishap.
“I would like to again sincerely thank those who braved the flood to help a distraught stranger like me. Their selfless act reminded me of how dependable Filipinos are in times of crisis.
“Lastly, I would like to thank my family, friends and all of those who showed empathy, consideration and support throughout these trying times. You have given me strength and courage to rise above and be a better person.”
The Lao incident confirms the need for a more educated public regarding the use of social media. This platform provides for a richer exchange not possible on the mainstream media. But like all channels of communication, the impact is determined by the quality of the users and providers.